Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Manuscript Format Questions and Answers


If you want the best chances as a submitter (and you want to be judged only on your writing, and not the way you're presenting it), you ought to make sure your submission is in standard manuscript format. Sure, that's the rules. But lately I've seen a lot of conflicting ideas (from supposed "authorities") about exactly what constitues this Standard Manuscript Format.

The irony of standard manuscript format is that nobody really agrees on it anyway.

Naturally, these conflicts cause paranoia, because hey -- I want to get it right. I don't want to look like an outsider because of the way I format my chapter headers or whatnot. Could you please clarify these deviations in standard format?

FONT: I know you prefer TNR over Courier, but I'm of the understanding that both are perfectly acceptible and "standard" (or technically, all four variations: Times, Times New Roman, Courier, and Courier New.) I can find examples of agents and editors who prefer one over the other, but I'm of the understanding that both are "standard." Has this changed? Are both still all right?

Both TNR and Courier are acceptable. Fonts that are similar to those but have some extremely minor different are probably acceptable. Other fonts, which are harder to read (arguably) are not acceptable. Arial is generally not acceptable.

ITALICS: I've always seen them underlined in book and short story manuscripts. Some claim that they must actually be italicized now, but the editor in me says, "No way, it'd be too hard to edit the ms."

I very rarely see a manuscript these days that has words underlined instead of italics. If I did it would be annoying because if we accepted the manuscript, the author would have to go back and change all the words.

HEADERS: I've always formatted them as LastName/TITLE/PageNo and set them flush right, for either book or short story manuscripts. Some sources
are saying that they should be flush LEFT, while others say the surname goes left, the title in the middle and the page number on the right. Is there a standard way?

I've always done it TITLE - Page# - SURNAME flushed left in my manuscripts. If you flush it right, or center it, or put your whole name instead of your surname, or flip the order around, it's not a big deal and you shouldn't think your manuscript was rejected because of that. The whole purpose of the header is to tell us what page we're on and what manuscript it is if the manuscripts get thrown in a pile and mixed up.

Also, don't put your phone number in the header. It looks silly.

SECTION BREAKS: I've always denoted breaks with a centered "#" on a line by itself; the end of the manuscript is indicated by "THE END" (or "# # #" if it's a short story). But now some people are claiming that section breaks should be denoted just with a blank line. As a former editor and proofreader, I know that's just bad form.

I've heard this # thing too, but for a manuscript I generally see more regular "extra space before the scene change" that I see in books. I use the #s only when I'm doing short story submissions. I don't think there's a hard-and-fast rule on this one because it doesn't affect the way we read the manuscript unless you give no indication that the scene changed at all.

CHAPTER HEADS: I've always skipped 12 lines, given the chapter name in upper-case, and then skipped a line and started the chapter. Now I'm seeing some people recommend the upper-case chapter name at the top of the page, then 12 lines skipped and the beginning of the chapter. Which way's it done?

The way I've always been told to do it is to start each new chapter 7 lines down with the chapter title after the dash for the name of the chapter. Years back, I was told this was so that editors could have a space to make chapter notes. In other words, leave some space before the start of each chapter on the first page of that chapter. We do not count how many lines you give us.

TYPESET QUERIES: While my manuscripts go out in 12-point Courier, I consider that an "editing" font, as something for manuscripts. I'd never send a letter in such a monospaced naked typeface unless I were doing a telegram. So for my query (and all other materials, such as the synopsis), I typeset the contents in the standard roman font. The query goes out on good letterhead (which is Copperplate Gothic, natch). Some people have said that your query must be typeset exactly like the manuscript. That doesn't make sense to me. Why should a letter look like the page of a manuscript?

"Some people" are not necessarily right. Generally the query is good as long as it's clear and readable.

Are the patients now running the asylum?

No, but I hear they have a controlling share in the company.


A Conscientious Submitter


The Rejecter


Anonymous said...

I was submitting in TNR, but then I read a literary agency website that said if you are submitting electronically, sans serif fonts are easier to read on a computer screen. I tested this out, and I agree. Also this site said that both underlining and italics are hard to read on screen, and suggested boldface.
So far I have done Ariel (a no-no, says Rejecter) so I guess I can say that so far I have made it easier for agents to read what they are going to reject.

Kathleen MacIver said...

Some timesaving instructions for those that must change italics to underlining, or vice-versa...

Word's "Styles and Formatting" makes it the matter of a couple of minutes to do this. It's under:

Format | Styles and Formatting

Then you're shown a list of styles... usually everything that's available, which is multitudes upon multitudes. But you can change the selector to "styles used in this document." Then, find those that describe underlined words, click the option to Modify that style, and change the underline to italics.

Sometimes there will be more than one style that includes underlined words... ie: one for words that are underlined with double spacing, and one with words that are underlined with single spacing. If that's the case in your document, then do the same process for each of those!

Me... I keep my styles and formatting open and clean from the beginning, so I can change from italic to underline for the whole 90,000 word document in about three seconds.

Unknown said...

This helped me a lot. Mainly in that it helped ease my fear of messing up one little thing (i.e. left or right align the header) and that messing everything up. It's good to know that it really ISN'T that big a deal, as long as we get it all there.

Shelli (srjohannes) said...

Good to know these little nuances!

Jonathan E. Quist said...

A mentor blasted me for underlines instead of italics, insisting that "People don't speak in italics". But there are still submission guidelines that say underlining is the way to go. (E.g., Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine.)

That said, it is possible in Word, and probably others, to convert all underlines to italics (or vice versa) with a single find/replace command.
(What I really wish for is a simple, manuscript template for Word that would take care of all this.)

For me, it is far more practical to maintain a consistent format for all my works in progress; this makes the task of tailoring format for a specific submission much less daunting.

Kristi Holl said...

I read slush pile stuff for a while, and I don't ever recall sending something back because the font wasn't quite right or the header not the way we liked it. If your ms. is correctly punctuated and without grammatical errors, you'll stand head and shoulders above the others and your font won't matter.
Kristi Holl
Writer's First Aid blog

none said...

At GUD everything comes in as a document file, so if we don't like the font, we change it. Bliss!

(and no, we don't likes Arial, precious, we don't)

José Iriarte said...

I keep running into equally emphatic contradictory advice. *sigh* I'm just going to do what feels right, and not worry about it.

Marian Perera said...

I sent a requested partial to an agent in Courier, then thought of checking her website for guidelines. Horror of horrors, there I read that she doesn't like Courier and requested TNR instead.

I felt lousy until she asked for the full. What a relief.

So the people who tell you that the font won't matter that much as long as everything else works... they're right. Now that I know what the agent likes, of course, I send everything in TNR. But I won't beat myself up for a small mistake.

Anonymous said...

One of the sources of conflicting information is that manuscripts read for potential purchase by editors are different from already purchased manuscripts that the production department has to deal with.

Back in the pre-computer days, the Production Fairies would weep blood if the manuscript wasn't in 12pt Courier, double spaced, with underlining for the italic words.

With so many houses accepting manuscripts electronically, and then copyediting electronically, the issue has evaporated. We can change fonts or formatting with a couple of clicks.

I do recommend the # in scene breaks, though. One of the first things a typesetter does to a manuscript file is delete doubles: spaces, paragraph returns, tabs, etc. The odds of a scene break accidentally evaporating if it's nothing more than a couple of hard returns is unsettlingly high.

Anonymous said...

Everyone... isn't the simplest way around all of this just to read the publisher's/agent's submission guidelines?

We want to try and avoid this:

José Iriarte said...

bootsandbibles, as much fun as it no doubt was to post that link, that's a facile answer. (And you're scoring Funny points by characterizing the rest of us as nitwits.) Of course people should read the guidelines. Let's give people posting here the benefit of the doubt, though: you're preaching to the choir. The insecurities creep up when you need to decide on some picky little issue *not* covered by the guidelines. Most agents' guidelines aren't comprehensive; they hit the major points. Some particular agent's posted guidelines might not mention whether she prefers underlining or italics, for instance, and yet many agents and editors are oddly insistent about which is the one that "everyone" prefers--and they often don't agree.

I think the consensus here is that you do your best to follow the guidelines, and then you cross your fingers and assume the agent is not going to throw your work out for violating some rule that was never explicitly stated in the guidelines. Not if your work is good, anyhow. And I'm comfortable with that.

Anonymous said...

Here's a question: how do these rules differ for SHORT STORY manuscripts? I heard that magazines still want the older style (Courier, underlines, title near the text not at top of page, etc). And how about POETRY? Scant little current info online about these things.

And btw, great, great post here! This info is really needed!

Anonymous said...

lots of great general info here for getting my mss in shape! thanks!

Lyn said...

I am new to writing and any help is welcome. Thank you!

Anonymous said...

Jeanette Cheezum

I found this enlightning. Thank You.

Anonymous said...

Here's a question--I've read conflicting information on how many spaces between sentences. One space? Or two?

P.S. Thanks for the other great info!

Writing Professional said...

While authors must always take responsibility for their own work, hiring a good proofreader is essential because as authors, we know what we have written or intended to write; because the words are in our minds, we may not pay attention to what is actually on the page;

autiej said...

I just want to thank you for this post. I am a professional freelance book editor, and I work with authors in all stages leading up to publication. I have heard that "the odd thing about standard manuscript formats is that there really is no standard," but there are some items that should be handled a certain way so manuscripts don't end up in File 13 just because a publisher is in no mood to stare at a certain font or too much underscoring, etc. And for anyone who agrees with what Writing Professional said, "While authors must always take responsibility for their own work, hiring a good proofreader is essential because as authors, we know what we have written or intended to write; because the words are in our minds, we may not pay attention to what is actually on the page," drop me a line! I'd love to help you with proofing and editing.