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Writing Tips for Fiction Writers!


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Manuscript Formatting
by Lee Masterson

So, you've finished your prized manuscript and you're ready to send it out into the big, wide world. You've remembered the fancy letterhead, displaying the title and your name in pretty font, outlined the entire text in a brightly colored border and bound the whole manuscript beautifully to look almost like a completed book. No editor can resist the total package.

All you need to do now is press the print button, wait for the 400 pages to print out and post it off. Right?

Not quite.

There is no universal standard of formatting but there is a basic formula that most editors and publishers seem to prefer.

Before electronic publishing hit the scene, the print publishing world established this basic formula for a variety of reasons.

1) - If they bought the manuscript, the type-setter would have an easier time re-formatting the entire novel

2) Editorial notes and changes could be easily made and seen when scanning the pages

3) Silly fonts or illegible hand-writing make an editors eyes-strain problems even worse than they already are.

If you are planning to submit your completed manuscript to a traditional publisher, here are some basic formatting guidelines for you to use.

Take the effort to purchase quality 20lb bond paper. Don't give in to the temptation to use regular typing paper or any other type of erasable paper.

One-inch margins
Be sure you leave plenty of room on every side of your text for margins - an inch is usually acceptable (or, for those on metric, about 2 1/2 cms). Remember, editors like to scribble notes in the margins. Wide margins also help to stop your work from looking cluttered.

Your manuscript should be double-spaced. Not 1 1/2 spaces. Double-spaced. This means that every line will have a blank line between it. It doesn't not necessarily mean you need to put two spaces between sentences - we're only looking at the lines on the page. Again, editors like to scribble notes - in margins AND in between lines.

Do not hit 'enter' again at the end of a paragraph. All your spacing should be consistently double-spaced. New paragraphs should be indicated by indents. Use your 'tab' key for this. You can set the indent to where ever you choose, as long as the paragraph is clearly indented from the left margin.

There is a reason for the 'font' debate. Yes, it is true that some editors express a preference for the 'arial' typeface. But the logic behind the 'serif' fonts is this: most type-setters preferred to work with serif fonts like Courier or Times New Roman. A 'serif' font is one where all letters are allocated the same amount of space on a page. Take a look back through this article - you'll note that this is a sans-serif font - 'arial' - and the letter 'm' definitely takes up more space than the letter 'i'. This allowed them an educated guess when working out how many words to fit into a line and how many words in a page. The reality is, as long as your manuscript is legible, it should be okay.

Always use black ink. Try to stick to a 12 point font.

Another reason for the preference in plain, boring fonts is that there really are authors out there who try to entice an editor using fancy font and bright colors. Of course, an editor would probably not reject a manuscript submitted this way, but they certainly won't thank you for the added strain on their eyes.

An editor reading a complete manuscript will not usually read the whole thing in one sitting. In fact, they may shove a handful of pages into a bag so they can read more on the trip home. So how will the editor know who's novel those loose pages came from?

Include a header on every page (excepting the cover page). The header can be either centred or right-justified (although many "how-to" books agree that the right-justification is more predominant).

Your header should include:
1 - Your last name (or your pseudonym's last name)
2 - The title of your book
3 - Page number

If your title is a long one, it is fine to use a keyword in place of the entire title. As an example, let's use the title of a new book one of my characters is reading at this moment - "I Was a Teenaged Axe-wielding Homicidal Space-Pirate", written by the infamous Mustafa A'lik. Let's also assume the editor has taken home page 234. The header on the top right hand side of the page should look something like this:


Page numbers
Pagination begins on the first page of your story. Do not include your cover page or your query letter or your synopsis. Page one is where it all starts. Page numbering ends on the page where you've written "The End". Every page in between should be consecutively numbered and IN ORDER.

Cover page
Always include a cover page in your submission package. This information is what the editor will need if he decides to buy your book, so make it easier on him. The information you include should be centered on the page.

Include the following information in your cover page:

~ Title of your book
~ Name (and pseudonym, if applicable *)
~ Address
~ Postal Address (if different to above)
~ Phone Number
~ Fax Number
~ Email Address
~ Approximate word count **

* A word about pseudonyms - do not try to fool an editor into thinking that your pen-name is your real name. You need the publishing house to send the cheque to YOU, not to your pseudonym. How will you cash a cheque made out to someone else?

** A word about word counts. An editor will not want to see "Approximately 132,567 words". When estimating your word count, round down to the nearest hundred. When dealing with large numbers (as above) round down to the nearest thousand. In this instance, I would probably use "Approximately 132,000 words".

Never use staples, glue or any form of binding on your manuscript. Paper clips are okay, but it is best if your manuscript is submitted loose. Send your manuscript out the door in a padded envelope or cardboard manuscript box. Don't be tempted to wrap your manuscript in protective covering, or to cover your manuscript box with pretty paper or bows.

Changing Times
Many editors are now admitting a preference for material submitted on disk or even burned onto CD. The only way to know for sure is to check your intended publisher's guidelines. If the information presented in the guidelines does not mention disk/CD submission, best to play it safe and stick with the old paper print-out manuscript

Never send out the only copy of your manuscript. Always send a good quality copy of the original. Remember to keep a copy aside, either on a disk or printed out in a file for your own records. .

If you would like your manuscript back, remember to include sufficient return postage. If you decide you would prefer the editor to dispose of your manuscript, then remember to include a SASE #10 envelope for the reply.

Electronic Submissions
If you have just finished reading all of the above guidelines, please disregard them all now. The only rule when submitting electronically to an electronic publisher is "Read the guidelines carefully, then follow them to the letter."

An e-publisher is online anyway, so they are more likely to display their preferences on a 'guidelines' page. Select your intended publisher and search their guidelines. Then format your manuscript according to the preferences the publisher has detailed.

Final word

No editor is likely to reject a manuscript because your margins were only 3/4 inch, or because you used arial instead of Times New Roman. These guidelines are just that - guidelines. Every writer has personal preferences, and nowhere is is written that you must actually write your manuscript using these formatting guides.

I personally like to create my manuscripts on a pale blue or pale green background, using a large 14 point arial font, all single spaced. I only do this for the ease on my eyes. Once the manuscript is complete, I choose the "Select All" option from the Edit menu and re-format the entire manuscript to something resembling the guidelines above.

Happy writing!

Copyright 2002-2004 Lee Masterson. All rights reserved.


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