Looking Good

One phrase that crops up on almost all submission pages is “standard manuscript format”. When you’ve been at this for as long as me it becomes second nature, but many newer writers are unsure, so here’s a brief introduction. But first a brief trip down memory lane. When I started writing (first book reviews and then stories), and then moving on to edit magazines and booklets, I used a typewriter. Not because I was a Luddite, but because personal computers just didn’t exist (or were way, way beyond my pocket). At least I had an electric typewriter. I can’t remember its make, but I do recall it was damned heavy for its compact size.

My second electric typewriter was a daisy wheel model, a Smith Corona – I think I still have it, somewhere. The daisy wheel had a huge advantage over the tradition typewriter (where the keys were attached to the ends of metallic arms that smashed the letters onto an inked ribbon, leaving an image and an indentation of said letter on the paper). The daisy wheel could be changed so fonts could be altered, to enable you to type in italics, for example. But typewriters use non-proportional spacing and usually in Courier font (this means that the space taken by a letter – be it an i or m – is the same). Younger users of PCs with programs such as Word don’t know how lucky they are.

I did learn one very important lesson back then: manuscript presentation. You had to get it right because the manuscript – wads of paper, remember – was posted to the editors. In a large envelope. With stamps. Delivered by the Royal Mail. And you had to include sufficient postage to ensure its return should the submission be rejected. If the manuscript’s a mess it was usually chucked in the waste paper bin.

Nowadays, so many publications accept electronic submissions. Instant delivery. (Of course, instant delivery does not mean you’ll get an instant response, other than a thank you email. The decision to accept or reject the story or article could take months. Editors receive many, many submissions. And they all have private lives – families and hobbies.)

Anyway, where was I? Oh yes, manuscript presentation. The simple rule was – and still is – ensure that the manuscript is neat, clean and easy to read. Use a sensible font, such as Times Roman or Arial (10-12 point; not less than 10). Do not use something like Comic Sans or Lucinda Handwriting. Personally, I suggest you avoid Courier – it’s fine for emails but it isn’t easy to read screen after screen in this font. Double space the text (or space the lines at 1.5x). Do not justify left and right – justify to the left only. Do indent paragraphs (more on this shortly). Do use sensible margins (around an inch or 2.5 cm). Number the pages and, if you wish, include a header (story title) – all very useful should the editor print off copies and drop the pages on the floor.  Save as a doc or rtf file, nothing that can’t be easily opened at the other end of the internet.

It isn’t difficult for someone to select all the document’s text, alter the font and size, line spacing, justification and so on. But you want to sell your work to the editor, not make him or her first jump through hoops. Don’t forget, editors in the independent press world earn little money compared with the big boys – it’s not their main job. If your work is accepted then the editor or designer will have to change formatting to suit the house style.

Okay, here are a few pet peeves of mine. [1] Do not put two spaces between sentences. You may have been taught this in the old typewriter days but they can be a chore to remove. Oddly, I still notice this from people who’ve never seen a typewriter – not sure from where they learned that. Why don’t we want them? Because books and magazines use proportional spacing and usually fully justified text; double spaces often leave ugly gaps in the lines of the finished publication.

[2] Paragraph indents – said I’d get back to it. Again, this is linked to the way books are designed in DTP programs. The tab key works fine in Word but once in the DTP software they can appear uneven. And they can be a bugger to remove. Do not tap the space bar five times because sometimes you’ll tap four or six times – and cleaning up the final file can take ages. Use either the ruler (slide the top triangle to 0.5 or one) or set it up in styles (that requires a blog of its own).

[3] Inconsistent use of en and em dashes. Choose your preferred formatting for these things and stick to it. Similarly, be consistent with all your punctuation – don’t mix single and double quotation marks, for example. That’s enough pet peeves for now.

If the publication you are sending your work to has a submission guidelines page, follow them – the guidelines that is – carefully. They may contradict all the above, and that’s fine for that publication. Otherwise, these guidelines should ensure that the manuscript looks suitable. Or you could pay to have your work edited, proofed and set out professionally. I hope to write about editing later.

Finally, just remember this: if your manuscript is properly presented it’s in the top 10-20% of submissions. The other 80% are unlikely to be considered seriously. I recommend that you aim for that elite group.

(c) 2015 Peter Coleborn. This blog was originally posted on the Penkhull Press website.

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