What does standard format look like, anyway? Part VI: yet another great cosmic mystery explained, sort of

Hello, campers –

Well, I’m feeling a little better today, you’ll be happy to hear (or at least I hope you will be), enough so to spend half an hour reading my local newspaper. And what should I see but that Arleen Williams, memoirist and long-time reader of this blog, is going to be reading at Third Place Books in Lake Forest Park, WA tonight at 7 pm!

What a treat. I think I’m going to try to make this my first evening out in weeks. I know that it’s short notice, but if you happen to be in the area, why not join me there?

For those of you who missed my gushing about The Thirty-Ninth Vicitim when it came out last spring, I can do no better than to quote my Amazon review (not a place I post reviews very often):

Oh, my, what a disturbing memoir this is. Not solely because of the murder of the author’s sister by the infamous Green River Killer — which would be plenty creepy enough for any true crime book, or even murder mystery — but because Arleen Williams presents us with an achingly honest look at absence, longing, and denial within a family waiting years for what the media dismissively calls closure.

What struck me most about this story is that, unlike so many books about particularly horrific crimes, the victim here comes alive on the page. Not as yet another in an almost unimaginably long list of murdered women (so long, in fact, that it sparked the nationwide Take Back the Night rallies) or as merely an object to be acted upon with violence, but as a vibrant light abruptly, inconceivably snuffed. And as part of a family so deeply attached to its own self-image as normal that not even a daughter’s disappearance is allowed to disrupt it.

Powerful stuff. Chilling. (And yes, for you fans of close-up crime recreations, there was one scene that I’m quite positive is going to give me nightmares for years to come.)

In light of my upcoming unwonted (lately, at least) energy expenditure, I’m going to conserve my resources and post today’s re-run as much as is as I can. Enjoy!

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 FreeFoto.com), 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 see 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 — ugh — 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. As a professional writer and reader of manuscripts, it drives me NUTS that my blogging program won’t allow me to indent paragraphs.

Why? Because it just doesn’t look right. So much so that 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.

Take a moment for the implications of that to sink in fully. Don’t worry; I’ll wait.

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 I’ll run over the thumbnail version now.

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 trickedwrong about the identity of the protagonist is 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 possibly 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!

5 Replies to “What does standard format look like, anyway? Part VI: yet another great cosmic mystery explained, sort of”

  1. Hi Anne,
    Today I’m just wondering…
    In reading the samples you posted, wouldn’t Millicent have a problem reading those huge long paragraphs? Might it not be better to break them up, if possible, become more reader friendly?
    Also, in your post of Aug. 7th you had samples of first pages of chapters. I’ve read many times that the first page of any chapter should begin about one third of the way down. True, or no?
    As I said, I’m wondering. (and being a pest)

    1. You’re not being a pest at all, Lilly — I like good questions.

      And your question about paragraph length is an intriguing one, because Millicent’s response is likely to depend almost entirely on the book category. Some kinds of books feature longer paragraphs than others.

      But you’re quite right that in most fiction genres, paragraphs are tending to be shorter these days. These examples are, after all, from decades and decades ago, when longer paragraphs were almost uniformly fashionable.

      However, I wouldn’t state as a rule that shorter paragraphs are inherently more readable; paragraph breaks are about flow, content, and emphasis, so as I said, it really depends upon the type of book. I can easily see why the length struck you here, though, because short paragraphs work MUCH better for on-screen reading.

      Thus my frequent use here of single-line paragraphs, which ought to be used fairly sparingly in prose intended for hard copy reading.

      Yes, the first page of each chapter should begin a third of the way down the page — these examples are merely intended to show an average page of text, not the beginning of a chapter. I’ll be more specific in the rest of my posts on the subject.

  2. Anne – I LOVE First Place Books — spent hours and hours there when I lived in my beloved cool and green Seattle, rather than this god-forsaken, prickly hot, choking-with-dust, winter-can’t-come-soon-enough desert. I’m glad to hear you’re well enough to venture out.

    That said, would you also comment on the use of indented paragraphs in query and/or cover letters, as opposed to using business format? I was asked by an agent to produce a marketing plan (for fiction, believe it or not), of which format clearly calls for single-spaced business style. Should I consult Shakespeare with the question of whether to indent, or not to indent? That’s my question.

    Thanks, your ever-so-jealous, have a wonderful evening,


    1. I’m going to be tackling query letters next week, Auburn, never fear! Sharp-eyed reader Jake had already put in a request that I deal with the business format issue the next time I wrote about ‘em, so I’m on it.

      I’ve never seen a book marketing plan that’s been either single-spaced or in business format, Auburn, so I’m not quite sure how to answer the latter part of your question. My agent circulates business plans with my fiction now, and they’re in standard format.

      Did the agent give you specific style guidelines? Or is it possible that you’re using guidelines from another field? Formats vary substantially between types of business, you know.

  3. Dear Anne,
    Thank you for your plug for the Third Place reading. And thanks for coming! What a wonderful surprise! I’m glad you’re feeling a bit better.

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