A topic that just can’t wait, or, I can’t believe that it’s been almost a year since I last went over this

Hello, campers –

Thanks to everyone who wrote in with good wishes after my last post — I’m feeling a touch better, thanks. I’m still coughing up a storm, but I couldn’t stand another minute of not filling you in on standard format. Because — and I can hardly believe this myself — it’s been ALMOST A YEAR since I last went over the rules point by point.

I know: time flies when you’re having fun, eh?

Admittedly, my nearest and dearest/medical practitioners/pretty much everyone sane to whom I have spoken about it have suggested that I might want to wait until my temperature normalizes a bit more before I get back to full-tilt blogging again. They are probably right. They also probably didn’t realize that having suggested this renders them prime candidates for being dictation victims indentured servants unpaid labor kind volunteers until my chipper fingers are up to speed again.

In order to render surrogate blogger duty as painless as possible, I’m going to be re-running some older posts on standard format with (I hope) italicized new comments interspersed. Today, I’m starting with a post that not only goes over the hows and whys of professional manuscript format, but does so in a context that illustrates why people like me professional readers tend to focus so very much on technical details when scanning the work of a new writer: evidently, our brains are wired differently than other people’s.

This is a really, really good thing to know BEFORE you submit to an agent or editor: 99.9% of the format isn’t right, it WILL distract any professional reader from even the most beautiful writing.

And that’s not merely a matter of being obsessive-compulsive (although truth compels me to say that in this line of work, OCD is hardly an occupational drawback) — as I shall be showing you later on in this series, to someone who reads manuscripts for a living, deviations from standard format might as well be printed in blood-red ink. Because all professional manuscripts are formatted identically, it’s INCREDIBLY obvious when one isn’t.

So while it may seem tedious, annoying, or just a whole lot of work to go through your submissions with the proverbial fine-toothed comb in order to weed out this kind of distraction.


Indeed, it’s so much assumed that s/he probably won’t even mention it, because most agents and editors believe that these rules are already part of every serious book-writer’s MO. So much so, in fact, that agents who’ve read my blog sometimes ask me why I go over these rules so often. Doesn’t everyone already know them? Isn’t this information already widely available?

I’ll leave you to answer those for yourselves. Suffice it to say that our old pal Millicent the agency screener believes the answers to be: because I like it, yes, and yes.

And please, those of you who have been through this material with me before: don’t just skip these posts, I beg of you. I see manuscripts all the time by experienced writers that contain standard format violations. Until a writer has worked closely with an editor or agent long enough for these rules to become second nature, it’s just too easy to let an exception or two slip by.

My patient dictation-taker du jour is scowling at me, so I’m going to let us get on with the show. Keep up the good work!

I’ve been typing WAY too much lately — not a particularly good idea, for someone who spent nearly two years of the late 1990s doctor-banned from a keyboard. (And trust me, voice-recognition programs at the time were not designed for first sopranos.) The first sign of overuse: lack of grip strength.

After first a water glass, then a teacup shattered on the floor, I betook myself to the safely unbreakable couch to curl up with the equally shatter-proof new Harry Potter for half a day. I’d been saving my copy until all the hype died down, so I could form an unfettered opinion, but I had made a point of paying full price for it, rather than getting it at Costco, because typically, the author’s royalty percentage is lower in a bulk market.

Call me zany, but even if an author can afford a different tiara for every day of the week (“Should I go with the emerald today? Or the star sapphire with ruby clusters?”), I believe it’s important to buy the works of living writers in order to create a world where — brace yourselves — there’s a market for the work of living writers.

I know in my heart of hearts that it’s wrong to give away a book’s big secret before people have had a chance to read it, but spoiler alert: apparently, no one, but no one, proofed the galleys for this book.

Where are all the commas that should inhabit Harry’s world? Did Voldemort wave a wand and spirit them all away? Did the Ministry of Magic legalize run-on sentences? Are sentences featuring colons the new black? Or does JK Rowling have enough money now to buy off the world’s English professors to the extent of changing the rule about the first word after those ubiquitous colons NOT being capitalized?

Naturally, this didn’t stop me from staying up all night to finish the book; she’s an amazing pacer and plotter. But it’s evil magic, indeed, when Scholastic teaches our children that there are four periods in an ellipse, rather than three.

Branded with the Dark Mark, indeed.

My editorial peevishness is well-timed, because yesterday, I threatened — no, make that promised — to revisit the rules of standard format for submissions. Because, you see, I am far from the only professional reader who takes umbrage (not Dolores Umbridge-style umbrage, but close), when manuscripts deviate from certain time-honored restrictions.

To put it bluntly, improperly-formatted manuscripts are often shoved into the reject pile on sight.

Which means that while, yes, this may well be most spectacularly unsexy topic of them all, and perhaps the single most necessary for any aspiring writer to know. At least for anyone who ever intends to submit a manuscript — a group that I have some reason to suspect includes one or two of you.

To begin with the basics: for those of you who do not already know. standard format for manuscripts is NOT the same as standard format for published books. I asked to make this sentence bold this time around, because I’m constantly meeting aspiring writers who are not aware of this fact. Heck, my dictation-taker du jour apparently was not aware of this fact until she read this paragraph.

Nor is it identical to what your word processor’s grammar checker will ask you to do – nor, heaven help us, business format. None of these will look correct to an agent or editor.

It is VERY much to your advantage to be aware of this salient fact.

Why? Well, Since standard manuscript format differs in a number of significant ways from ALL of the above, agency screeners, agents, editors, and contest judges tend to regard submissions formatted in any other way as either unpolished (if they’re feeling generous) or unprofessional (if they’re not). And unfortunately for writers unaware of the rules, a non-standard manuscript is child’s play to spot from the moment a professional reader lays eyes upon it.

Spoiler alert: being identified as not professionally formatted renders a submission FAR more likely to be rejected than any writing-related problem.

Why? Long-time readers, shout it with me now: agencies and publishing houses get so many submissions that a screener’s PRIMARY goal is to weed out the one he is reading at the moment. The faster he can do that, the better, to move through that mountain of paper on his desk.

By logical extension, the more professional your manuscript looks, the more likely it is to be read with interest by a screener in a hurry.

Period. And I don’t know about you, but I’m all for anything that helps a good writer’s work get taken more seriously, especially in the current super-tight submission environment, which is more rejection happy than I’ve ever seen it — and I’ve been listening to writers, agents, and editors complain about the state of the literary market since I was in my cradle.

A couple of disclaimers before I begin. I fully realize that many of the tiny-but-pervasive changes I am about to suggest that you make to your manuscript are going to be irksome to implement. Reformatting a manuscript is time-consuming and tedious – and I would be the first to admit that some of these rules are pretty absurd.

At least on their faces, that is. Speaking as someone who reads manuscripts for a living, I can let you in on a little secret: quite a few of these restrictions remain beloved of the industry even in the age of electronic submissions because they render a manuscript a heck of a lot easier to edit in hard copy — still the norm, incidentally. As I will show later in this series, a lot of these rules are designed to maximize white space in which the editor may scrawl trenchant comments like, “Wait, wasn’t the protagonist’s sister named Maeve in the last chapter? Why is she Belinda here?”

As I said above, this is one line of work where a touch of compulsiveness is a positive boon. Treat it with the respect it deserves.

As I believe I may have mentioned once or twice before, I do not run the universe, and thus do not make the rules. Sorry. No matter how much I would like to absolve you from some of them, it is outside my power.

Take it up with the fairy godmother who neglected to endow me with that gift at birth.

Also, every time I run a series of posts on standard format, I am inundated with comments pointing out that website X advises something different, that this agent said at a conference she doesn’t care what typeface you use, or that a certain manual said that standards have changed from the traditional guidelines I set out here.

I have no doubt that all of these comments are indeed pointing out legitimate differences in advice, but it is not my purpose here to police the net for standardization of advice. If you like guidelines you find elsewhere better, by all means follow them.

All I claim for these rules – and it is not an insubstantial claim – is that nothing I advise here will EVER strike an agent or editor as unprofessional. Adhering to them will mean that your writing is going to be judged on your writing, not your formatting.

And that, my friends, is nothing at which to sneeze. Or cough, although I seem to be managing it.

Here are the rules of standard format — and no, NONE of them are negotiable. Harry Houdini himself would have extreme difficulty sneaking a non-standard manuscript past an agency screener, even though he undoubtedly has the world’s best platform to write a book on extricating oneself from tight situations.

If that last quip didn’t make you groan, if not chuckle, it’s time to brush up on your agent-speak. On to the rules:

(1) All manuscripts should be printed or typed in black ink and double-spaced, with one-inch margins around all edges of the page, on 20-lb or better white paper.

No exceptions, unless someone in the industry (or a contest’s rules) SPECIFICALLY asks you to do otherwise.

No ecru paper, no off-white, no Dr. Seuss-type stripes. Yes, buff or parchment can look very nice, but there’s a strategic reason to use bright white paper: very sharp black-white contrast is strongly preferred by virtually every professional reader out there, probably as a legacy of having read so many dim photocopies over the course of their lifetimes.

The ONLY colored paper that should ever go anywhere near a manuscript is the single sheet that separates one copy of a submission or book proposal from the next, so it is easy for an agent to see where to break the stack. (But you don’t need to know about that until your agent asks you to send 15 copies of your book for submitting to editors. Put it out of your mind for now.)

And do spring for a new printer cartridge, and skip the trip to the copy center. Badly-photocopied work is almost never read. Actually, you’d be amazed (at least, I hope you would) at how poor the printing quality is on some submissions; it’s as though the author dunked in a swiftly-flowing river several times before popping it in the mail.

(2) All manuscripts should be printed on ONE side of the page and unbound in any way (again, unless you are specifically asked to do otherwise).

Yes, this IS criminally wasteful of paper, especially when you consider the literally millions of pages of submissions that go flying into the agencies and publishing houses every month. Most agencies do not even recycle; the vast majority of agencies did not even consider accepting e-mailed queries at all until the anthrax-in-envelopes scare. (I swear I’m not making that up.)

I assure you, if I ran the universe, paper conservation would be the norm, and recycling mandatory. Also, writers would all be granted an extra month a year in which to write, excellent and inexpensive child care while writing, a cedar-lined cabin on the shores of Lake Michigan in which to do it, and a pineapple upside-down cake on Kurt Vonnegut’s birthday. Perhaps some hard candies on Agatha Christie’s birthday as well, in affluent years, and dancing on Mme. de Staël’s.

But since the unhappy reality is that I do NOT run the universe (see disclaimer above), we shall all have to live with the status quo.

Which is to say: the publishing industry is one vast paper-wasting enterprise. Sorry.

You’d be surprised at how often writers violate the thou-shalt-not-bind rule, including paper clips, rubber bands, or even binders with their submissions. Since agents always circulate manuscripts without any sort of binding, these doohickies just scream, “I’m unfamiliar with the industry.” SASE, here we come.

The ONLY exception to this rule is a nonfiction book proposal — not the manuscript, just the proposal — which is typically presented UNBOUND in a black folder, the kind with horizontal pockets. (For tips on how a book proposal should be presented, please see the aptly-titled BOOK PROPOSALS category on the list at right.)

To forestall the comment beloved reader Dave usually posts when I bring this up, if you wish to make double-sided, 3-hole-punched, be-bindered drafts for circulating to your first readers for ease of toting around, be my guest. But NEVER submit in that manner to a professional reader.

I’m serious about this. Don’t make me crawl out of this bed to stop you.

(3) The text should be left-justified, NOT block-justified, as published books, e-mails, business letters, and online writing tend to be.

Yes, books feature text that runs in straight vertical lines along both side margins, and yes, your word processing program can replicate that practically effortlessly, if you ask it nicely to do so.

But don’t: the straight margin should be the left one; the right should be ragged, as if you had produced the manuscript on a typewriter.

Many writers find this one nearly impossible to accept, because it is one of the most visually obvious ways in which a professional manuscript differs from a printed book. They believe, wrongly, that anything that makes their submission look more like what’s on the shelves at Barnes & Noble is inherently professional.

Trust me, quite the opposite is true.

And NEVER format a query or cover letter to someone in the industry in business format: indent those paragraphs. More on that later in this series.

(4) The preferred typefaces are 12-point Times, Times New Roman, Courier, or Courier New.

Personally, I would never dream of allowing a client of mine to submit a manuscript in anything but Times New Roman, nor would I ever submit any of my work in anything else. It is the standard typeface of the industry.

It’s one of the bizarre facts of publishing life that manuscripts in these fonts tend to be taken far more seriously, and with good reason: these are the typefaces upon which the most commonly-used word count estimations are based. (Psst: if you don’t know why you should be estimating the length of your manuscript rather than using actual word count, please see the WORD COUNT category at right.)

There are advocates of Courier, too, so you may use it, but I implore you, do not get any wackier than that. If you write screenplays, you may ONLY use Courier. Most screenplay agents will not read even the first page of a script in another typeface — which means that most contest judges will follow suit.

There are a few agents out there who have their own font preferences, so do check their websites and/or listings in the standard agency guides. As ever, the golden rule of dealing with an agent you want to represent you is GIVE ‘EM PRECISELY WHAT THEY ASK TO SEE, not what you would like them to see.

If you are a writer who likes to have different voices presented in different typefaces, or who chooses boldface for emphasis, a submission is not a forum where you can express those preferences freely. Yes, one sees this in a published book occasionally, but I assure you, the choice to indulge in these formatting differences was the editor’s, not the author’s.

Sorry. (See my earlier disclaimer about proprietorship of the universe.)

To forestall the usual question someone brings up at this point: yes, most published books ARE in typefaces other than Times or Courier, but at the risk of repeating myself, MANUSCRIPTS AND PUBLISHED BOOKS AREN’T SUPPOSED TO LOOK THE SAME. Typeface decisions for published books are made by the publishing house, not the author.

Although if you’re very nice, they may listen to your suggestions. They might giggle a little, but they might listen. Ditto with the cover and the title, which are — brace yourselves — almost never under the author’s control.

Why? Good question — because these are considered matters of packaging and marketing, not content.

All of which begs the question, of course: why do they give us so many typefaces from which to choose, if we’re not supposed to use them? Answer: because the people who make word processing programs are not the same people who decide what books get published in North America. Which is why, in case you’re wondering, what Microsoft Word means by word count and what the average agent or editor does are not typically the same thing.

All right, I’ve run very long indeed today, so I’m going to stop here for the nonce. More rules follow tomorrow or whenever I can next blandish someone to take my dictation. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

8 Replies to “A topic that just can’t wait, or, I can’t believe that it’s been almost a year since I last went over this”

  1. We’re not supposed to query in business format? Could that be why I’ve never had a request for more pages?
    That topic interests me. Please tell us more when you get the chance.

    For those of you worried about wasting paper, I suggest making sure you buy American. Doing so will (I’ve been told) almost ensure the chance that the trees used were grown on a farm specifically for that purpose, and that more trees will be planted to fill the demand.

    Buying foreign paper increases the risk that your manuscript will be printed on the rain forest.

  2. That’s good to know about the paper, Jake. Writers can also cut down on paper usage by printing subsequent drafts (for revision purposes, not for submission, of course) on the back sides of returned manuscripts.

    I will definitely talk soon about the business format issue, but in the meantime, everyone: PLEASE query in old-fashioned letter format (unless you’re querying via e-mail, where business format is more or less unavoidable)/ It’s not an automatic rejection reason, most of the time, but since it is definitely considered less-than-literate in the industry, it often does result in a query’s being taken less seriously.

    I’m making a note to include both a DO and a DON’T visual example when I go over queries anon — thanks for reminding me

  3. Anne, it’s good to “hear” your voice again. But don’t overdo it, young lady. (shakes finger)

    Just a quick question: we’re not to bold face any type. What about italics?

    1. Italics are covered in my next post, Kathy — but you’re probably right that it would have made more sense to deal with them in the same post as boldface.

  4. Punctuation is more casual in British English. I know this makes no sense whatsoever but apparently it’s true. Which makes me wonder whether the New Yorker’s review of Eats, Shoots, and Leaves was quite so deservedly vicious. I agreed with it 100%, of course.

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