Those of you who gasped as soon as you saw the title, “Oh, heavens above, can it really be time to go over standard format for manuscripts AGAIN?” give yourselves a gold star for the day. Heck, go ahead and give yourself two or even three, because an aspiring writer who knows, accepts, and embraces the following unpleasant truths enjoys a considerable competitive advantage in submission:
(a) that there exists a standard format for manuscripts to which US-based agents and editors expect submissions to adhere, regardless of whether those manuscripts are produced by seasoned pros with many book sales under their belts or those brand-new to the biz, and thus
(b) using fancy typefaces, including cover artwork, printing manuscript pages on colored paper, and/or any other deviations from standard format in one’s submission will NOT be regarded as interesting expressions of the author’s individual point of view, but rather as evidence that the author doesn’t know about (a). As a result,
(c) manuscripts submitted in standard format tend to be treated with SUBSTANTIALLY more respect by agency screeners, editorial assistants, contest judges, and pretty much everyone who happens to read unpublished prose for a living. Despite this fact,
(d) one does occasionally hear agents and editors ask for deviations from standard format; one should definitely give them precisely what they ask to see. However, it’s never advisable to generalize what one individual says s/he wants into a brand-new trend sweeping the industry. Nor is it a good idea to ape the formatting choices one sees in a published book, because
(e) professionally-formatted manuscripts do not resemble published books in many important respects, and for many excellent, practical reasons. That being the case, those who screen manuscripts for a living tend to draw unfavorable conclusions about submissions that do aspire to book formatting, much as they do when aspiring writers are not aware that
(f) standard format for book-length manuscripts is NOT business format, either, and just using what you learned about short stories won’t do, either. Nor is it necessarily identical to what your word processor’s grammar checker will ask you to do, or even the AP style one sees in newspapers and magazines. None of these will look correct to an agent or editor who deals with book manuscripts, because the norms there are very specific. This may seem nit-picky and irrelevant to the quality of the writing in question, but think about it:
(g) if a host asks you to a formal dinner, it’s only polite to wear formal attire; a guest who shows up in flip-flops and a Hawaiian shirt is going to stand out like the proverbial sore thumb. (See point b.) Similarly, when placed side-by-side with professional manuscripts, as a successful submission inevitably will, a wackily put-together manuscript will stand out as unprofessional, a phenomenon that all too often leads to
(h) the average manuscript submission gets rejected on page 1. Not always because it deviates from standard format — although the vast majority of submissions do — but because an unprofessionally-formatted manuscript already has one strike against it, and who needs that? Ultimately,
(i) it’s just not worth your while to try to fudge your way out of these standards, since the price of a submission’s annoying a professional reader can be so hight. And as I mentioned in yesterday’s post, no matter how many times my readers, students, and editing clients ask me if agents, editors, and contest judges are REALLY serious about them, I’m not going to give you permission to ignore any single one of the standard format strictures. No way. Stop asking, already.
Why does knowing all this — and, more importantly, acting upon this knowledge — translate into higher acceptance rates, typically? Well, the aspiring writer who acts upon this information conscientiously is probably producing submissions within the top 5% of what crosses Millicent the agency screener’s desk on any given day.
Yes, really. So if any of the information on the list above came as a surprise to you in any way, it’s incredibly important that you should join me on a walk through the intricacies of standard format.
It’s the rest of you, the ones who have been hanging around Author! Author! long enough to have survived my previous jaunts through the rigors of standard format, who have the right to inquire why I am running through it again right now. “Hey, wait a minute,” these sterling souls protest. “Weren’t you writing about all this at the beginning of August? And haven’t you been promising months of discussion of craft for quite some time now?
“And is the photograph above a representation of snooty people scowling at me, or is that just a bunch of wet sand onto which I am projecting my paranoid fantasies?”
Legitimate questions, all. But listen: Thanksgiving (that’s next Thursday, for those of you reading this outside the United States) traditionally marks the beginning of the annual publishing world slow-down. With so many different religions and cultures cramming so many different holidays into the next month and a half, it’s genuinely hard to get an entire editorial committee into a room long enough to consider acquiring a book. Desks are piled high with the unread manuscripts from the previous year.
Besides, everyone has shopping to do.
The result: turn-around times for submissions and queries typically slow to a crawl between Thanksgiving and the New Year. And as I BELIEVE I have mentioned once or twice (or eighty or ninety) times before, half the writers of the English-speaking world seem to make a New Year’s resolution to get that raft of queries in the mail or get that long tinkered-with manuscript out the door to the agent who requested it last summer, turn-around times don’t really start to speed up again until after the Martin Luther King, Jr., long weekend.
That’s the third weekend of January, for those of you reading outside the US. We like to hold inaugurations around then.
Since my readers tend to be pretty industry-savvy — go ahead and pat yourselves on the back — then, I’m assuming that many of you are frantically running around now, trying to get those submissions ship-shape to beat the proverbial Christmas rush.
And lo! in the west, there appeared a serious discussion of standard format. What timing, eh?
I may be wrong about this, but you must admit that it would explain the downright avalanche of formatting questions posted as comments in the archives lately, not to mention those turning up in my e-mail. (Which I discourage, as a general rule: answering questions one by one is incredibly time-consuming, whereas answers to questions posted here may be read, enjoyed, and commented-upon by many, a much more efficient use of my volunteer question-answering time.)
And, frankly, the weekend before Thanksgiving just didn’t seem like the best time to start a brand-new topic from scratch — and not only because I’m expecting 28 people to crowd around my dinner table on Thursday. Since most of my audience (at least those who comment regularly) seem to be US-based themselves, and those of us in the States are going to be spending the next week juggling the demands of relatives, over-large birds, competing sporting events, and, often, post-election political discussions with those with whom one does not necessarily see eye-to-eye, I may not have everyone’s full attention right now, anyway.
Hey, agents and editors aren’t the only ones who are busy during the holidays. As I write this, my SO is in the kitchen, creating his famous gluten-free stuffing to take to the first of the pre-Thanksgiving Thanksgiving dinners of our holiday season, scheduled for TOMORROW.
And let’s not even mention the three books of my own — one already sold, one not yet sold but in my agent’s hands, and one that I’m trying to finish ASAP in response to at least alleged editorial interest — that seem to be requiring virtually daily attention from me at the moment. Each and every one of these projects would shout hallelujah in unison if I didn’t start a brand-new topic from scratch right now.
Oh, and you don’t serve leftovers occasionally when you’re working on a deadline?
One final word of preamble, then I shall launch into the meat of the matter (see? I already have turkey on the brain): I implore those of you who have been through this material with me before: don’t just skip these posts on standard format. 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.
Seriously, all of us could use a review from time to time. Because, you see, I am far from the only professional reader who takes umbrage, when manuscripts deviate from certain time-honored restrictions. Millicent started twitching at the very sight of them before she’d had her job three weeks.
Yes, even if the formatting in question would be perfectly legitimate in other writing environments. (See points b, c, e, and f, for instance.) And yes, yes, oh, yes, even if the deviation is precisely what some agent, editor, writing guru, or darned fool writing expert like me has suddenly announced to the world is the new norm.
Trust me, Millicent didn’t get that memo.
Think about it: why would she, unless she happens to work for the agent-who-blogs or editor-who-is-trying-to-be-helpful who promulgated the new advice? Indeed, why would anyone who works with manuscripts for a living go out looking to see what folks outside the industry — or, at minimum, outside her agency’s office — are demanding of writers these days, when the basics of standard format have actually changed very little for decades?
Actually, it would be very much against her self-interest to go trolling for such information, because — brace yourselves, those of you going through this logic for the first time — it’s so much easier just to regard submissions that don’t adhere to standard format as inherently unprofessional, and thus (by implication) less likely to contain writing destined to take the publishing world by storm.
To put it bluntly, it would slow her per-submission rejection time.
I hope no one out there fainted, because this is a vital fact for any submitting writer to understand: the folks who read submissions (and queries) in order to decide who gets a break and who doesn’t are in a HURRY. Reportedly, the average agency receives 800-1200 queries per week; that’s a whole lot of reading.
And those are the statistics from when the economy was good, before all of those hobbyist writers started dusting off the half-finished manuscripts in their bottom desk drawers and saying, “Hey, this is my Plan B.”
In the face of that many pieces of paper to plow through, even the reading of submissions tends to be awfully rushed: the goal becomes to weed out as many as possible as quickly as possible, rather than seeking out gems. Once a professional reader like Millicent has been at it for a while, s/he will usually develop a knack for coming to a conclusion about a piece of writing within the first paragraph or two.
Sometimes even within the first line or two.
What does this mean for aspiring writers who scoff at standard format, or just don’t know about it? Well, it’s not good: 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. That’s can be an extremely serious problem for a submission, because being identified as not professionally formatted renders it FAR more likely to be rejected than any writing-related problem.
Why? 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 she is reading at the moment. The faster she can do that, the better, to move through that mountain of paper on her desk. So a first page that cries out the moment Millicent lays eyes on it, “This writer is brand-new to the game and will require quite a bit of your boss’ time to coach into being able to produce a manuscript that an agent would be comfortable submitting to an editor!” is a downright gift to her: she can feel completely comfortable rejecting it at the very first typo, cliché, or word choice she doesn’t happen to like..
Heck, she might not even wait to spot any of the above.
That’s not all bad news, however. 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.
See now why aspiring writers cognizant of points (a) -(i) enjoy a considerable competitive advantage at submission time?
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. Right now, 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.
So to help give you that competitive edge, here are the rules of standard format — and no, NONE of them are negotiable.
(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. And I’m dead serious about using ONLY white paper: ecru paper, no off-white, no Dr. Seuss-type stripes.
Yes, 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. Submissions with poor print quality are almost never read. 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.
Speaking of never, never, ever submit a dim photocopy; print out an original, every time, and make sure the ink is nice and dark on every page. Oh, you may chuckle at the notion of sending out a grainy photocopy, but believe me, any contest judge has seen many, many entries submitted that way.
(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.
Unbound means precisely what it says: no binding of any kind. 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 unless s/he has asked you to do so.
(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.
Quite the opposite is true. In a few days, I’m going to show you a practical demonstration of why, but for now, you’re just going to have to trust me when I tell you that block-justifying your submission is going to appeal to your garden-variety Millicent about as much as a punch the jaw.
Speaking of things I’m going to demonstrate in the days to come, NEVER format a query or cover letter to someone in the industry in business format: indent those paragraphs.
(4) The preferred typefaces are 12-point Times, Times New Roman, Courier, or Courier New; pick one and use it consistently throughout your entire submission packet. Even if you have a strong preference for the lettering in your book when it is published, use one of these typefaces for submission purposes.
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 typeface decisions for published books are made by the publishing house, not the author. Submission time is not the appropriate period for making your preferences known.
Why? Chant it with me now, understanders of point (e) at the top of this post — MANUSCRIPTS AND PUBLISHED BOOKS AREN’T SUPPOSED TO LOOK THE SAME.
If you’re very nice down the line, after a publishing house has acquired your book, 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? Because these are considered matters of packaging and marketing, not content.
All of which begs the question, of course: why do word processing programs tempt 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.
I’m still sensing some skepticism out there on the font issue, but that may be a hangover from reader reactions to previous series on standard format. Almost invariably, around the time that I bring up Rule #4, someone posts a comment informing me huffily that website X advises something different, that this agent said at a conference she doesn’t care what typeface you use, that a certain manual said that standards have changed from the traditional guidelines I set out here, or some other observation presumably intended to make me rend my garments and cry, “Finally, I see the error of my ways! I guess I’ll disregard the fact that I’ve never seen the change you mention actually in use in a professional manuscript and declare it to be the new norm!”
To save you the trouble: it’s not gonna happen.
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.
More rules follow next time, of course. In the meantime, keep up the good work!