See for yourself, part III: God bless the Millicents, every one

For the last couple of days, I’ve been pursuing the dual goals of trying to show you just how obvious it is to a professional reader when a submission ISN’T in standard manuscript format (as opposed to being set up to ape the format of published books) and to drum up a little holiday sympathy for Millicent, everybody’s favorite agency screener.

She’s the Tiny Tim of the literary world, you know; at least the Bob Cratchits a little higher up on the office totem pole get paid, but our Millie often doesn’t. Even if she’s not an intern, she’s still unlikely to be paid very much. Her hours are typically long, and quite a lot of what she reads in the course of her day is, let’s face it, God-awful.

Yes, that thought that suddenly sprang into your mind is precisely right: rejecting queries and manuscripts by the score IS considered on-the-job training for a fledgling agent, in much the same way as an editorial assistant’s screening manuscripts at a publishing houses is the stepping-stone to becoming an editor.

You didn’t think determining a manuscript’s literary merits after just a few lines of text was a skill that came naturally, did you?

The aspiring writer’s learning curve is often not dissimilar to Millicent’s, actually: no one is born knowing the rules of manuscript formatting. (Okay, so I practically was, growing up around so many writers, but that’s a rare exception.) Like Millicent, most of us learn the ropes only through reading a great deal.

She has the advantage over us, though: she gets to read books in manuscript form, and most aspiring writers, especially at the beginning of their journeys to publication, read mostly books. The format is, as I believe that I have pointed out, oh, several hundred times before in this very forum, quite different.

So what writers tend to produce in their early submissions are essentially imitations of books. The problem is, there are many reasons that a manuscript in book format would be hard for an agent or editor to handle — and not merely because the individual pages would appear unprofessional to Millicent.

For starters, published books are printed on both sides of the page, manuscripts on one. Why the difference, in these days of declining tree populations and editors huffily informing writers at conferences that paper is expensive?

Simple: it’s easier to edit that way.

Believe it or not, even in these days of widely available word processors, most professional editing is still done by hand. It’s hard to give trenchant feedback while traveling in a crowded subway car if you have to maneuver a laptop, and many agencies remain far too virus-fearful to allow their employees solicit attachments from writers who aren’t already clients. (Even those who do generally have a policy that forbids the opening of unsolicited attachments.)

But ultimately, most editors edit in hard copy because they prefer it. The human eye is, of course, to blame for this: reading comprehension drops by about 70% when the material is presented on a computer screen; the eye tends to skim.

Which is why — you can hear this coming, can’t you? — a wise writer always reads her ENTIRE manuscript IN HARD COPY before submitting it to anyone even vaguely affiliated with the publishing industry. It’s much, much easier to catch typos and logic problems that way.

Manuscripts should also be typed (don’t laugh; it’s not unheard-of for diagrams to be hand-drawn in submissions, or for late-caught typos to be corrected in pen), double-spaced, and have 1-inch margins all the way around. To call upon our old friend Dickens again, an average page of a manuscript should look like this:


(If you’re having trouble seeing specifics, or just aren’t seeing an image at all, try right-clicking on the image and saving it to your hard disk.)

To give you some idea of just how difficult — or even impossible — it would be to hand-edit a manuscript that was NOT double-spaced or had smaller margins, take a gander at this little monstrosity:


Reader-hostile, isn’t it? Even with nice, empty back pages upon which to scrawl copy edits, trying to cram spelling or grammatical changes between those lines would be well-nigh impossible. Knowing that, Millicent would never dream of passing such a manuscript along to the agent who employs her; to do so would be to invite a lecture on the vicissitudes of the editorial life.

Don’t tempt her just to reject it unread — and don’t, I beg you, provide the same temptation to a contest judge.

You know what I’m talking about, don’t you, past contest entrants and submitters who wanted to squeeze in a particularly exciting scene before the end of those requested 50 pages? Faced with a hard-and-fast page limit for submission, some wily writers will shrink the font or the margins, to shoehorn a few more words onto each page. After all, who is going to notice a tenth of an inch sliced off a left or right margin, or notice that the typeface is a trifle smaller than usual?

Millicent will notice, that’s who, and practically instantly. As will any reasonably experienced contest judge; after hours on end of reading 12-point type within 1-inch margins, a reader develops a visceral sense of when something is off.

Don’t believe me? Go back and study today’s first example, the correctly formatted average page. Then take a look at this:


I shaved only one-tenth of an inch off each margin and shrunk the text by 5% — far less than most fudgers attempt. Yet admit it — you can tell it’s different, can’t you, even without whipping out a ruler?

So could a professional reader. And let me tell you, neither the Millicents of this world nor the contest judges tend to appreciate attempts to trick them into extraneous reading. Next!

The same principle applies, incidentally, to query letters: often, aspiring writers, despairing of fitting a coherent summary of their books within the standard single page, will shrink the margins or typeface. Trust me, someone who reads queries all day, every day, will be able to tell.

The other commonly-fudged spacing technique involves skipping only one space after periods and colons, rather than the grammatically-requisite two spaces. Frequently, writers won’t even realize that this IS fudging: ever since published books began omitting these spaces in order to save paper, I’ve seen a theory propounded all over the Internet (and sometimes even in writing classes, where the teachers should know better) claiming that skipping the extra space is obsolete. Frequently, the proponents will insist that manuscripts that include the space look old-fashioned to agents and editors.

Well, guess what: standard manuscript format IS old-fashioned, by definition; that fact doesn’t seem to stop anyone in the industry for using it. In fact, in all of my years writing and editing, I have never — not once — seen a manuscript rejected or even criticized for including the two spaces that English prose requires after a period or colon.

I have, however, heard endless complaint from professional readers — myself included — about those second spaces being omitted. Care to guess why?

Reward yourself with a virtual candy cane if you said that cutting those spaces throws off word count estimation; the industry estimates assume those doubled spaces. And give yourself twelve reindeer if you also suggested that omitting them renders a manuscript harder to hand-edit.

We all know the lecture Millicent is likely to get if she forgets about that, right?

Again, a pro isn’t going to have to look very hard at a space-deprived page to catch on that there’s something fishy going on. Since Dickens was so fond of half-page sentences, the examples I’ve been using above won’t illustrate this point very well, so (reaching blindly into the depths of the bookshelf next to my computer), let’s take a random page out of Elizabeth Von Arnim’s VERA:


There are 310 words on this page; I wasn’t kidding the other day about how far off the standard word count estimations were, obviously. Now cast your eye over the same text improperly formatted:


Doesn’t look much different to the naked eye, does it? The word count is only slightly lower on this version of this page — 295 words — but enough to make quite a difference over the course of an entire manuscript.

So I see some hands shooting up out there? “But Anne,” I hear some sharp-eyed readers cry, “wasn’t the word count lower because there was an entire line missing from the second version?”

Well spotted, criers-out: the natural tendency of omitting the second spaces would be to include MORE words per page, not less. But not spacing properly between sentences was not the only deviation from standard format here; Millicent, I assure you, would have caught two others.I tossed a curve ball in here, to make sure you were reading as closely as she was.

Wild guesses? Anyone? Anyone?

The error that chopped the word count was a pretty innocent one, almost always done unconsciously: the writer did not turn off the widow/orphan control, found in Word under FORMAT/PARAGRAPH/LINE AND PAGE BREAKS. This insidious little function, the default unless one changes it, prevents single lines of multi-line paragraphs from getting stranded on either the bottom of one page of the top of the next.

As you may see, keeping this function operational results in an uneven number of lines per page. Which, over the course of an entire manuscript, is going to do some serious damage to the word count.

The other problem — and frankly, the one that would have irritated a contest judge far more, but probably Millicent slightly less — was on the last line of the page: using an emdash (“But—”) instead of a doubled dash. Here again, we see that the standards that apply to printed books are not proper for manuscripts.

Which brings me back to today’s moral: just because a particular piece of formatting looks right to those of us who have been reading books since we were three doesn’t mean that it is correct in a MANUSCRIPT. Millicent reads manuscripts all day; contest judges read entries for hours at a time. After a while, a formatting issue that might well not even catch a lay reader’s attention can begin to seem gargantuan.

As I pointed out yesterday, if the writing is good, it deserves to be free of distracting formatting choices. You want agents, editors, and contest judges to be muttering, “Wow, this is good,” over your manuscript, not “Oh, God, he doesn’t know the rules about dashes,” don’t you?

Spare Millicent the chagrin, please; both you and she will be the happier for it. Keep up the good work!

8 Replies to “See for yourself, part III: God bless the Millicents, every one”

  1. “In fact, in all of my years writing and editing, I have never — not once — seen a manuscript rejected or even criticized for including the two spaces that English prose requires after a period or colon. ”

    Have you heard of a manuscript being rejected for using only ONE space between sentences? Within the past five years or so? It took a lot of effort to train myself to STOP using the two spaces. It’s one of those grammatical rules that seems to have all but disappeared (much like the rather perplexing fad to omit the comma before the word “too”). If it’s necessary, I suppose there’s an easy “find and replace” way to correct my manuscript to add an additional space between sentences?

    1. I started to answer this question here, Paula, but once my answer topped the 4-page mark, I realized that it’s a complex enough issue to deserve its own post. So look for it later today — and thanks for the very thought-provoking question.

  2. You know, I think some novices will probably still have a hard time understanding how great writing could be dismissed simply because of bad formatting, but appearances do matter. Let’s face it, the CEO who climbs out of a rusting 1970′s Cutlass isn’t going to be taken nearly as seriously as the one in any model of clean, modern sedan. It also doesn’t matter how beautiful a woman is, if she has applied makeup in a caked, clown-like fashion — looking at her will cause bystanders to cringe.

    Sometimes people seem miffed that they should have to deign to think about issues like formatting, that the brilliance of their writing should just shine through. Perhaps this is true if you’re a true master — the best programmers in the world can go to job interviews in ripped jeans, faded T-shirts, and scraggly beards, and no one would care. But I know I sure wouldn’t dream of doing so, even though I’m relatively good. I don’t see why I should look at my manuscript any differently.

    1. That’s a very sane way to think of it, Chris.

      Contest judges speculate about this one amongst themselves quite a bit. Sometimes, entries are so oddly formatted that one start to wonder if the opposite dynamic is happening — that the writer is deliberately presenting the grimiest, least reader-friendly version of his work in order to PROVE that the writing is so good that presentation doesn’t matter. And that’s really sad, because a contest judge, like a Millicent, has a certain set of criteria she’s supposed to use to determine whether a manuscript deserves to be passed on to the next level or not. An odd formatter definitely stacks the deck against himself.

      1. I can’t help but wonder how ‘House of Leaves’ by Danielewski ever got past Millicent. Possibly, in shock, she placed it in the accept rather than reject pile. Incidentally I did go through my novel and add the extra spaces. I believe it is easier to read, that is if one can abide my writing.

  3. She must have fallen in love earlier that day. I keep wondering how the (marvelous) José Saramago made it into print, given his fundamental hostility to punctuation in any form.

  4. As I recently posted in “See for yourself, Part II,” the rules for expected format are driving me mad because of the rules I never even considered may have existed.

    One of them is the “two spaces between sentences” that you describe in this entry. Having already re-written my manuscript once and then revised it again, the thought of going through 110,000 words and adding extra spaces seems like a very daunting and tedious task.

    Furthermore, in practice it doesn’t change the word count / page estimate at all–the only way it could is if all my paragraphs were within three or four spaces of the end of the line and all the chapters those paragraphs were in were within one line of the end of the page.
    I noticed the discrepancy in your example, but I also noticed that the difference in word count was ENTIRELY because of the widow/orphan protection.

    How vital is it that I go through my book again, pounding on the space bar? Is this one of those things that’ll get poor, tired Millicent to drop my submission back in the envelope without a second glance?

    1. Oh, I get this one a lot — especially in the past year, after Miss Snark suddenly announced that single spaces were now the norm. And within days, agents and editors all over New York started screaming, “Where has all of my white space gone?”

      So while the practice is now common enough that it will not NECESSARILY get your work thrown out on sight, it WILL annoy Millicent — and if her boss at the agency does sign you, you will almost certainly be asked to change it.

      Up to you, though.

      Before you decide, however, there is one thing you should know: folks in the industry are pretty jaded to the argument that something is going to be a whole lot of work for the writer. It tends not to move them at all — and no matter how good a writer’s argument about why a formatting standard isn’t necessary may be, that doesn’t change the fact that they want to see manuscripts formatted a particular way. The single most likely response to the argument you made above, therefore, is likely to be, “Well, since two spaces after a period has always been correct in American English, why didn’t he just write it that way in the first place?”

      See? Not especially sympathetic. Remember, Millicent, her boss agent, and the editors to whom they will be marketing your book went to universities where they would not have been allowed to turn in a term paper that ignored the rules of punctuation — which is, to the industry’s collective eye, what removing the grammatically-necessary second space after periods and colons appears to be.

      And that’s not even bringing the self-interest argument into the discussion. It’s worth noting, I think, that your (quite trenchant) argument about utility doesn’t address one of the primary reasons the industry is fond of this rule — other than proper English structure, that is: it’s a heck of a lot harder to hand-edit a manuscript that DOESN’T have that extra white space. And that, I assure you, does make a very practical difference to anyone who might happen to be scrawling commentary on a writer’s pages.

      But ultimately, from a writer’s perspective, even if there were a million tremendous reasons for ignoring a particular standard format restriction, it’s just poor strategy to do it. With hundreds of thousands of submissions coming into an agency every year, making a formatting exception in one case could easily seem like a slippery slope — as I have pointed out often, one of the reasons that formatting is so widely used as a criterion for rejection is that it is so easy to spot. I doubt that Millicent is going to be eager to give up that time-saving advantage.

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