As I get ready for the start of a new term of my continuing education class Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, and having just participated in a Writer’s Digest University Boot Camp and seminars at Emerald City Comicon here in Seattle, the question of proper manuscript format has made itself known once again.
This is one of those parts of being a writer, as opposed to writing, that I think some writers suffer over unnecessarily. Everything, though, comes down to one simple rule:
LESS IS MORE.
My advice has been and always will be: Leave all your creativity in your story, and none in your presentation.
But the problem with that is that everybody has a different idea of what I might mean by “less” and I don’t want you to think that means you should do no formatting at all and send your work to agents and editors as one solid block of unformatted, single-spaced, 9-point text.
One of the things I give every student in my classes is a simple five-page document that I put together to present what I think are the basic rules of proper manuscript format. And now, you can follow this link to get a copy of that PDF for yourself.
Now, the fact is that “proper” manuscript format can vary from editor to editor, market to market, so everybody should be ready, willing, and able to do some quick reformatting before sending your work to a specific market. If “less is more” is rule number one, then “believe the guidelines” is rule number two, and no less important.
If a publisher has a set of submission guidelines on its web site, read them carefully, and follow those instructions as if they were the Word of God. Please don’t think of that as a challenge, either in terms of formatting, genre, content, etc.
If they say they don’t want to read vampire stories, don’t think, Yeah, but they’ll like my vampire story! Send the vampire story to someone else.
If the guidelines say they want the first three chapters, send them the first three chapters—no more, no less.
If they ask for a one-page synopsis, they mean one side of one letter-sized page with standard margins and 12-point type. Don’t think of that as some kind of formatting challenge: How can I squeeze these 10,000 words onto one page? Start cutting text so it fits.
If they ask for an outline and you don’t have one, write one.
And assume unless otherwise instructed, that a “page” is 12-point type on one side of one letter-sized page, double spaced.
And again, if otherwise instructed, ignore anything and everything I’ve told you here or in that PDF, and give that publisher what that publisher has asked for.
It is fair to think, “Who cares what it looks like, it’s the writing that counts!”
And that’s precisely what I’m trying to tell you. You are trying to sell your work, and taking these simple steps, none of which will adversely effect the story you’re telling, the language you’re using to tell that story, or any of the art and craft you’ve put into your work, will simply make it easier and more comfortable for “gatekeepers” to read your work.
Ultimately, that’s what we’re doing here: Getting people (agents, editors, and anyone and everyone else) to read our work. Right?