See for yourself, part II: the little things matter, honest

Yesterday, I began a compare-and-contrast exercise, showing common examples of the first pages of submissions and fine-tuning your binoculars so you might see how our old friend Millicent the Agency Screener might view them. And as those of you who read the post can attest, it was pretty obvious that the professionally-formatted title page won the beauty contest hands-down.

After I posted it late last night, I heard wee pixie voices bearding me. “But Anne,” I heard these winsome creatures pipe, “aren’t you assuming that Millicent’s pretty shallow? Whenever I’ve heard agents and editors asked at conferences or on their websites about whether cosmetic issues can get a manuscript rejected, they always reject the notion with scorn. Isn’t it the writing that matters, ultimately?”

Well, yes and no, querying sprites. Naturally, the writing matters MOST — but it is not, as many aspiring writers assume, the only issue in how a professional reader will perceive the polish of a manuscript.

But that doesn’t stop folks from talking about it as though it were the only issue, does it?

And I suspect that’s not just because a sane, sensible individual with a reputation to protect is unlikely to stand up in front of 500 eager potential submitters and say, “Look, if you’re planning to submit a grimy photocopy of your book, or insist upon presenting it in 10-point type, or not indenting your paragraphs, just don’t bother to query me.” Instantly, 500 pens would scrawl on 500 programs, DO NOT QUERY THIS ONE.

Which would rather defeat the purpose of the agents coming to the conference to recruit new clients, wouldn’t it?

They learn to be careful: an agent or editor doesn’t have to speak at many conferences (or blog for very long) before recognizing that anything they about submissions is likely to be repeated with the éclat of a proverb for years to come amongst the writing community. I’ve heard offhand comments made from the dais, or even jokes, being debated for hours in conference hallways, and some of Miss Snark’s pronouncements have been more commented upon than St. Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians.

Okay, so that’s a slight exaggeration. My point is, such speakers are in extreme danger of having everything they say quoted back to them as an inflexible rule.

Which is why, I have to say, I don’t feel too many qualms about presenting the rules of standard format as inflexible rules. We are talking, after all, about an industry that both values creativity and considers submitting a book proposal in anything but a black folder dangerously radical.

Presentation issues definitely do matter — which is, again, not to say that the quality of the writing doesn’t. But — and this is a BIG but — rejection decisions are often made on page 1 of a manuscript. Sometimes even within the course of the first paragraph. And if the manuscript is hard to read, due to a funky typeface or odd spacing or just plain poor print quality, it may not be read at all.

And the person who announced that from the dais at a literary conference would be covered head to foot with flung tomatoes in twenty seconds flat.

To the eye of someone who reads manuscripts for a living, professional formatting is simply the least distracting way a book can possibly be presented. Perversely, adhering to the industry’s cosmetic expectations renders it MORE likely that an agent or editor will concentrate upon the beauty of the writing, not less.

So instead of thinking of the rigors of standard format as a series of unimportant (or even silly) superficial choices, try regarding them as translating your calling card, a means of catching Millicent’s tired eye and informing her that this is a manuscript that should be taken seriously.

Because she can’t fall in love with your good writing until she reads it, can she?

My, that was a long preamble, wasn’t it? Let’s get back to the nitty-gritty.

Yesterday, I showed how the first page of text does not, from a professional perspective, make an adequate substitute for a title page. Instead of being a replica of a hoped-for book cover, as many submitters produce, or a shouted-out declaration of the book’s title and who wrote it, the properly-formatted title page is a quiet, practical piece of paper, containing a specific set of marketing information. It should look, in case you missed it, like this:


Like everything else in the manuscript, the title page should be entirely in 12-point type. No matter how cool your title page looks with 24-point type, resist the urge, because Millicent will be able to tell from across the room if you didn’t:


Take a look at the first example again, then the second. Notice any other dissimilarities?

If you said that Mssr. Smith’s title page included both a slug line (the author’s name and title in the upper right margin of the page) and a page number in the bottom right corner, give yourself a gold star for the day. Add whipped cream and walnut clusters if you mentally added the reason that those additions are incorrect: because the title page is not the first page of text. Technically, it should not be numbered.

This means, incidentally, that the title page should not be counted as one of the 50 pages in those 50 pages the agent of your dreams asked you to submit, either. Nor would it count toward the total number of pages for a contest entry.

On both the title page and elsewhere, I would highly recommend using either Times, Times New Roman, or Courier typefaces, both here and in the manuscript as well, as these are the standards of the industry.

I know, I know: another cosmetic weirdness. But like some of the other strictures of standard format, there’s a pretty good reason for this one: word count estimation is predicated upon these typefaces. The Times family is estimated at 250 words/page; Courier at 200. So a 400-page manuscript in Times New Roman is assumed to be roughly 100,000 words. (To make the math clear, 400 x 250 = 100,000.)

Now, in actual fact, it’s probably closer to 115,000 words; as any writer who has compared the estimated word count for her book with the total her word processing program provides, they tend to differ wildly. But word count, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder: a novelist whose title page reported, accurately, that her 400–age novel was 115,000 words might well see it rejected out of hand on the grounds that it was too long.

Why? Well, math may not have been Millicent’s best subject (the inmates of agencies were overwhelmingly English majors), but she can do third-grade math in her head: 115,000 words at 250 words/page would equal a 460-page manuscript. That’s quite a bit longer than editors tend to expect first novels in most genres to be.

In other words, next!

“But Anne,” I hear you cry, “why is Millicent estimating at all? If she wants to know how long it is, why doesn’t she just flip to the last page and check the page number?”

I could give you a long song and dance about how much her wrists hurt from opening all those query envelopes all day, or how her secret midnight e-mail orgies have rendered pinching a torture, but in practice, the answer is far less personal: because the industry doesn’t work that way.

Also, how exactly could she manage to turn to page 400 of a requested 50-page submission?

Let’s turn to the first page of the submission, to see how much of a difference font and typeface make at first glance. Here’s a correctly-formatted page 1 in Times New Roman:


Pretty spiffy, eh? But definitely not how it would appear in a published book.

Here is the same page, also correctly formatted, in Courier. Note how many fewer words per page it allows:


Got both of those firmly imbedded in your brainpan? Good. Now format your first pages that way for the rest of your natural life.

Wanna see why it’s a good idea? Take a gander at the SAME first page, but not in standard manuscript format. See how many deviations you can spot:


Interesting what a difference a few small formatting changes can make, isn’t it? It’s exactly the same WRITING — but it just doesn’t look as professional. To Millicent, who reads hundreds of pages per day, the differences between the three could not be clearer.

And yet there were really very few deviations from standard format here. For those of you playing at home, the typeface is Georgia; the chapter title is in the wrong place, and there isn’t a slug line. Also, the page is numbered in the wrong place — the default setting, incidentally, in many word processing programs.

Again, none of these infractions against the rules of standard format are serious enough to cause Millicent to throw up her hands as soon as she notices them, giving up on the last manuscript. But when poor formatting is combined with literary experimentation — like, say, that paragraph-long first sentence — which do you think she is going to conclude, that Dickens is a writer who took the time to polish his craft, or that he just doesn’t know what he’s doing?

And that, my friends, is why you should pay attention to the little details. The longer you remain in the business, the more those little things will strike you as just, well, matters of right and wrong. As, fortunately or not, they do Millicent and her ilk.

More show-and-tell follows tomorrow. Keep up the good work!

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