Sunday, September 23, 2012

The Horrors of Proper Manuscript Format

Posted by LD Keach on Sunday, September 23, 2012

In my wildest dreams, I'm the shadowy robed figure at the head of a writer cult plotting to take over the publishing world. But instead of chanting "Ia! Ia! Cthulhu fhtagn...!" we'd all intone "Twelve point! Times New Roman! Twelve Point! One inch margins...!"

Okay, so I have awhile to go before I'm good cult leader material, but that doesn't mean we can't all keep the chant. Proper manuscript formatting is the single most important thing a new writer can do for their career. It promotes professionalism and displays your writing in the most clear, most readable way possible. A crap story formatted correctly will be much more agreeable to an editor than a genius story that's formatted like crap. It is sheer eyeball-exploding terror to be faced with nine point Papyrus font crammed on the page in single space with half inch margins. Chances are, an eyeless editor isn't going to be sending out any acceptances.

So, how can we, as writers, put our most professional foot forward? In most circles, the agreed-upon manuscript format contains these elements:
  • twelve point font
  • Times New Roman or Courier New
  • one inch margins
  • double-spaced
It's also good to include the writer's name and contact information in the upper left hand corner of the first page, as well as page numbers and the writer's name in the header. Easy, yes? One would think. It's shocking how often writers do not follow these rules.

What proper manuscript formatting does not contain is:
  • any bizarre artsy font that looks like a first-year design student's creative seizure
  • any font color other than black (that means you, purple and turquoise!)
  • eyeball-exploding single spacing
  • creative writing class designations (IE, no Miss Jenkin's Intro to Fiction 291!)
  • margins thinner than piano wire
  • hostage demands scribbled across the headers
Also, no sixteen point font. I'm sure there are kindly elderly editors out there that prefer large print documents while they wait on their cataract surgeries, but I doubt many of those editors work for a Tubby's House of Gorefest Magazine. (Sidenote: someone named Tubby needs to start this magazine, because it sounds aaawesooome!) Anyway, my point is: keep it reasonable size.

If anyone feels like a visual aid would be helpful, I highly recommend Nebula award winner William Shunn's article on proper manuscript format. He even goes so far as to detail dialogue formatting and the eternal burning question of scene break markers (Pound signs? Asterisks? Lesser folk have been driven to the brink of screaming madness contemplating such things.) Courier New is best for snail mail submissions, because the monospaced font makes it easy to manually tally up word count (make sure to kill your widows and orphans, though. Man, sometimes the jokes just write themselves.) And, surely these days the more modern incarnations of Times and Courier won't be looked down upon; Cambria and Consolas are fine-looking Word 2010 alternatives. When in doubt, clarity and ease-of-reading is key.

Of course, there's always going to be slight variations. No one will burn you alive if you put the page numbers on the right instead of on the left. Writers don't always format exactly the same way, and most editors understand that. What they don't understand is why a manuscript written in pink Comic Sans thinks it's going to be published.

At the end of the day, follow the guidelines. Follow the guidelines religiously. If a market says they want their manuscripts single spaced with no indents, do it. If they say not to include your name on the front page, don't do it. But, if there are no specifications for formatting in the guidelines, its easy to assume editors will want to read a story in the most professional-looking format possible. That means repeating after me: "Twelve point! Times New Roman! Twelve Point! One inch margins...And don't fooorget dooouble spaaaced."

Got it? Fantastic. Your shadowy robe is right over there on the table. We'll be taking over the publishing world next weekend.