See for yourself, part IV: yet another great cosmic mystery explained, sort of


No, the statue is not a Christmas angel, but rather Nike, the winged goddess of victory, bringing a laurel wreath for reader ACD, who will be famed in song and story forevermore for the comment she posted on yesterday’s blog. Why? Because she, clever soul, wrote in with a method for using Word’s Find and Replace feature to change single spaces between sentences into double spaces within sentences. And if that’s not an achievement worthy of a laurel leaf or two, I should like to know what is.

Okay, so maybe that wasn’t the artist’s original intent with this particular statue (which comes to us courtesy of, but some celebration seemed appropriate, no?

And if THAT isn’t enough to meet whatever standard you may be cherishing for what constitutes a reason to initiate dancing in the streets, long-time reader, prolific commenter, and computer whiz Chris has once again gone far above and beyond the call of duty and written an entire blog post on the subject.

Thanks, Chris and ACD. Laurel leaves all around!

All week, I have been running through the strictures of standard manuscript format and some common deviations from it, to demonstrate just how clearly our old pal, Millicent the agency screener, discerns the differences. And let me tell you, at the end of a long day’s reading, they definitely jump out at her, and with good reason: once a professional reader gets used to seeing the similarities that pretty much all professional manuscripts share, submissions formatted in other ways might as well have UNPROFESSIONAL stamped on them in bright red ink.

And while Millicent may strive valiantly NOT to allow that impression to color her reading of the submission itself, it’s just not a good idea to assume that it won’t. She’s only human, after all.

It’s an even worse idea to assume a charitable reading for a contest entry, by the way. If anything, contest judges tend to be even more sensitive to the beauty of standard format than Millicent, for the simple reason that they’ve usually been reading a whole lot longer. The agency gig may well be Millie’s first job out of college, but the judge handed your entry may well have just retired from a long and fruitful career teaching English composition. Her fingers ache for the red pen of correction.

Then, too, most well-respected contests require some professional credentials from their judges, either as writers, editors, or teachers. Which means, in practice, that judges have often been writing in standard format themselves for years or bludgeoning other writers into compliance with its requirements.

To put it another way, other kinds of formatting won’t look right to them, either. By now, you’re probably having a similar reaction, aren’t you?

Don’t think so? Or don’t want to believe you could conceivably share any traits with Millicent? Let’s test the proposition by trying a little Aphra Behn on for size.

If you don’t know her work, you should, at least historically: as far as we know, she was the first woman paid for writing in English. (She’s also hilarious.) Here is a page from THE FAIR JILT (1688):


You could tell instantly that there was something wrong here, couldn’t you, and not just because Miranda’s trying to seduce her priest? (For convent, read monastery.) Set aside her practically Dickensian affection for semicolons for the moment — which would tend to turn off a modern Millicent pretty quickly — and try to tote up in your mind all of the deviations from standard format.

To refresh your memory and gladden your now-sharpened eyes, here’s what it should have looked like:


Got your list of problems in hand? Let’s take the problems on the first version from the top of the page: the incorrect version does not have a proper slug line. (For those of you joining us late, a slug line is AUTHOR’S LAST NAME/TITLE/PAGE #, repeated on every page of the text.)

Seeing this lone page out of context, it’s quite obvious why a slug line is a dandy idea, isn’t it? Without a slug line, it would be virtually impossible to return this wandering page back into the manuscript from whence it came. “Who wrote this?” Millicent cries in ire, glaring around her cubicle at the 47 manuscripts lying there. “It could be from any of these!”

At least Ms. Behn thought to number the pages of Example #1 — but did you catch the problem with how she did it? The page number is in the bottom right-hand margin, not in the slug line, where it belongs.

Did you catch any other difficulties? What about the 10-point type, which will strain Millicent’s already overworked eyes? Or the Ariel typeface? There is nothing inherently wrong with either, but when she’s used to seeing practically every manuscript that heads out of the agency to publishing houses in 12-point Times New Roman, it (chant it with me here) just doesn’t look right.

Anything else? What about that right margins? Mighty straight, isn’t it? That look proper to you?

It’s called block-justification, and it’s another problem that can be laid squarely at the feet of those who insist that a manuscript and a published book should be identical. The text in many published books, and certainly in many magazines and newspapers, is spaced so that each line begins at exactly the same distance from the left-hand edge of the page and ends (unless it’s the last line of a paragraph) at exactly the same distance from the right-hand edge of the page.

Which, to let you in on why this type of neatness bugs professional readers, renders skimming quite a bit more difficult. Fewer landmarks, as it were; to the glancing eye, practically every line of narrative text resembles every other. To those of us used to the ragged right margins and even letter spacing of standard format, it’s actually kind of hard to read.

So there’s quite a bit in Example #1 that’s distracting, isn’t there? Doesn’t help sell the text, does it?

Okay, all of these rhetorical questions are beginning to make me dizzy, so I’m going to wind down for the day. But before I do, let’s take one more look at Example #2, the one Millicent and a contest judge would like:


Now, let’s take a gander at the same page in business format:


Startlingly different, isn’t it, considering that I made only two formatting changes? (In case you missed one or the other, all I did was I eliminate the indentations at the beginning of each paragraph and skipped a line between paragraphs.) This, of course, is the norm for business correspondence, as well as for most of the text currently posted on the Internet.

Including this blog. It drives me NUTS that my blogging program won’t allow me to indent paragraphs.

And why? Because it just doesn’t look right. In a contest entry, business formatting is often grounds all by itself for knocking a manuscript out of finalist consideration.

Finding yourself asking why again? Well, to a professional reader, the differences between the last two examples would be more than visually jarring — they’d be downright confusing. In standard format, the only reason for a skipped line between paragraphs would be a section break, so Millicent would be expecting the second paragraph to be about something new.

Okay, so a misconception like that might distract her attention for only few consecutive seconds, but let’s not kid ourselves: Millicent is spending less than a minute on most of the submissions she rejects — it’s actually not all that uncommon for her not to make into the second or third paragraph before reaching for the SASE and a copy of that annoying form rejection letter.

Time loss is not the only reason she might take umbrage at momentary confusion. Let me let you in on a little secret: professional readers, especially those who inhabit agencies and publishing houses, are not overly fond of having their mental image of the story they are reading at the moment jarred.

How do I know this? Well, for one thing, they commonly refer to it as being tricked. As in, “I hate being tricked by a first paragraph that is about someone other than the protagonist.”

There’s a practical basis to this dislike, of course, but it’s kind of complicated. I wrote a couple of fairly extensive posts on the subject last year (here’s a link to the first, and here’s a link to the second, in case you’re interested), but here is the thumbnail version.

Comfortably seated?

To get through all of those manuscripts she’s assigned to screen each week, Millicent has to read quite quickly. If she decides to pass a manuscript on to the next level, she is going to need to be able to tell her boss what the book is about: who the protagonist is, what the conflict is, and why that conflict is important enough to the protagonist for the reader to be drawn into it.

Basically, she’s going to need to be able to pitch it to the higher-ups at the agency, just as the agent is going to have to do in order to sell the book to an editor, and an editor is going to have to do in order to convince HIS higher-ups that the publishing house should acquire the book. And, often, as first-round contest judges will need to do on an evaluation form in order to pass an entry onto the next round.

Okay, brace yourself, because explaining what comes next involves delving into one of the great cosmic mysteries. It’s not for the faint of heart.

Remember earlier in the week, when I mentioned that agents and editors don’t read like other people? Well, one of the primary differences is that from line one of page one, they’re already imagining how they’re going to pitch this book.

So if paragraph 2 or 3 (or page 2 or 3) suddenly informs them that their mental patter has been about the wrong character, they feel as if they’ve been backing the wrong horse. And while there may have been any number of perfectly reasonable narrative reasons for the text to concentrate upon an alternate character for the opening, unless the writing AND the story have already really wowed Millicent, her resentment about being [tricked} about the identity of the protagonist if often sufficient to make her reach for that SASE and form letter.

Feel free to go scream into a pillow over that last piece of logic; you don’t want to keep that kind of existential cri de coeur pent up inside. I’ll wait until it’s out of your system.

Feel better? Good. Before you go rushing off to see if your opening paragraphs might be open to an interpretation of trickery — because, for instance, you might have taken the bold authorial step of noticing that there is more than one human being in the world, and reported a piece of action accordingly — let’s return to the formatting issue that prompted my little segue into the psychology of resentment. Can we extrapolate any practical lesson about business format from it?

You bet your boots we can: it’s not a good idea to give the impression of a section break where there isn’t one.

There’s a lot more psychodrama than one might think involved with these formatting choices, isn’t there? I’ll wrap up this series next time, to spare us further emotional toll. Keep up the good work!

13 Replies to “See for yourself, part IV: yet another great cosmic mystery explained, sort of”

  1. Have a question about the slug line or rather the set up for a header in Page Set up. Where it tells you where to set the header from the edge, is it .5″ ?

    Sometimes it defaults to an inch. Haven’t seen that in your archives.

  2. Thanks for the laurels! I’m just happy to be able to help.

    And, it’s an interesting point that you make about opening books with your actual protagonist. Opening a book with a minor character bugs me, too, unless its something like a Michael Crichton thriller (and even then it’s not the best). However, even given my dislike of that device, the last novel that I queried opened with a three-page prologue featuring a guy who died twenty years before the start of chapter one. I know: ouch.

    What I find striking about this is not that I made a novice mistake that many aspiring writers make, but that I held my own work to a different standard than I hold published works that I would read. I’m actually something of a Millicent myself, when it comes to starting new books. I’m very picky about the writing quality, pace, characterization, everything. I tend to pass over a lot of more minor books because of this (though I’m getting more open minded about it). Yet when it came to my own writing I followed a lot of the patterns that I hate in the writing of others.

    I just find that interesting, and it makes me wonder how many other aspiring writers have the same issue. I had the advantage of knowing how fascinating the book would become on page 150, and so let the pages that came before read too slowly without realizing it. I suppose it’s arrogance, or perhaps just myopia, that makes us feel like our writing is inherently fascinating to read — and that we can indulge in the practices that turn us off others, simply because it’s our own writing.


    1. That’s an interesting point, Chris. I know that I most definitely give a book longer now to grow upon me than I did before I started editing professionally. It’s amazing how many good writers will start the real story of the book on page 28, 0r 42, or 112…

      I think it IS hard to tell with one’s own work, partially because a writer isn’t just drawing upon influences from what’s hot now in his genre — we’re influenced by everything we’ve ever read, and a leisurely start used to be considered stylish. Frankly, I would have cut most of the first 150 pages of THE BROTHERS KARAMAZOV, but I still admire it tremendously.

  3. Thank you. I feel like I’ve hit the jackpot, finding your blog!

    I was exhilarated last week when I finished writing the first draft of my first novel. Before beginning a serious edit I am taking a few weeks to read up and learn protocols for MS submissions (yes, I’m ashamed to fess, I’m a newbie in the full blown unpricked balloon stage) and boy the wealth of knowledge you provide here is humbling. As a new and most grateful reader I just wanted to express my appreciation for your clear and direct words of advice.


    P.S. A big thank you to your fans for providing the shortcut to delete the extra end of sentence space.

    1. Welcome, RM! And congratulations on finishing the first draft of your book!

      I have to say, the notion of taking the time to learn about standard format within a week of completing a first full draft — as opposed to after a few years’ worth of submissions — nearly made me swoon with pleasure; practically every week, I meet at least one writer who cries, “Oh, how I wish I’d known this before!” Good for you for learning the ropes NOW.

      (Oh, and sorry that it took me so long to approve your comment. I overdid a bit last week — I’m recovering from a long illness — and ended up sleeping most of the weekend.)

  4. Once again, I am really grateful for this blog, because I had no idea that beginning in a POV other than the protagonist’s was objectionable. I LIKE seeing the protagonist at a distance, through someone else’s perspective, and only later getting the real scoop on what they’re thinking and feeling. But what do I know? I like promiscuous POV-hopping a la Dickens and Eliot, too.

    Off to rewrite!

    1. I like being introduced both ways, MD — and I wish that the average Millicent were a bit more open to openings, as it were. The current preference for starting within the perspective of the protagonist (singular) is the godchild of the fashionability of the close third person with a single perspective. Ol’ Millie tends to conclude, not always fairly, that a first page or a first paragraph from a more distant perspective automatically equals authorial distance from the protagonist for the entire book.

  5. Standards for non-standard formats:

    One of my WIPs is a non-linear story. Yes, I know, gasp gasp. Impossible to bid, tough sell, wait until I’m well-known etc etc. But it’s one of those stories that won’t leave me alone, so what’s a writer to do?

    It’s composed of a series of sections with headings. The typeset version would skip a line, followed by the heading centered in bold, and then the start of the next section.

    How do I do that in the MS? Is there ANYTHING that won’t send Millicent screaming, that doesn’t scream pretentious? You’ll probably say the bold is a no-no. How about the skipped line and the centering? And what advice would you give for others with similar non-standard issues (other than Abandon Hope All Ye Who Enter Here)?

    1. Hoo boy, Tad, have you set yourself an ambitious set of criteria! Not only are you attempting a swan dive off the high board, but you’ve raised the board to the top of the Empire State Building.

      I love it. As a writer, I would say that if the story won’t leave you alone, it’s because a Muse is tapping you on the shoulder and you ought to pay attention, because those celestial types tend to get a mite cranky if you don’t. Nothing burns like a story that’s itching to get out, does it?

      Donning my editor’s hat, I would say that there’s a fairly straightforward solution to your problem: you could treat each new section as a new chapter. Center the heading as you would a chapter title, skip down 12 lines, than begin the text. Don’t boldface anything.

      Basically, this would give essentially the same format as THE COLOR PURPLE or THE POISONWOOD BIBLE. It’s used commonly enough in literary fiction that it wouldn’t necessarily come across as pretentious at all.

      Admittedly, it may be kind of a pain to set it up this way, if there are many sections, but it’s your best bet for avoiding confusing Millicent. It also makes it very, very plain (to a professional reader, anyway) that you’re leaving the structural decisions for the printed book to the editor, even though you have some pretty strong feelings about how it should ultimately look.

      Which is, almost always, the best plan for submitting any first book with interesting structure: try to make the transitional points — between voices, between timeframes, between plotlines — as distinct in the text as humanly possible, using conventional means. Using fancy formatting will only distract from the writing, at this juncture.

      You shouldn’t abandon your ideas for structure, of course — you can always discuss the book’s formatting with the editor after the contract is signed. But that’s a discussion that should take place after Millicent’s stage of the game.

      1. Leaving a chapter break is a great idea, Anne! After I finish the first draft, I’ll try to structure the first section so it gets the reader on good footing before I go off into the reeds. And you’re definitely right about those cranky muses. I’ve abandoned this one more times than I care to mention, only to be beaten back into submission by the muse. My favorite writing quote is something like “If you WANT to write, quit now. If you HAVE to write, you can’t quit.”

        1. I think of it as tossing fresh meat into the hungry Muses’ den — if they expect you to be throwing provisions and you don’t, they’re going to start roaring.

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