Standard format, part III: RIP, Aleksandr Isaevich.

Hello, campers –

Yes, I’m still dictating my posts — or, to be precise, my commentaries on my posts — and my poor, loyal volunteer typist du jour has been listening to me complain about the press coverage of Nobel laureate Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s recent death. My primary criticism: if you weren’t already familiar with his work, I don’t think most of the obituaries out there would give you much incentive to start reading him. Which honestly is a shame; he was an intriguing writer.

Think I’m over-reacting? Okay, here’s a test: read, watch, or listen to any of the standard obits out today, and tell me if they give you enough information to answer the truly basic question Did this man write fiction or nonfiction?

Actually, this issue has dogged his work since THE GULAG ARCHIPELAGO first came out: it’s a novel, clearly billed as such, yet reviewers, readers, and even academic Sovietologists have a fascinating tendency to respond to the book as if it were a memoir.

Fascinating, considering how much ACTUAL nonfiction he published on the subject.

Think I’m over-reacting again? Check out all of those obituaries that simply describe this truly remarkable book as the story of Solzhenitsyn’s struggle to stay alive during his eight years in a prison camp. Which it is based upon, of course — but if memory serves, a heck of a lot of the novel follows other characters, often on the other side of a rather large country.

So how are we to account for all of those academic articles and books that cite THE GULAG ARCHIPELAGO as the NONFICTION source of, say, private conversations between Stalin and his cronies, chats that historically took place (if they took place) when the author was by all accounts firmly locked up over a thousand miles away?

As both a memoirist and a novelist, it fascinates me how frequently readers seem to want to believe that books written as fiction are in fact true stories and books written as memoir are false — a desire that historically dates back practically to the advent of the novel as an art form. Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, for instance, was ROUTINELY asked after the publication of FRANKENSTEIN whether her late husband and Lord Byron REALLY raised a corpse from the dead, and one has only to look at the current hyper-critical memoir market to see the great suspicion with which real-life accounts are treated in the post-A MILLION LITTLE PIECES world.

How much of Solzhenitsyn’s novels were autobiographical? Only he can answer that, of course, and now, he’s probably past caring much about his press. But now that we can’t ask him directly, shouldn’t we respect the labels that he placed upon his own work, rather than simply overruling him now that he’s not around to defend his choices?

Enough social criticism. Back to practicalities.

I’ve been revisiting the strictures of standard format for manuscripts, and like many visits from old cronies from childhood, it’s been going on BIT too long. Oh, yes, I said childhood: picture me as a ten-year-old, saying, “But WHY do I have to type my book report when no one else does? And who cares if the margins are precisely 1-inch?” Or as a junior high schooler, shaking my head over a short story upon which my teacher had simply written “Good!” but whose margins were now filled with professional advice from kith and kin how to render it publishable in The New Yorker.

Years of therapy, of course, but I do I ever know how to format a manuscript!

Because I love you people, I’m not going to share just how young I was when my father started urging me to read THE GULAG ARCHIPELAGO. Years of therapy, indeed.

After a while, the impulse to conform to the rules of standard format becomes second nature, you’ll be happy to hear, a learned instinct quite useful once one begins writing on deadline. To a writer for whom proper formatting has become second nature, there is no last-minute scramble to change the text. It came into the world correct – which, in turn, saves time.

Believe me, there will be times in your career when you don’t have the time to proofread as closely as you would like, when that half an hour it would take to reformat is the difference between making and missing your deadline. The more successful you are as a writer – ANY kind of writer — the more often you will be in a hurry, generally speaking. No one has more last-minute deadlines than a writer with a book contract.

The down side, though, is that once people — like, say, the average agent, editor, or Millicent — have spent enough time staring at professionally-formatted manuscripts, anything else starts to look, well, unprofessional. From that view, it’s a short hop to the industry’s pervasive belief that heck, every writer knows that printed books and manuscripts are supposed to look different.

Although how an aspiring writer who reads a lot but has never seen a professional manuscript is supposed to find that out, I do not know.

So back to the rules. To recap from the last two days:

(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.

(2) All manuscripts should be printed on ONE side of the page and unbound in any way.

(3) The text should be left-justified, NOT block-justified. By definition, manuscripts should NOT resemble published books in this respect.

(4) The preferred typefaces are 12-point Times, Times New Roman, Courier, or Courier New — unless you’re writing screenplays, in which case you may only use Courier.

(5) No matter how cool your desired typeface looks, or how great the title page looks with 14-point type, keep the ENTIRE manuscript in the same font and size.

(6) Do NOT use boldface anywhere in the manuscript BUT on the title page — and not even there, necessarily.

(7) EVERY page in the manuscript should be numbered EXCEPT the title page.

(8) Each page of the manuscript (other than the title page) should have a standard slug line in the header. The page number should appear in the slug line, not anywhere else on the page.

(9) The first page of each chapter should begin a third of the way down the page, with the chapter title appearing on the FIRST line of the page, NOT on the line immediately above where the text begins.

(10) Contact information for the author belongs on the title page, NOT on page 1.

(11) Every submission should include a title page, even partial manuscripts.

Everyone clear on all that? Good. Let’s move on.

(12) The beginning of EVERY paragraph should be indented five spaces. No exceptions, EVER.

To put it another way: NOTHING you send to anyone in the industry should EVER be in block-style business format. I hate to be the one to break it to you, but if you have been submitting manuscripts with block-formatted paragraphs, they probably have been being rejected unread.

I know: maddening. I also know that I mentioned this in passing a couple of days ago, so I suspect that you’re not entirely shocked by this development. Here’s a bit more explanation of this odd phenomenon.

To publishing types, any document with no indentations, skipping a line between paragraphs, and the whole shebang left-justified carries the stigma of (ugh) business correspondence — and that’s definitely not good. Despite the fact that everyone from CEOs to the proverbial little old lady from Pasadena have been known to use block format from time to time(and blogs are set up to use nothing else), technically, non-indented paragraphs are not proper for English prose.

Do you really want the person you’re trying to impress with your literary genius to wonder about your literacy? I thought not.

And which do you think is going to strike format-minded industry professionals as more literate, a query letter in business format or one in correspondence format (indented paragraphs, date and signature halfway across the page, no skipped line between paragraphs)?

Uh-huh. And don’t you wish that someone had told you THAT before you sent out your first query letter?

Trust me on this one: indent your paragraphs in any document that’s ever going to pass under the nose of anyone even remotely affiliated with the publishing industry.

Including the first paragraph of every chapter. Yes, published books — particularly mysteries, I notice — often begin chapters and sections without indentation. But again, that lack of indentation was the editor’s choice, not the author’s, and copying it in a submission, no matter to whom it is intended as an homage, might get your work knocked out of consideration.

(13) Don’t skip an extra line between paragraphs, except to indicate a section break.

The ONLY exception: you may skip an extra line to indicate a section break in the text. The * * * section break is more or less obsolete; no one will fault you for using it, but still, it’s no longer necessary in a submission to an agency or publishing house. (But do check contest rules carefully, because many competitions still require them.)

Really, this rule is just common sense — so it’s a continual surprise to professional readers how often we see manuscripts that are single-spaced with a line skipped between paragraphs (much like blog format, seen here).

Why surprising? Well, since the entire manuscript should be double-spaced with indented paragraphs, there is no need to skip a line to indicate a paragraph break. (Which is, in case you were not aware of it, what a skipped line between paragraph means in a single-spaced or non-indented document.) In a double-spaced document, a skipped line means a section break, period.

Also — and this is far from insignificant, from a professional reader’s point of view — it’s COMPLETELY impossible to edit a single-spaced document, either in hard copy or on screen. The eye skips between lines too easily, and in hard copy, there’s nowhere to scrawl comments like Mr. Dickens, was it the best of times or was it the worst of times? It could hardly have been both!

So why do aspiring writers so often blithely send off manuscripts with skipped lines, single-spaced or otherwise? My guess would be for one of two reasons: either they think business format is proper English formatting (which it isn’t) or they’re used to seeing skipped lines in print. Magazine articles, mostly.

But — feel free to shout it along with me now; you know the words — A MANUSCRIPT SHOULD NOT RESEMBLE A PUBLISHED PIECE OF WRITING.

(14) NOTHING in a manuscript should be underlined. Titles of songs and publications, as well as words in foreign languages and those you wish to emphasize, should be italicized.

Fair warning: if you consult an old style manual (or a website that is relying upon an old style manual), you may be urged to underline these words. And just so you know, anyone who follows AP style will tell you to underline these. DO NOT LISTEN TO THESE TEMPTERS: AP style is for journalism, not book publishing. They are different fields, and have different standards.

Again, DO NOT BE TEMPTED. In a submission for the book industry, NOTHING should be underlined.

Professional readers are AMAZED at how often otherwise perfectly-formatted manuscripts get this backwards — seriously, we’ve been known to sit around and talk about it at the bar that’s never more than 100 years from any writers’ conference in North America. An aspiring writer would have to be consulting a very, very outdated list of formatting restrictions to believe that underlining is ever acceptable.

At this point in submission history, it just isn’t for book submissions. Since your future agent is going to make you change all of that underlining to italics anyway, you might as well get out of the habit of underlining now.

Italics are one of the few concessions manuscript format has made to the computer age – again, for practical reasons: underlining uses more ink than italics in the book production process. Thus, italics are cheaper.

The logic behind italicizing foreign words is very straightforward: you don’t want the agent of your dreams to think you’ve made a typo, do you?

Some authors like to use italics to indicate thought, and others for emphasis. There is no hard-and-fast rule on this, but do be aware that many agents and editors dislike this practice. (Their logic: a good writer should be able to make it clear that a character is thinking something, or indicate inflection, without resorting to funny type.)

However, there are many other agents and editors who think it is perfectly fine – but you are unlikely to learn which is which until after you have sent in your manuscript, alas. You submit your work, you take your chances.

There is no fail-safe for this choice. Sorry.

(15) All numbers (except for dates) under 100 should be written out in full: twenty-five, not 25. But numbers over 100 should be written as numbers: 1,243, not one thousand, two hundred and forty-three.

I’m surprised how often otherwise industry-savvy writers are unaware of this one, but the instinct to correct it in a submission is universal in professional readers.

Translation: not doing it will not help you win friends and influence people at agencies and publishing houses.

Like pointing out foreign-language words with special formatting, this formatting rule was originally for the benefit of the manual typesetters. When numbers are entered as numbers, a single slip of a finger can result in an error, whereas when numbers are written out, the error has to be in the inputer’s mind.

Again, be warned, those of you who have been taught by teachers who adhere in the AP style: they will tell you to write out only numbers under 10.

Yes, this is true for newspaper articles, where space is at a premium, but it is WRONG, WRONG, WRONG in a manuscript.

Did I mention it was wrong? And that my aged eyes have actually seen contest entries knocked out of finalist consideration over this particular issue? More than once?

(16) Dashes should be doubled — rather than using an emdash — with a space at either end. Hyphens are single and are not given extra spaces at either end, as in self-congratulatory.

Yes, I know: your word-processing program probably changes this automatically, but change it back. Any agent would make you do this before agreeing to submit your manuscript to an editor, so you might as well get into this salutary habit as soon as possible.

Microsoft may actually have a point here: doubling the dashes is a monumental pain (thanks in large part to their auto formatter’s preferences), and the practice IS archaic. Books no longer preserve these spaces, for reasons of printing economy; many writing teachers tell their students just to go ahead and eliminate them. An AP-trained teacher will tell you to use the longer emdash, as will the Chicago Manual of Style.

In this, however, they are wrong, at least as far as manuscripts are concerned. Standard format is invariable upon this point. And yes, it is a common enough pet peeve that the pros will complain to one another about how often submitters do it.

And heck, MS Word’s grammar checker has more than once told me to replace the correct form of there, their, or they’re with an incorrect one, and it won’t commit to whether to capitalize the first word after a colon (as journalists now do) or not (as book writers do, with the notable exception of JK Rowling).

So who are you gonna believe, me or Bill Gates?

(17) Adhere to the standard rules of punctuation, not what it being done in newspapers, magazines, books, or on the Internet. Especially the rule calling for TWO spaces after every period and colon.

In other words, do as Strunk & White say, not what others do.

I haven’t mentioned this one before, but in recent months, I’ve seen enough deviations from standard punctuation (I’m looking at YOU, JKR!) to believe this rule deserves inclusion on the list.

The primary deviation I’ve been seeing in the last couple of years is leaving only one space, rather than the standard two, after a period. Yes, printed books often do this, to save paper (the fewer the spaces on a page, the more words can be crammed onto it, right?). A number of writing-advice websites, I notice, and even some writing teachers have been telling people that this is the wave of the future — and that adhering to the two-space norm makes a manuscript look obsolete.

At the risk of sounding harsh (and, apparently, contradicting Miss Snark), poppycock.

There is a very, very practical reason to preserve that extra space after each sentence: ease of reading and thus editing. As anyone who has ever edited a long piece of writing can tell you, the white space on the page is where the comments — grammatical changes, pointing out flow problems, asking, “Does the brother really need to die here?” — go. Less white space, less room to comment.

Translation: until everyone in the industry makes the transition editing in soft copy — which is, as I have noted before, both harder and less efficient — the two-space rule is highly unlikely to change.

There you have it: the rules. Practice them until they are imbedded into your very bones, my friends: literally every page of text you submit to an agent, editor, or literary contest (yes, including the synopsis) for the rest of your professional life should be in standard format.

Oh, and it’s a good idea to make sure everything is spelled correctly, too, and turn off the widow/orphan control; it makes pages be an uneven number of lines. Keep up the good work!

PS: if you’re having trouble visualizing how some of these rules might look on the printed page, don’t worry — I’m going to be giving you visual aids in my next few posts.

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