When what you see ISN’T what you get


Hey, guess what I realized during my couple of days off? You know how I’ve been yammering for weeks — nay, years — about the advisability of reading every syllable of a contest entry or submission IN HARD COPY and OUT LOUD to catch various textual problems that would be extremely difficult to spot on a computer screen?

(Don’t tell me that you have a screen the size of Montana, so this axiom does not apply to you: I could bed down a litter of puppies very happily on my monitor, and I STILL read everything in hard copy before a stamp gets anywhere near it. So there.)

Well, after all that hypnotic advice-repetition, I sat down with a prospective client’s manuscript the other day — and saw instantly that I had over the last two and a half years neglected to mention the single most important reason to scan your work in hard copy, rather than trusting that what appears on the screen is going to be what the page will look like.

Stand back, please. This is so important that it deserves a paragraph of its own:

Because that way, you notice when your word processing program has lied to you about something as fundamental as whether your bottom margin is at least an inch, or whether page 62 is one-and-a-half spaced when you thought the entire document was double-spaced.

The shock of this particular electronic betrayal is probably more familiar to those of you who have a long history of Word for the PC than those who either work on a Mac or favor WordPerfect. That’s no reflection upon the computer-savvy of the average PC user, either: until the makers of Word self-consciously tried to make the PC and Mac versions similar, to ease the transition between them for users, the PC version was not designed to be WYSIWYG.

No, I didn’t suddenly start speaking Urdu: it’s a legitimate acronym. Living in Seattle, in the environs and long political shadow of Microsoft, even the common folk speak this mystic word, programmer-speak for What You See Is What You Get.

As in how a document appears on the computer screen being a reliable guide to what will appear on the printed page.

I’ve always rather liked the term WYSIWYG (pronounced whizzy-wig, in case you’re curious), not only because it’s a downright useful trait for a word processing program to have, but because it reminds me of the catchphrase of one of my favorite TV characters from my toddlerhood, the brazenly marvelous Geraldine on the late lamented Flip Wilson’s variety show.

Hands up, everyone who remembers her. Oh, she was a wonder to behold: perfect hair, perfect outfits, moving through life with verve and grace, so sure of herself in the face of (constant) opposition that when she drew a line in the sand, the waves would be afraid to wash it away.

Not ringing a bell? Would it help jog your memory if I mentioned that she was played by a man, by the great Mssr. Wilson himself, in fact?

This last fact renders Geraldine a trifle hard to explain to those who were never lucky enough to experience her directly — and, as with that pink brontosaurus I was convinced lived in my back yard when I was a tot, I have occasionally found myself wondering in the intervening decades if she wasn’t a figment of my preschool imagination. In retrospect, how was it even possible that an African-American drag queen (whose never-seen boyfriend was named Killer, no less) was accepted on network television in the early 70s — on the second most popular show of 1972, believe it or not — and still less likely, was genuinely funny?

Her secret was, I suspect, that Geraldine honestly believed that she was, as they say, all that and a bag of chips. Several bags of chips, in fact. But what elevated her beyond a stereotype is that she didn’t question her self-worth, ever. She also absolutely demanded that everyone she met treat her with respect — unusual enough behavior at the time (or now, for that matter) that hilarity generally ensued.

Her self-confidence was so immense that when she triumphed (as she invariably did), she would engage in a movement that we would all later see echoed in Nelson Mandela’s fall-of-apartheid victory jig and announce to anyone who happened to be listening, “What you see is what you get!”

You had to be there, I guess. (And isn’t THAT a beautiful illustration of why references to long-gone pop icons tend not to work in print?)

But I digress. We were talking about word processing programs, weren’t we?

Macs have from their inception been WYSIWYG, which has historically made it easier for those of us who use them to adhere to standard format. And WordPerfect has tended to make it clearer to its users what was and was not WYSIWYG. The result is that there’s just less guesswork involved in the transition from document to page.

PCs, however, are not really designed to be WYSIWYG, so unless a user is unusually committed to checking the Print Preview option for every single page, there can be surprises at printing time. If the user happens to be a writer frantically trying to get requested materials out the door, or to meet a deadline, or to get a contest entry postmarked on time, these surprises often go overlooked.

Now you might expect, if you happened to be aware that most US-based agencies and publishing houses have used some version of Word for the PC for years, and, like the rest of us, usually don’t have in-house tech support to walk them through its mysteries, that your garden-variety agency screener and editorial assistant might be somewhat sympathetic to the resulting problems on the printed page.

An innocent soul might, for instance, assume that they would look at a fluke such as a line of text’s abruptly having decided to be in 11-point type as the kind of insignificant glitch that might happen to anyone. Don’t give it another thought; it can easily be fixed before the book goes to print.

Yet, amazingly, that is not the most common response. What is, you ask? Some stripe of, “Oh, darn, this writer didn’t bother to proofread.”

Give or take an adjective or two that an awareness that underage writers do frequent this site prevents me from sharing.

Literally the only way to catch problems on the printed page that did not turn up on the computer screen is to read the ENTIRE thing in hard copy. (If only someone would nag writers about doing that, eh?)

And I do mean EVERY page; it’s not all that unusual for a glitch to occur mid-manuscript. Or for a printer (or photocopier) to misprint a page, skip it, or add a blank piece of paper for the heck of it.

Yes, it’s annoying to have to do, but not doing it implies a faith — not always justified — that just because a machine is designed to perform a function that it will always perform it correctly.

Or that it will understand that when you told it to place the entire manuscript in 12-point Times New Roman, you actually meant it AND expected that order to apply to the slug line, too.

But let’s be honest here, long-time computer users: has it really been your experience that they always function perfectly? Or that when you first figure out how to use a function — like, say, inserting pagination and a slug line in the header of a document — the results are always what you expected, given what turned up on the screen.

And who would you rather have discover that an experiment in formatting went awry, Millicent or yourself?

Hint: which of you is more likely to forgive a worthy writer an inadvertent mistake, and which of you sees so many manuscripts in any given workday that even the smallest deviation from standard format leaps off the page as if a bobcat were chasing it?

There’s a moral to be derived from all of this, of course: any writer who plans on submitting her work for professional scrutiny needs to be aware of precisely which functions in her word processing program are and are not WYSIWYG. And guess how most of us end up figuring it out?

Uh-huh. In hard copy. Preferably out loud.

I think you can extrapolate a larger principle here, too: what you see is what you get is not at all a bad motto for any submitting writer to embrace. If it’s NOT on the page — be it necessary punctuation, gorgeous verbiage, or character development thought through but never actually worked into the manuscript — it just doesn’t count, from a professional reader’s point of view.

All too often, submitters to agencies, publishing houses, and contests seem to forget this salient fact, or perhaps have never been aware of it. Their pages — in odd typefaces, with non-indented paragraphs, opened with large blocks of italicized text or epigraphs that most Millicents will simply skip — seem to cry out: read me with a generous eye. Don’t pay attention to the typos here; you can always correct them later. Concentrate instead upon the story I’m telling, the way I use words, the talent that’s lurking under the surface of a pond clouded by handfuls or even bucketfuls of technical problems.

I’m here to tell you: this is not a situation where it pays to rely upon the kindness of strangers.

I know that it seems unfair, but a new writer’s work is judged on its appearance — and virtually never read charitably by the pros. To get the kind of respectful, I’m-ready-to-be-wowed reading that all of us long for our work to receive, a manuscript needs to be impeccably put together, just like Geraldine.

Its hair needs to be perfectly coiffed, its nails done, its wardrobe, if not currently in fashion, at least tailored so that those who appreciate trendiness can see that it is stylish — and all of that talent displayed in a way that showcases it. Not just on the screen, but on the printed page as well.

That, my friends, is a manuscript that demands respect.

If you can scan your manuscript or contest submission from top to toe and say with Geraldine-like confidence, “What you see is what you get — my unique voice and my best writing,” you will not necessarily win over every professional reader, naturally — but your submission will have a fighting chance to be judged on its literary merits, not on its word processor’s technical flukes.

Incidentally, remember that pink brontosaurus I had imagined living in my back yard in the days when I spent a lot of time in the sandbox under its massive noggin? A few years ago, going through some family photos, I found a picture of it. A sculptor friend of my parents’ stored it at our house until the children’s zoo for which he had created it was ready for it to be installed near the slide.

Sometimes, what you see really is what you get. Keep up the good work!

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