Wednesday, November 11, 2015

3 Tips For Formatting Your Manuscript (So Editors Won't Want to Stab You)

Writing isn't easy. It's a long, winding road that takes a combination of guts, perseverance, and no small amount of luck, in order to reach that shining plateau of professional success. You'll meet a lot of people along the way, and some of those people are going to be editors. In order to make a good impression on your editors, here are some basic formatting rules you should follow, regardless of what your manuscript happens to be about.

Trust me, you'd rather have them as friends than enemies.

Rule #1: The Tab Key Is Now Dead To You

Never say its name again. Ever.
The tab key has likely been your friend for years now. When you first started writing papers, you were told in no uncertain terms that you hit the tab key in order to indent your text. Well, that was true then. However, you're not printing out a book to turn in for a grade. You're going to send it off to be published. And that means your old friend tab is just going to drag you down.

Why is that? Because in the age of the ebook, and digital publishing in general, the tab key is persona non grata as far as your software is concerned. If you're trying to publish a manuscript into multiple formats, then the first thing you'll notice is your hundreds of tabs have completely screwed up your page appearance. Either you get a page covered in bizarre spacing, or you get a page with no spacing at all, making it impossible to tell where one part ends, and another begins.

What You Should Do Instead

Go to the options in your word processor. Click Format, and then click Paragraph. Once you're in this screen, you set the first line indent to .5, and check the box that says Automatic. After you've completed that simple step, boom, your manuscript will automatically format your paragraphs in a way that will transfer over easily, regardless of whether you're using an Amazon, Smashwords, or Adobe format for your finished project.

Rule #2: Stop Putting Two Spaces After Your Period

Seriously. Stop that shit.
This one is a little less cut-and-dry than the tab issue, but it's still something that irks the living shit out of a lot of editors. You see, the whole reason that people have been taught to put two spaces after a period was that during the days of typewriters and real, physical newspapers, that was how publications in New York did it. The problem was that typewriters weren't universal, and when you were inking the day's happenings you didn't want your page to look too crowded. Some American papers used two spaces, some used one.

However, you're not writing your manuscript on a typewriter. You're writing it digitally, and you can assume there's a uniform number of spaces both in ebook and physical format.

What You Should Do Instead

Just stop. Really, it's that simple. Not only that, but if you're writing a 100,000 word manuscript, you'll cut out entire blank pages that were otherwise spread throughout your work.

Rule #3: Stop Thinking Page Count, Start Thinking Word Count

Seriously, it doesn't matter what page you're on.
This is another one of those changes that came about thanks to publishing, as an industry, going digital. The reason that page count doesn't matter is because you could take the same story, publish it in a dozen different formats, and get a different page count every time. In .epub you have 25 pages, in the physical anthology you have 20, in .pdf you have 16, etc.

You know what doesn't change? Your word count. That's why publishers use word count as the basis for the heft of a manuscript instead of page count. Because a 100-page novel may be thick or thin depending on spacing, but 50,000 words is 50,000 words no matter how you cut it.

What You Should Do Instead

The best way to achieve this mindset is to write projects that fill a certain word count. Anthology calls will typically ask for short stories in 3,000, 5,000, and 10,000-word increments (but 20,000-word novellas are not unheard of). If you participate in calls like these, even if your stories aren't chosen for inclusion, you begin to get a sense for how many words it takes to tell a story of a certain size. That sense of story will allow you to lengthen or shorten a project during the plotting/brainstorming phase, ensuring that you don't end up shooting for a novel, and winding up 30,000 words short of where you wanted it to be.

This concludes my introduction to formatting. If you are an author, or an editor, and there are other habits you find lurking in the slush pile which you feel deserve extra attention, then please use the form on this page to send me an email.

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  1. Wow! I'm guilty of 2 out of the 3. I've already gone to word count. Double spacing my chapters resulted in 6-7 page chapters. But the way Patricia Bates wants them at 1.5 spaces, the chapters end up at 5 pages. With NaNoWriMo, since each day is a new chapter, and I'm trying for a certain word count per day (the official word goal is 1667 words. I rounded it up to 2000 words, as I used to take 5 days off during the month for seasonal celebrations.) I end up with upwards of 60,000 words. I figure I can always delete.

  2. Yay! for all three of your recommendations.
    As an editor, I do have a little trouble with "Editors are crabby creatures by nature, and anything that makes their workloads harder can result in brutish enmity for years.", but understand that you are trying to catch the eye of group members.
    As a general rule, we aren't a crabby bunch, only detail-oriented and goal-driven; driven to the goal of clear and expressive writing for authors.
    Thanks for the tips, and keep on writing!

  3. I never did indent, but used the dropped-block style. And yes, I put two spaces after a period. To cram things any closer than the foregoing makes things strobe and shimmer for me, and I suspect I'm not alone.

  4. I never did indent, but used the dropped-block style. And yes, I put two spaces after a period. To cram things any closer than the foregoing makes things strobe and shimmer for me, and I suspect I'm not alone.

  5. It amazes me that the author should tremble before the red ink of the editor. They do no more than correct. They do not create. Like my voice, I choose my style not the editor.

    I have no issue with the removal of a discipline that does not work in the existing printing world. Remove the tabbing habit to assure your document will port properly.

    The double space allows for many an eye ease of reading. Let the fat old editor pout. I will continue to allow the sentence the room it deserves to stand out.

  6. I, too, am a professional editor, and I agree with PollyZ that we're not generally crabby.

    Your suggestions, however, are wonderful.

    For those of you who prefer to "give your sentences room," remember editors don't make grammar or formatting rules. We simply help authors adhere to them. The rule to put two spaces ended long ago. Check your current editions of your style manuals, including AP and CMoS.

    If you're submitting to professional publications, agents, or publishing houses, they will require you to follow current formatting rules. If you're self-publishing, it's more critical than ever that your book appear as professional and polished as possible to stand out in a sea of other self-published books. To assume you should be able to ignore certain rules because it's not what you're used to can mark your submissions or publications as amateurish.

    Pick up books published by the big houses, and you will find only one space. Same with mid-sized print houses, as well as e-published books. Pages cost money. Extra spaces make more pages. It's that simple.

    If you struggle to learn the habit of only one space, a search and replace works for spaces. Simply find/replace all double spaces with one space.

    On one last note, I'll add that along with double spaces between sentences and tabs for indents are the spaces added after the final punctuation in a paragraph. An editor has to take these out as well. They screw with electronic formatting for publication.

    Good luck to all as you pursue publication.

  7. I used the "nuclear" option on the Smashwords website. It takes care of any formatting surprises that might arise.

  8. I didn't know about the tab thing. Oh man, that's going to be hard habit to break, my fingers have been automatically whacking that key for years.