Ah, what writers do! Or should I say, what writers shouldn’t do!As an editor and book reviewer, I cringe when I see a manuscript fraught with beginner’s mistakes. It is not only that the manuscript looks disorganized, if I am editing it, before doing anything, I need to hammer it into proper format, which can be a lot of work and drains my enthusiasm.
It also tells me something about the author; he or she either doesn’t know how to properly format a manuscript, didn’t bother researching and learning how to do it before making a submission, or simply didn’t care. A comment I got from one author really tickled me: formatting is done by the publisher. I imagine that author is still waiting to get published.
Okay, what are these formatting bloopers that switch off my cool?
- Incorrect page size setup
- Incorrect margins
- Inconsistent text formatting
- Not using double spaces between lines
- Using a double space between sentences or a variety of double and single spaces randomly
- Embedding tags
- Using the Tab key to start a new paragraph
- Using the space bar to indent a new paragraph
- Using the space bar to center a chapter heading
- Using the Enter key to get to a new page for a new chapter
- Leaving double or multiple spaces at end of the last sentence in a paragraph
- Underlining a word instead of using italics
- Not understanding how to use Word’s Track Changes feature
What’s the big deal, you might ask. I am a writer; everything else is secondary. Right? Well, not really. These days, agents, publishers, and editors want to see clean manuscripts. They get enough of them in a day and don’t want to be sidetracked by sloppy formatting. No matter how good the novel, such a submission is likely to end up in the slush pile. Why? It shows the agent or publisher the author isn’t a professional. If the manuscript is badly formatted, it is likely the novel is also fraught with grammar, punctuation, characterization, and plot problems. In other words, an amateur effort. As an editor, I at least get paid to fix formatting problems, but it doesn’t mean I like doing it. Fixing an author’s writing is different bucket of snakes, which I won’t go into here.
There is nothing wrong being a first-time author, or even a second or third-time one. We all started with that first novel. The key to good writing is discipline and professionalism. This will not guarantee a great novel, but it will help the author get a foot in the door. So, how to avoid formatting problems? The first step for the author is to understand his writing tool, and I am talking about using Microsoft Word. There are other word processors, but Word is the industry standard and everyone should be using it, like it or not. Converting a manuscript into Word from some other tool can result in a messy file, needlessly adding to the editor’s workload. It is better to use the real thing.
Let me talk a little bit about editing. Word’s Track Changes feature is an editor’s lifeline, and makes our work bearable. Sadly, it is a feature many writers neglect, and are perplexed when an editor sends them a document with TC notations, insisting the editor manually overtypes changes in the manuscript, making the editor work much harder for no valid reason. This is a classic demonstration of an author not understanding the concept and process of editing, or is simply being insensitive. So, do master this feature! It’s not hard.
The formatting basics…
Every author should have a blank manuscript template file, consisting of:
- Default ‘letter’ page size: 8.5” x 11”
- 1” margins all around
- A .5” header
- No footer
- Default 12 pt Times New Roman font
- A title page with the ‘Book Title’ and ‘Author Name’
- A section break
- A Prologue/Chapter 1 page
- A header that has the book title/author surname on left and page numbering on right.
- Switch the ‘Same as Previous’ icon in the header to ‘off’, otherwise you will get the header on your title page.
- Start an automatically indented first paragraph with xxxxxxxxxxxx to show beginning of the first sentence.
With such a file saved, the author is part way there to making a good impression, and setting this up isn’t hard. There is no legitimate excuse for not doing this. If not sure how to do it, the Word’s Help function will provide all the necessary information. As for the other points listed at the start, I don’t think they require too much explanation, except to say, don’t do it! Word’s automatic functions automatically indent paragraphs for you; the Insert/Break/Page Break is simple; and centering chapter headings is a click of the mouse.
Word is very easy to use and a properly formatted manuscript really helps an editor! So, do me a favor, okay? Doing it right is so much less work for everybody. The fifteen minutes you spend setting it up right on the front end saves hours of time fixing it on the back end, and saves you from looking less than professional as a writer.
If you need help, send me the first five pages of your manuscript and I’ll put them right – with explanations.
~~~~~~~~~~~~~Stefan Vucak is an award-winning author of the sci-fi Shadow Gods series of books. His contemporary political thriller Cry of Eagles has won the coveted 2011 Readers’ Favorite silver medal award, and his All the Evils was the 2013 prestigious Eric Hoffer contest finalist and Readers’ Favorite silver medal winner. His Strike for Honor won the Readers’ Favorite gold medal.