Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Manuscript Formatting for Dum Dum's

Here’s my first tip for dum dum writers: If you ever want to see your story or article in print you MUST pay careful attention to manuscript formatting. Here are answers to some frequently asked questions (“FAQ’s” in computer lingo) about manuscript formatting.

Q: What is manuscript formatting?

A: Manuscript formatting is simply the way your story is laid out on the page. It includes such things as width of your margins, spacing of your lines, size and type of your letters (“font” in computer lingo—Yes, I said this was for dum dums), how many spaces you indent for paragraphs and where you place your title and chapter headings.

Q: My writing is brilliant and my plot is riveting. Isn’t that enough to get my book published? Who cares about these itty bitty details?

A: The short answer is, no, it’s not enough. In order to get your manuscript published, you have to get the attention of people with extreme attention deficit disorder. I’m talking about agents and editors. They are the ones who care about the itty bitty details, and they won’t read far enough in your manuscript to discover your brilliant writing and riveting plot if you don’t format properly.

Q: That doesn’t make sense. Don’t editors and agents understand they might be missing the next War and Peace by not paying attention to content instead of details? I bet Tolstoy’s publishers weren’t worried about format.

A: I know it doesn’t make sense but that’s the way it is. Tolstoy’s editors weren’t deluged by thousands of manuscripts demanding to be published like today’s editors are. Editors and agents have minds like a steel trap: they snap to conclusions and they don’t unsnap. An editor/agent will decide in less than three seconds whether or not to read the manuscript they’ve just picked up, and their decision will be based, first and foremost, on how the words are laid out on the page.

Q: Why are they so hung up on format?

A: Three reasons: First, readability; second, computer display capabilities; and third, something much more devious.

About readability: Editors and agents read lots of stuff. Their eyes get tired, their minds are easily distracted, and they become annoyed if they have to adjust, not only to the unique content of the manuscript, but to a different formatting style. They want to be able to see your writing in a form they’re used to so their minds can focus on the brilliance of the writing.

About computer display capabilities: Not all computers are created equal. Some won’t display certain fonts (Have you ever tried to open an e-mail message and seen lines of little rectangular boxes in place of the characters? That means the message has been printed in a font your computer doesn’t display.) Your manuscript may look nice and neat on your computer screen the way you’ve formatted it, but on the editor’s screen it might be all over the place. If you format your work according to the guidelines laid out by the editor you’re presenting it to, those problems won’t occur.

About the devious reason: Editors and agents are interested in your baby but they’re also interested in its Mommy. They don’t like to work with mothers who can’t take advice or who think their child is perfect and needs no formatting, or who aren’t smart enough to follow simple instructions. The care with which you format your manuscript tells them something about you that they need to know.

Q: You’ve convinced me. So how do I format my manuscript properly?

A: Every publishing house or agency has its own manuscript submission guidelines, and these include formatting information. You can usually find submission guidelines on the internet. Since most publishing houses are more interested in marketing books they’ve already published than looking for new manuscripts, information for prospective writers is not so easy to find. You will have to do a bit of research to get to sites that give you this information. A quick way to find what you’re looking for is to type into the Google search box the name of the publishing house or agency you are interested in along with the words “manuscript subscription guidelines.” That should lead you to the information you need.

( A “heads up” here: Be prepared to hit a brick wall if you do this with major publishers. Most of the big ones are not accepting “cold call” submissions or proposals. Don’t be discouraged, but listen to their advice about how to approach them appropriately and follow through. It’s not easy to get published, but it’s possible, if you are tenacious and are willing to follow the rules, and if some major miracle happens along the way!)

Q: Are there general formatting guidelines I can follow while I’m writing, before I know who I’m going to submit to?

A: I’m glad you asked that question. I’ve just found a gold nugget of formatting information—a clear, complete, simply written article about manuscript formatting that any dum dum can understand. It tells you exactly where to put your cursor (that pointy arrow that moves over your screen when you move your mouse) and what to click it on, step by step, to do proper formatting. These guidelines are for manuscript submissions to the Genesis contest, a contest sponsored by the American Christian Fiction Writers Association, but they are an excellent guide to general formatting for any submission and, more importantly, the article explains HOW TO DO formatting in general--how to make formatting changes on your computer. You will find the article at this web address:


Q: Okay. I’ll look it up when I’m far enough along with my writing to worry about it.

A: DON’T WAIT!!!! This information may disappear after March 31st when the Genesis contest deadline is past. I printed the article and put it in my writing file. Believe me, it’s worth the paper you will print it on.

It’s true that you don’t need to worry about formatting until you’re farther along in your writing. Thanks to modern computer technology, you can format at any point in the writing process. In fact, the best time to do the final adjustment is just before you send it away to someone important. But these general guidelines will be good for you to follow as you write. Doing so will help you get used to the process and the feel of what professional writing looks like on paper.

So go for it. Format away. And please come back next time when I will give you a small handful of other informational nuggets that will make you feel super savvy and “in the know” about writing.

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