The mysteriously mysterious strictures of standard format, part V: let’s start from the top — of the submission stack, that is

sagrada familia construction

Has everyone recovered from the last few posts’ worth of inoculation with professional formatting know-how? Yes, that was indeed a whole lot of information to absorb at once, now that you mention it. It may have left a bit of a sore place, but much better a one-time quick sting than engendering years of rejection without knowing why, I always say. Once you’ve gotten exposed to the correct way to format a book manuscript, chances are that you’ll be immune to formatting problems in the future.

Why, yes, I have run that metaphor right into the ground. How kind of you to notice.

There’s a reason I’m hammering on it so hard, however: one of the great fringe benefits of inoculation is that, as unpleasant as it may have been at the sticking-point, so to speak, the stuck usually doesn’t have to think all that much about smallpox or whooping cough for quite a long time afterward.

So too with standard format for book manuscripts — once a writer gets used to how a professional submission is supposed to look, everything else is going to look wacky. As I have been threatening begging you to believe promising you repeatedly every few minutes while running through the standard format strictures, once you get used to how a professional manuscript is put together, any other formatting is going to feel downright uncomfortable.

And to prove it to you, I’m going to spend the rest of this series let you see precisely HOW different standard format and non-standard format appears to the pros. In the spirit of that old chestnut, SHOW, DON’T TELL, I shall be sliding in front of your astonished eyes pages that follows the rules right next to ones that don’t.

That way, you’ll learn to tell which is which when I don’t happen to be standing next to you, whispering in your ear. I find that writers tend to work better with minimal nearby murmurings.

But before I launch into it, the usual caveats: what I’m about to show you is for BOOKS and BOOK PROPOSALS only, folks. At the risk of repeating myself (and repeating myself and repeating myself), I’ve been talking for the last few posts only about how books and book proposals should be formatted, not about short stories, screenplays, poetry, magazine and newspaper articles, or anything else.

If you’re looking for formatting tips for any of the latter, run, don’t walk, to consult with those knowledgeable souls who deal with that kind of writing on a day-to-day basis. By the same token, it would be a trifle silly to look to those who deal exclusively with other types of formatting for guidance on constructing a book manuscript, wouldn’t it?

Yes, I’ve mentioned this before, and recently. I shall no doubt mention it again, because I’m constantly meeting aspiring writers who believe, mistakenly, that writing is writing, and thus all of it should be formatted identically. That’s just not the case. Book manuscripts should be formatted one way, short stories (to use the most commonly-encountered other set of rules) another.

Please recognize that not everything that falls under the general rubric writing should be formatted identically. So if your favorite source — other than yours truly, of course — tells you to do something diametrically opposed to what I’m showing you here, may I suggest double-checking that the other source is indeed talking about book manuscripts and not, say, submissions to a magazine that accepts short stories?

I hate to burst anyone’s bubble, but contrary to popular belief, submission standards differ by type of publication. Yet surprisingly often, those giving practical to aspiring writers will conflate the format for, say, short stories, one with that for book manuscripts, resulting in a first page that will look incorrect to either. (Although, generally speaking, such guidelines tend to stick closer to the short story format than to the book.)

So if you have encountered conflicting bit of advice on the internet — and if you’ve done even the most minimal search on the subject, I’m sure you have — consider the source. And if that source does not make a distinction between book and short story format, be wary.

Everyone clear on that? Good, because I wouldn’t want any of you to be submitting short stories to magazines using the format we’ve been talking about here.

Caveat #2: check submission guidelines before you submit. I’ve been presenting standard format here, but if the agent of your dreams (or the agent with whom you are currently signed, if they don’t happen to be the same person) has expressed a strong preference for his clients formatting in a manner opposed to what you see here, for heaven’s sake, run with that.

But only for submission to that particular agent. Long-time readers, chant it with me now: not every piece of formatting advice writers hear at conferences or online refers to a hard-and-fast rule. Sometimes, an expressed preference is merely personal.

Which is to say: major deviations from standard format are genuinely uncommon — among manuscripts that agents are currently submitting to editors at major US publishing houses, at least — but let’s face it, you’re not going to get anywhere telling an established agent that no one else’s clients are using 18-point Copperplate Gothic Bold if he happens to have an unnatural affection for it. Part of working with an agent entails trusting that he knows more about marketing books than you do. If he doesn’t, you wouldn’t want to be working with him, right?

I must have misheard all of the query-weary submitters out there. The answer you meant to give is a resounding yes.

And before my last statement sends anyone out there into that time-honored writerly I’ve just signed with an agency but what if I chose the wrong one? panic, remember this: if you’ve done your homework before you signed, and thus are certain that he has a solid recent track record selling books in your category, you have every reason to have faith in your representative.

Or so I keep telling myself when I can’t sleep at night. Hey, handing one’s hopes and dreams to someone else to market is hard.

Please study the examples to follow very, very carefully if you are planning to submit book-length work to a North American agent or editor anytime soon: writers often overlook odd formatting as a possible reason that an otherwise well-written manuscript might have been rejected.

Oh, not all by itself, generally speaking, unless the violation was truly egregious by industry standards, something along the lines of submitting unnumbered pages or not indenting paragraphs, for instance, the kind of faux pas that might actually cause Millicent to cast the entire submission aside unread. But in a garden-variety well-written manuscript that combines non-standard format with even just a couple of the common agents’ pet peeves — a cliché on page 1, for instance, or several misspellings in the first paragraph — the result is generally fatal.

Certainly, other rejection reasons get a lot more airplay, particularly at writers’ conferences. If you want to take a long, hard look at some of the better-discussed reasons, I would urge you to gird your loins and plunge into the REJECTION ON PAGE ONE category at right. (Not for the faint of heart: I went over list of instant-response rejection reasons given by a group of agents going over a stack of actual submissions at a conference, one by painful one.)

Yet surprisingly little conference time seems to be devoted to deviations from standard format for manuscripts. Why shouldn’t conference speakers take thirty seconds of their speaking gigs to pointing out, for instance, that the ways in which a professional manuscript does not resemble a published book — ways that are unfortunately quite obvious to an agent, editor, contest judge, etc., from practically the moment their eyes light upon a submission?

Why is it so very apparent, you ask? Because much of the time, submitting writers will work overtime to make it apparent.

Seriously, many aspiring writers clearly go out of their way to format their submissions to resemble published books, in the mistaken belief that this will make their work seem more professional. As we’ve already discussed in this series, the opposite is generally true — and often, it’s apparent in a professional reader’s first glance at the first page of a submission.

If the implications of that last assertion made you dizzy — if, for instance, you found yourself picturing our old pal Millicent the agency screener pulling a submitted manuscript out of its envelope, casting a critical eye over the first page, hooting, and stuffing the whole thing into the handy SASE along with a photocopied rejection letter — try placing your head between your knees and breathing slowly.

Go ahead. I’ll wait until you recover.

And then follow up with a hard truth that may get those of you new to the game hyperventilating again: the VAST majority of submissions are rejected not only on page 1, but within the first few lines of page 1. Heck, a harried Millicent will derive a negative impression of a manuscript even prior to page 1.

Keep taking those nice, deep breaths. That dizziness will pass shortly.

Ah, some of you have found your breaths again, haven’t you? “Oh, come on, Anne,” I hear some hard-boiled submission veterans scoff, “she makes up her mind that this isn’t a submission to take seriously before to page 1? How is that even possible?”

Well, the most common trigger is the absence of any title page whatsoever. Many submitters, for reasons best known to themselves, omit the title page altogether — often, I suspect, because they are unaware that a professional book-length manuscript always has a title page.

Why? Long-time readers (or even those who have been paying attention over the last several posts), pull out your hymnals and sing along with me now: a properly-formatted title page tells an agent precisely how to contact the brilliant author who wrote it — and tells an editor precisely how to contact the agent who represents her.

Was that gargantuan gasp a signal that those of you who have title page-free submissions circulating at the moment are just a teeny bit worried? If so, relax: forgetting to include a title page almost certainly won’t prevent Millicent from reading your submission at all. She tends to read even the most bizarrely-formatted submissions for at least a line or two (although often no more than that). But that initial impression of an author’s lack of professionalism — or, to call it by a kinder name, of having a lot to learn about how the publishing industry works — does often translate into a rather jaundiced reading eye for what comes next.

Why? Well, let’s take a peek through her reading glasses, shall we? The first thing Millicent sees when she opens the average requested materials package is something like this:

If you’re having trouble reading the fine print, try double-clicking on the image.

Have it in focus now? Good. Our Millie might also encounter a first page like this:

Or, heaven help us, like this:

So tell me: why might Millicent take one look at these and conclude that the respective submitters of these three first pages could use a good class on manuscript formatting — and thus would be time-consuming clients for her boss to sign?

I see all of you long-term blog readers out there with your hands in the air, jumping up and down, eager to tell everyone what’s wrong with this as a first page of text — and you’re absolutely right, of course. We’re going to be talking about precisely those points in the days to come.

For now, however, I want you to concentrate upon how this example has failed as both a title page and a first page of text: by not including the information that Millicent would expect to see on either.

What makes me so sure she would find this discovery disappointing, at best? Because what she (or her boss agent, or an editor, or a contest judge) would have expected to see on top of that pile of paper was this:

good title

This is a standard manuscript title page for the same book — rather different, isn’t it? Visibly different, in fact, from several paces away, even if Millicent isn’t wearing her reading glasses.

Again, submitting the earlier examples rather than that last would not necessarily be instantly and automatically fatal to a manuscript’s chances, of course. Most of the time, Millicent will go ahead and plunge into that first paragraph of text anyway.

However, human nature and her blistering reading schedule being what they are (for those of you new to this screener’s always-rushed ways, she has a stack of manuscripts up to her chin to screen — and that’s at the end of a long day of screening queries; manuscript submission is in addition to that), if she has already decided that a submission is flawed, just how charitable an eye do you think she is likely to cast upon that typo in line 13?

To use her favorite word: next!

To be fair to Millicent, while it may well be uncharitable of her to leap to the conclusion that Faux Pas’ or Ridiculous’ manuscripts are likely to be unpolished because they did not include a proper title page, agencies do have a vested interest in signing writers who present themselves professionally. For one thing, they’re cheaper to represent, in practical terms: the agent doesn’t have to spend as much time working with them, getting their manuscripts ready to submit to editors.

Let’s face it, no agent in his right mind would send out a manuscript that didn’t include a standard title page. It serves a number of important — nay, vital — marketing functions.

To understand why, let’s take another look at the professional version. So you don’t have to keep scrolling up and down the page, here it is again:

good title

Did you take a nice, long look? Good. While we’re at it, let’s also take a gander at a proper title page for a book with a subtitle):

Those formats firmly in your mind? Excellent. Now for a pop quiz: how precisely do Rightly and Collie’s first sheets of paper promote their respective books than Faux Pas or Ridiculous’ first pages?

Well, right off the bat, a good title page tells a prospective agent or editor what kind of book it is, as well as its approximate length. (If you do not know how to estimate the number of words in a manuscript, or why you should use an estimate rather than relying upon your word processor’s count, please see the WORD COUNT category at right.) Both of these are pieces of information that will tell Millicent instantly whether the submission in her hand would meet the requirements of the editors to whom her agency tends to sell.

Oh, yes, that’s important in a submission, whether to an agency or a publishing house. Really, really important.

Why? Well, think about it: if Millicent’s boss had decided not to represent Action/Adventure anymore, or if editors at the major houses had started saying that they were only interested in seeing Action/Adventure books longer than 90,000 words, Rightly Stepped would be out of luck.

But then, being a savvy submitter, ol’ Rightly would also want his work to be represented by an agent who just adores very long Action/Adventure novels — and regularly goes to lunch with scads and scads of editors who feel precisely the same way, right?

As I may have mentioned seven or eight hundred times before (in this post, it feels like), the standard title page also tells Millicent precisely how to contact the author to offer representation — and that’s a very, very good thing for everyone concerned. If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a thousand times: it’s ALWAYS in an aspiring writer’s interest to make it easy for an agent to help her.

I might be wrong, of course, but I suspect that not forcing Millicent to forage through the mountain of paper on her desk to find a misplaced cover letter with your phone number on it might be a good start toward being easily helpable.

By contrast, Faux Pas’ first page doesn’t really do anything but announce the title of the book and leap right into the story. That’s one underachieving piece of paper, isn’t it?

Starting to get the hang of how a title page is supposed to look? Don’t worry, if not — I’ll give you a little more title-spotting practice next time, when, I assure you, I have a good deal more to say on the subject. Keep up the good work!

12 Replies to “The mysteriously mysterious strictures of standard format, part V: let’s start from the top — of the submission stack, that is”

  1. If I am reading this right, are you saying that if an agent requests the first five pages, you must include a COVER LETTER, and then the first four DOUBLE-SPACED pages? Eech, that’s harsh!

    1. Not precisely, Ken — if an agent requests the first five pages, you should send a cover letter thanking him for asking to see them (manners count in this business!), a title page (to make it easier for him to contact you to ask for more), and the first FIVE pages in standard format. Which does indeed mean double-spaced.

      I’m curious, though — what part of that strikes you as especially harsh? The double-spacing?

      1. The part that struck me as harsh would be only the first four pages double-spaced. The more I thought about it, the more I thought “No Ken, it would be five pages double-spaced, a cover-letter, and a title page;” which ameleorated my nail-biting to some extent.

        I think the sentence that has struck me the hardest during this new string of posts (I have been trolling this site every day for the better part of seven months) is when you said that an unpublished author isn’t worth more than a minute of an agency’s time. It made my jaw give an audible thump against my desk… but it made sense.

        Anyway, thank you for what you do. It’s really amazing, and I’m always so amazed you can dole out so much new, interesting, and funny content as regularly as you do. It’s really an inspiration! I have been writing seriously for just about a year now, and my goal is a thousand words a day… seeing you produce all this content just makes my head spin! (Not in a “The Exorcist” green, puky sort of way… just in a kid-giving-his-Coke-to-”Mean” Joe Green-sort-of-way.)

        Anyway — sort of rambling now. Signing off.


        1. Oh, I see, Ken — that would be hideously harsh. I’ve been lobbying for years for writers to be allowed longer writing samples, or at any rate for Millicent to read more of each submission before making up her mind. At minimum, I wish that agents would be more up front about the importance of that first page to success.

          If it makes you feel better, pretty much every author I’ve ever met has gone through that audible thump moment. It’s essential to becoming a professional writer, unfortunately. Until one’s jaw hits the desk, it’s just too easy to tell oneself that one’s work is going to be read charitably — and that blunt feedback is mean feedback. I’ve actually seen first-time authors exhibit physical symptoms of shock after their first professional feedback session!

          Which is one of the things that keeps me blogging, actually. I hate hearing that quaver in a good writer’s voice after receiving negative feedback. So if I can get writers used to it in theory, it’s less painful in actuality.

          I love the image of me as Mean Joe Green, by the way. My mother’s going to get a big kick out of that.

  2. I laughed out loud at the second one, where it said “five hundred million words.” Not only was that hilarious, I’m waaaaay over standard word count for a crime thriller and it kind of made me cry at the same time!

    I’m cutting…4100 words have come out in the last two days. And thanks to you, I’ve reformatted and feel more confident about trying another query soon.

    PS – off topic, but I did get a short story rejection yesterday that said at the bottom, “Well done…try us again.” Is that good?

    1. That’s very good, Elizabeth! That kind of sign-off used to be known as keep us in mind for your next project. It usually means that they think you can write, but the story wasn’t for them. So kudos.

      And hooray for someone having read the examples! Since the writing is so small, I always wonder.

      Best of luck with the trimming! It’s a nasty job, but someone’s got to do it.

  3. You mention initials being a gender-less faux-pas… what if you have a weird name which is gender confusing? Say a boy named Sue? Should he put Mr. Sue Unfortunate on his title page? Or just Sue Unfortunate?

  4. Just a shout-out to the Sagrada Familia photo that leads off this awesomeness-of-construction post. When I was first shown slides of Gaudi’s cathedral facade in an art history lecture, I had to look away repeatedly because I literally could not keep my eyes focused on the weirdness. Needless to say, before the end of that hour it was one of my favorite buildings ever. Much like you say, Anne, about adopting standard formatting as one’s own.

    1. Hey! Well spotted, Jinnayah!

      It’s certainly one of the strangest buildings I’ve ever had the pleasure to walk through and around — as you say, it’s a testament to taking one’s own rules very seriously while setting conventional rules aside. My favorite bit was the doors with the writing on them, but there was material for at least four stunning cathedrals there.

      Parts of it I adored, parts I couldn’t stand. Half the people there seemed to have the same reaction; the other half seemed to be too busy waiting in line (an hour and a half!) to take the elevator to the top and see the view of the city. The reaction that stuck with me the longest: an elderly nun kept staring up at the ceiling and muttering, “It’s so beautiful, but where’s God?”

      1. Thanks Anne, for yet another informative piece and for including this beautiful image of La Sagrada Família. It takes me back to the Barcelona of my youth.

        Gaudí is indeed a very accurate example of someone who took the standard rules and then bent and shaped them to aid him in his time: The Sagrada Família was to be built, according to his will and testament, just as the cathedrals of yesteryear were: very slowly. His aim was to mimic the collage that make up most medieval cathedrals in Europe, where the baseboards and the floors and some arches are Romanesque, the columns and most arches are Gothic, and by the time the wooden panels were installed on the walls they were of the most ornate Roccocco. It is, indeed, an unfinished cathedral by design, funded exclusively with the coins collected from the collection boxes in order to slow down the construction process.

        The sculptor in charge of continuing his work, Subirats, has a very distinctively angular style that clashes with the original “Modernisme” of Gaudí’s. This has caused an uproar between the purists, who believe that the unfinished Sagrada Familia is the most distinctive landmark of the city, and the progressives, who believe Gaudís wishes should be respected and want to see the work continue. Very much like some of the debates on formatting that you so accurately describe here in your blog.

        So sorry for the rant, I got excited, I guess.
        I am off to read the rest.

        PS: The answer to the nun’s question should be: “Patience, sister, they haven’t got the money to put him in yet!” 🙂

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