See for yourself, part VI: but wait, there’s more!

I was all set to clamber onto my moral high horse again and dispense more of yesterday’s philosophy, honest — but then sharp-eyed long-time reader Janet caught, as is her wont, the missing puzzle piece in my illustrated romp through standard format. So I’m sliding elevated ethical questions to the back burner for the nonce and diving right back into practicalities.

As Janet so rightly pointed out, I completely skipped over one of the more common first-page-of-chapter controversies (and yes, in my world, there are many from which to choose), whether to place the title and/or chapter designation at the top of the page, or just above the text.

To place the options before you, should the first page of a chapter look like this:


Or like this?


Now, I had been under the impression that I had waxed long and eloquent about the side I took in this burning debate, and that quite recently, but apparently, my eloquence has been confined to posts more than a year old, exchanges in the comments (which are not, alas, searchable, but still very worth reading), and my own fevered brain.

So let me clear up my position on the matter: the first version is in standard format; the second is not. No way, no how. And why do they prefer the first?

Chant it with me now: BECAUSE IT LOOKS RIGHT TO THEM.

Yet, if anything, agents and contest judges see more examples of version #2 than #1. Many, many more.

Admittedly, anyone who screens manuscripts is likely to notice that a much higher percentage of them are incorrectly formatted than presented properly, this particular formatting oddity often appears in otherwise perfectly presented manuscripts.

And that fact sets Millicent the agency screener’s little head in a spin. As, I must admit, it does mine and virtually every other professional reader’s. Because at least in my case — and I don’t THINK I’m revealing a trade secret here — I have literally never seen an agent submit a manuscript to a publishing house with format #2. And I have literally never even heard of an agent, editor, or anyone else in the publishing industry’s asking for a chapter heading to be moved from the top of the page to just above the text.

Oh, I’ve heard some pretty strange requests from agents and editors in my time, believe me; I’m not easily shocked anymore. But to hear a pro insist upon placing the chapter heading where you have to skip down a third of a page to read it…well, that would have me reaching for my smelling salts. (Do they even make those anymore?)

But clearly, somebody out there is preaching otherwise, because agents, editors, and contest judges are simply inundated with examples of this formatting anomaly. We see bushels of ’em. Hordes of aspiring writers are apparently absolutely convinced that the sky will fall in if that chapter heading is located anywhere but immediately above the text.

In fact, it’s not all that uncommon for an editor to find that after she has left a couple of subtle hints that the writer should change the formatting…


…the subsequent drafts remain unchanged. The writer will have simply ignored the advice.

(Off the record: editors HATE that. So do agents. Contest judges probably wouldn’t be all that fond of it, either, but blind submissions mean that a writer must submit the same chapter two years running to the same contest, have the entry land in the same judge’s pile — in itself rather rare — AND the judge would have to remember having given that feedback.)

This may seem like a rather silly controversy — after all, why should it matter if the white space is above or below the title? — but sheer repetition and writerly tenacity in clinging to version #2 have turned it from a difference of opinion into a vitriol-stained professional reader pet peeve. (See earlier comment about how we tend to react to our advice being ignored; it isn’t pretty.)

Which, unfortunately, tends to mean that in discussions of the issue at conferences degenerate into writing-teacher-says-X, editor-at-Random-House-says-Y: lots of passion demonstrated, but very little rationale beyond each side’s insisting that the other’s way just looks wrong.

However, there is a pretty good reason that moving the chapter heading information to just above the text looks wrong to someone who edits book manuscripts for a living: it’s a formatting tidbit borrowed from short stories, whose first pages look quite different:


There, as you may see for yourself, is a mighty fine reason to list the title just above the text: a heck of a lot of information has to come first. But that would not be proper in a book-length manuscript, would it? Let’s see what Noêl’s editor has to say, viewing this as the first page of a book:


Ouch. (That last bit would have been funnier if the entire page were readable, by the way, but my camera batteries were running low.) But as Millicent and that angry mob of pitchfork-wielding ignored editors would be only too happy to tell you, short stories don’t HAVE chapters, so who on earth are they to be telling those of us in the book world how to format our manuscripts?

Stick with version #1.

While I’ve got the camera all warmed up, this would probably be a good time to show another ubiquitous agent and editor pet peeve, the bound manuscript. As with other ploys to make a manuscript appear identical to a published book, binding the loose pages of a manuscript for submission will NOT win you friends in the publishing world.

Why? Not only does this not look right (I spared you the chanting this time), but it seems so wrong that Millicent will be positively flabbergasted to see a submitter to do it.

Seriously, this is one of those things that is so engrained in the professional reader’s mind that it seldom even occurs to authors, agents, or editors to mention it as a no-no at writers’ conferences. Heck, I’m not sure that I’ve mentioned it once within the last six months — and by anyone’s standards, I’m unusually communicative about how manuscripts should be presented.

So pay attention, because you’re not going to hear this very often: by definition, manuscripts should NEVER be bound in any way.

Not staples, not spiral binding, not perfect binding. There’s an exceedingly simple reason for this: binding renders it impossible (or at least a major pain in the fingertips) to pull out a chapter, stuff it in one’s bag, and read it on the subway.

Hey, paper is heavy. Would YOU want to lug home ten manuscripts every night on the off chance you’ll read them?

In practice, I’m sorry to report, a bound manuscript will seldom survive long enough in the screening process for the chapter-separation dilemma to arise, because — and it pains me to be the one to break this to those of you who’ve been submitting bound manuscripts, but if I don’t tell you, who will? — those pretty covers tend never to be opened.

Remember that immense pile of submissions Millicent has to screen before going home for the day — and it’s already 6:30? Well, when she slits open an envelope that reads REQUESTED MATERIALS on the outside, she fully expects to see something like this lurking between the cover letter and the SASE tucked underneath:


But in the case of the bound manuscript, she instead sees something like this:


Kind of hard to miss the difference, isn’t it? And unfortunately, nine times out of ten, the next sound a bystander would hear would be all of that nice, expensive binding grating against the inside of the SASE.

Honestly, it’s not that she is too lazy to flip open the cover; she just doesn’t see why she should. Her logic may not be fair or open-minded, but it’s a fairly common argument throughout the industry: if this submitter does not know this very basic rule of manuscripts, how likely is she to know the rules of standard format? And if she does not know either, how likely is she to be producing polished prose?

Yes, this logic often does not hold water when it comes down to an individual case. But from her perspective, that matters less than we writers would like — because, as unpleasant as it is for aspiring writers to realize, her agency is going to see enough technically perfect submissions this week to afford to be able to leap to unwarranted conclusions about this one.

Don’t waste your money on binding.

Now that I have depressed you all into a stupor, let me add a final note about learning to conform to these seemingly arbitrary preconditions for getting your book read: any game has rules. If you saw a batter smack a baseball, then dash for third base instead of first on his way around the diamond, would you expect his home run to count? Would an archer who hit the bulls-eye in her neighbor’s target instead of her own win the grand prize? If you refused to pay the rent on Park Place because you didn’t like the color on the board, would you win the Monopoly game?

I can go on like this for days, you know.

My point is, submitting art to the marketplace has rules, too, and while your fourth-grade P.E. teacher probably did not impart them to you (as, if I ran the universe, s/he would have), you’re still going to be a whole lot better at playing the game if you embrace those rules, rather than fight them.

You’ll also, in the long run, enjoy playing the game more.

And remember, you’re playing this game by choice: you could, after all, make your own rules and publish your book yourself. Weigh the possibilities, and keep up the good work!

15 Replies to “See for yourself, part VI: but wait, there’s more!”

  1. Anne,

    The only exception I know of in regards to submitting bound manuscripts is for screenplays. Then you are to have manilla colored covers with plain golden brads. (I believe two are the desired number and not three.)

    Artwork on the outside cover is greatly discouraged as is any writing. The inside title page is where you include your contact information.

    I know that from when I studied screenwriting about twenty years ago and in almost every book on the subject they emphasized to not try and be cutesy in your presentation. It would be looked at askance.

    They did however want the scripts bound.

    So, if you aren’t writing screenplays no manuscript should be bound.


    1. You’re quite right about the screenplays, Linda. But there are so many OTHER formatting rules for screenplays that I would HIGHLY encourage those who write them to go directly to those who are expert in them for formatting advice, rather than rely upon the book formatting advice I give here.

      1. Anne,

        Formatting of screenplays is a different beast entirely from standard format for novels.

        It would probably take you a good week to get all the nitty gritty details in the same manner which you have so lovingly done for fiction manuscripts.

        I just wanted to throw that into the mix since it is another form of creative writing, but it has its own rules as to how submitted materials should look. They want things bound because screenplays are normally 120 pages or so. If a manuscript box arrived with 400 unbound pages inside, I wonder if a studio head would know what to do with it.

        Yet, some writers such as William Goldman write for both worlds. They just have to know what is expected of them depending on their respective employers.


        1. I imagine a studio head would know PRECISELY what to do with a book manuscript: send it back to the writer who sent it unread. As, indeed, a agent or editor who worked with the publishing world would do with a screenplay. They have completely different standards, and I think it only confuses matters to mention them in the same breath.

          This confusion can cause serious practical ramifications– all too often, aspiring writers will take a class (or, more commonly, read an article or find a website) on screenwriting, think that the kind of synopsis that works for screenplays is acceptable in the book world (it is not), and send out materials that tell agents and editors on sight that the writer did not do her homework. Just because the terminology is similar — in this case, “synopsis,” but it could just as easily be applied to “bound,” which evidently prompted your initial comment– in unrelated professions that happen to employ writers most emphatically does NOT mean that a writer can blithely drag concepts across professional boundaries.

          So I repeat: all writing is NOT subject to identical professional standards. Learn what professionals in your intended market do, rather than trying to create a generalized formatting standard for all writing.

          1. Anne,

            I’m sorry if my bringing up screenwriting as the exception to the unbound rule bothered you.

            I did not mean to cause confusion. It is more of the “ooh, ooh, I know an exception to that rule” impulse on my part.

            I also belong to a writers club which is open to writers of all genres. So I regularly mingle with poets, memoirists, mystery writers, travel writers, technical writers, and yes, screenwriters, among a plethora of other genres. Our underlying commonality is that we all are trying to create compelling writing that will captivate readers or audiences. Then of course, the different genres will have their own distinct rules that govern them.

            Here’s hoping you wonderful holiday surrounded by loved ones and are feeling healthy and full of energy.


          2. Not bothered, precisely — just a bit worried. Giving advice to writers is a big responsibility, and I honestly do worry in the dead of night about a chance word of mine leading some poor soul astray.

            So the vehemence was aimed at that mythical poor soul, I assure you, not at you. Have a nice holiday!

  2. This issue of chapter titles is frustrating for me. I’ve entered a certain literary contest for the past two years, and the ONLY formatting issue to show up on my critique was a suggestion to lower my chapter titles to just above the text since that was what is ‘normally’ done.

    How helpful it would be if there were truly a ‘standard’ format, blessed by all agents and editors and made available to all writers. I appreciate your efforts to try to enlighten us on what you’ve learned from your experience.

    1. Ooh, that IS annoying, Serenissima — it indicates that the judge hasn’t successfully submitted much in your book category of late, and in the primary contest locally that gives feedback to entrants, judges are supposed to have professional credentials (according to the solicitation I received to judge last year for them). Hmm.

      On the bright side, if it’s the ONLY issue that a peevish judge could find to quibble about, your entries must be pretty clean. So pat yourself on the back!

  3. Okay. What if I have a title for the chapter (never done this before) such as “Of Variola Major”. Do I also include the chapter number? And where does it go, above the chapter title? Any space between the two? (Close to the top, of course)

    1. You don’t have to include a chapter number; it’s a matter of style. If you choose to include the chapter numbers, Chapter X would on the first line of the page, and Of Variola Major would be on the second, assuming double spacing. Both centered, of course.

      If memory serves, I posted an example of this in part V of this series. It’s the first image posted (and if you’re having problems seeing the details of the image, right-click on it and save it to your hard disk.)

  4. By Golly! After a couple of years of beating it into my cranial cavity, I think I have the “hang” of standard format! Anne, I hope the rest of your readers do as well. But I would caution all, that if you have been asked to submit pages or a complete manuscript, that you check (if possible) upon the particular agent’s likes and dislikes. It might matters of relatively small importance, such as upper or lower case in the slugline. But it may also concern more major elements of how that agent wants the manuscript (or partial) to appear. Recently I happened to check out a particular agent’s website. He very nicely gives a rather complete list of exactly how he wants submitted materials to appear. He prefers “dark” courier or some more obcure “book” font. Requires submitters to underline rather than italize, and requests a single # for scene breaks.
    I’m not trying to say, “but Anne,” but rather to point out that there might be a few out there with some very different ideas of what standard format is.
    Merry Christmas!
    Happy New Year!
    Happy Holidays!

    1. You would be right to “but Anne…” on that one, Dave: I don’t repeat the UNLESS AN AGENT, EDITOR, OR CONTEST ASKS FOR SOMETHING DIFFERENT caveat every time I discuss standard format, and I should. If an agency, small publishing house, or contest lists such an alternate preference, it usually means that they will automatically reject or disqualify submissions that do not honor it.

      Oddities in contest rules usually stem from contests not updating their websites consistently (or being run by administrators who have not been submitting in recent years), but frankly, it’s been my experience that when agents make such requests, they know perfectly well that they are asking for something other than standard format — they want the submissions they see to be prepared especially for them.

      Why? Well, if you prepared a submission to the specifications you mentioned, Dave, you would not be able to submit it anywhere else — which renders it far more likely that the agent will get an exclusive look at the manuscript, right? Because, after all, if you submitted a manuscript with those particular oddities to 99.8% of agencies, the screener would assume that they were the WRITER’S choice, not an agent’s, or indeed, attributable to anyone else in the industry.

      It COULD be just a personal preference, of course — one does encounters the preferences you list occasionally, but it’s rare, because they don’t match the current standards of the major publishing houses. Agents’ requesting a particular typeface is a touch more common, as it provides an instant way for the screeners to recognize who has not read the guidelines — next! — and a fairly infallible way to weed out potential clients who would have trouble following directions. (Or, to concentrate on the power aspect more, writers who might be prone to challenge editorial authority.)

      That being said, I was once with an agency that (martyred sigh) wanted a strange slug line as sort of a signature for their clients. If it had been a prominent agency, this might have worked out better, but in truth, they just didn’t sell very many books. So now, when a client mentions that a particular agency has asked for an odd format, I automatically check to see if the agency is brand-new, or primarily sells articles and short stories (which are formatted differently), or…and sure enough, I’ve seen that slug line peculiarity turn up in classes from time to time, always accompanied by the explanation that since an agent asked for it, it must be standard.

      All of which brings me back to your original point, which is that a submitting writer should ALWAYS double-check guide listings, contest rules, and/or agency/publishing house websites to see if there are some local customs of which the traveler should be aware. Perhaps I should christen this Dave’s Corollary, so I remember to keep mentioning it.

      1. It was my intent to alert (and help you alert) those readers of this blog who might be newer at it than I am to such peculiarities and potentional pitfalls. Having just read your response to my initial comment, I believe I succeeded!

        My best wishes to you and all the Author! Author! readers for a GREAT 2008!

  5. In twenty-five years as a book editor, I’ve never once seen a manuscript chapter heading at the top of the page, and if I ever do, I’ll shoot the writer who did it before my typesetter shoots me.

    I’m sorry, but no matter what anyone told you, that’s WRONG. I know a bunch of editors and agents, and not a single one of them wants the chapter heading at the top of the page, and every last pro writer site I look at also says it shouldn’t be there.

    As an editor, I hate it. It means I’m going to have to move it before the typesetter gets the manuscript. And as a writer, every editor I’ve had has told me to place the chapter heading one third of the way down the page because that’s where typesetters expect to find it, and these things are placed where they are for typesetters, not for agents and editors.

    1. I don’t quite understand why this particular point should make you so angry, James, but suffice it to say that we must have been spending the past couple of decades speaking to different agents and editors, because I’ve never met one who has expressed the particular preference you cite. Contest judges, yes, and quite possibly ones of your generation (who might be expected to have been trained in the same practices as you), but not agents and not editors, and certainly not within the last decade.

      So I would be sincerely surprised to hear that any pro — whether editing at a publishing house or freelancing — had NEVER seen it before. But then, I guess I’m easily surprised, as it doesn’t make sense to me that a professional editor would be surfing my archives — or those of any other writing advice-giver on the web — looking for editing tips.

      Then, too, the vast majority of agents and editors I know would make the writer change any systemic problem like this, rather than doing it for him. Perhaps that renders them less likely to waste ammunition upon the authors who come their way.

      The fact is, though, I have never been asked to change it, nor have my editing clients, nor any of the published authors of my acquaintance…you get the picture. So if the part of the industry to whom you have been speaking harbors a very strong view on the subject, they seem to be keeping it to themselves. To the extent of expressing a preference for what I have been advising here, in fact.

      We will have to agree to disagree, I guess.

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