Reminders to basic manuscript formatting

January 16, 2012

I know I’ve covered this before, but it never gets old because there are still many authors (and independent editors – oh my!) who commit these blunders. It’s not enough to make me take up binge drinking, though there is some appeal to that. But it is enough to make me grind my teeth.

Punctuation: I blame the cavemen

It’s no secret that punctuation has been given the limelight for far too long. The story goes that ‘way back in caveman days, there was a tribe called The Protruding Forehead Society. They dodged dinosaurs in order to travel to distant caves and tell their stories by drawing on the walls, using their wives’ eyeshadow. Problem was, no one knew where to put a full stop. After all, it gets confusing to draw “Gargon forage through the bushes I ate his  twigs and berries.” Makes no sense.

And thusly, punctuation was born. To give that punctuation more importance, The Protruding Forehead Society spaced out two hand widths before starting a new drawing. Cool for cave dwellers and my Sophomore typing class. Not so cool for publishing. Those two spaces add up in a manuscript, so publishing dropped it down to one space.

Got that? ONE SPACE.

Anything that goes at the end of a sentence – periods, question marks, exclamation points – get ONE SPACE. And that goes for you outerspace aliens, how insist on two spaces after Zorbots. No more trying to pull a fast one. Aliens…so cheeky.

Now, will I melt into a puddle of soulless goo if I get a manuscript with two spaces after punctuation? No, but I’ll be sure to up my gin intake and order the beagle to belt out a few old Three Dog Night songs.

Dialog, one line below is a no-go (when using a lead-in sentence)

Yah, schlocky header, but I hope to make it dumb enough that it’ll stick. Many authors have no idea where to put dialog, meaning what line to put it on. They write the lead-in sentence, then put the actual dialog below. Like this:

Overworked and Underpaid Editor looked at the beagle sitting on her desk, sleeping in a swatch of sunlight, and made an unsuccessful attempt at holding her temper.

“I thought I told you to quit lazing around and file those contracts.”

What this does is confuse the reader as to who is talking. The reason for formatting and punctuation is to make things easier for the reader. This is why I see great balls of fire that many editors are dropping commas for the sake of…well, I don’t know. It’s stupid and forces me to re-read sentences a couple of times to make sure I understood the sentence. But that’s a rant for another day.

The proper way to format your dialog is to keep your dialog on the same line as your lead-in sentence.

Overworked and Underpaid Editor looked at the beagle sitting on her desk, sleeping in a swatch of sunlight, and made an unsuccessful attempt at holding her temper. “I thought I told you to quit lazing around and file those contracts.”

And speaking of lead-in sentences, they can be much more effective than using dialog tags because you can squeeze in all kinds of cool stuff that sets up the tone of the person speaking and the action taking place. I could have just as easily written, “I thought I told you to quit lazing around and file those contracts,” said Overworked and Underpaid Editor,” but it doesn’t begin to have the same zing.

Consider lead-in sentences your ally against boring writing.

Quotation marks (and commas)

Many writers don’t know how to play nicely with quotation marks and comma placement. I know it’s different in the UK, but in the US, the comma is placed INSIDE the closing quote – not outside. Here’s what I mean:

The Wrong Way:
“Let’s have a pitcher of margaritas to celebrate a good day of editing”, Overworked and Underpaid Editor said.

The Right Way:
“Let’s have a pitcher of margaritas to celebrate a good day of editing,” Overworked and Underpaid Editor said.

Sure, I can easily do the universal Search and Kill, but as writers you should know how to properly format your manuscript. After all, you’re professionals, right? So it makes sense to know the tools of your trade.

Possessive Apostrophes on names ending in ‘s’

In publishing, it’s common to add an extra ‘s’ when showing possession to someone whose name ends with an ‘s’.

I knew that gorgeous Mercedes was Mr. Jones’s, but I was feeling a bit klepto that day and bagged it for a joy ride.

Excluding the ‘s’ won’t put you behind bars – unlike the unfortunate soul in the sentence above – but it forces your editor to fix it. Remember, the idea is to turn in a clean manuscript so your editor will love you forever and shower you with lots of royalty checks.

Beginning your sentences with But, So, And

I see this a lot…sentences that begin with these seemingly-innocent words. If it’s in the right context, bravo, I say. However, they don’t wear big enough pants to deserve a comma.

So, I decided the beagle had drunk quite enough, and put her to bed with aspirin and Gatorade.

So I decided the beagle had drunk quite enough, and put her to bed with aspirin and Gatorade.

See? No comma. And sure, I can use my universal Search and Kill to wipe the beggars out, but we’re learning how to keep editors from binging on too many Twinkies and margaritas.

It was the ’80s, man…

Contractions in dialog – keepin’ it real

Okay this isn’t a formatting thing, but this really bugs me, so I’m including it.

Dialog is meant to be conversational, right? So unless your dialog is from aliens (from this planet our outside our solar system), then it’s standard that we speak using contractions. You don’t say to your best friend, “I will not be going to your party tonight.” Of course not. You’d say, “Dude, I’m not going to your party tonight.”

See how the dialog comes out feeling stilted and formal? It’ll drive an editor nutsy because she’s going to fling the manuscript back to you with a bloody red mark that says “USE CONTRACTIONS, OR DIE.” Ok, maybe she won’t say that, but she’ll think it.

Formatting your manuscript – use tabs, and a kitten gets it

Standard manuscript formatting is half inch indents, double space, Times New Roman, 12 point, 1″ margins. Easy peasy, right? Well…I’ve seen a lot of manuscripts where the author used tabs to indent a new paragraph instead of formatting it. This makes it a PITA for the editor because she has to reformat your manuscript. Sometimes there are some kinks in the works due to the tabs, and it can add arbitrary spacing, which means the only way to make sure I got them all is to check each paragraph. My teeth have been ground down to a stub doing this because it takes a lot of time to seek and destroy.

So I give you my last warning – If you use tabs instead of formatting the indents in the paragraph settings, a kitten gets it. For those who don’t know what I mean by formatting in the Paragraph tab, here is a screen capture:

Click to enlarge

I’ve overheard any number of wine-induced conversations at writer’s conferences that go something like this: “I’m the writer, so it’s not my job to worry about the nitpicky stuff like formatting. The editor will take care of it in editing.”

Given that logic, should a surgeon not worry about how to close a surgical wound? You either embrace the responsibilities of the profession, or you go home and raise albino caterpillars. Proper formatting isn’t hard. I’ve heard people complain they can’t adhere to the one-space rule for punctuation because two spaces is second nature to them. My advice? Get over it. The publishing industry is filled with writers aching to be published, so excuses are feeble.

Now, go forth and be brilliant.

The view from my batcave

July 19, 2011

OK then…I’ve wrestled control of our blog back from the beagle. In reading her post, it seems no one wanted to win one of her beagle purses, so I can now resume talking all things publishy while the beagle sulks in the corner, nursing a margarita and snarling at me.

When I sat down this morning to write, I felt conflicted on what topics to address because there were so many ideas that were competing for top billing. So I decided to address all of them.

Hopey Hope

Everyone knows what it’s like to want something so badly that you’re willing to go against the advice of many and do it anyway. It’s like the time I gave my sister a perm. It was a hundred years ago (thank the Cosmic Muffin), so my sister can laugh about it now.

She was a busy single mom at the time and needed an easy peasy hairdo – something akin to wash ‘n wear hair. Don’t we all? I mean, who actually thinks it’s great sport to stand in front of a mirror with no less than five electric appliances that will dry, straighten, curl, de-frizz, and condition your hair in under five hours?

Money was tight for my enterprising, hardworking, brilliant sister, but Pricey had all the answers. “You don’t need to spend a fortune, I’ll give you a perm.” Sis wondered about my lack of experience and expertise. In fact, everyone in the room thought my sister had taken leave of her senses to let me lay hands upon her gorgeous hair. But ever the confident one, I whipped out a box of Magic Perm O’Lot and shoved on a confident grin. “Save your money. We can do this.”

And I did.

And she came out looking like something straight out of National Geographic. We renamed her Umbala Kerfluffle Africana. She renamed me SheWhoWillMeetDeathUnderATruck.

We were all so hopeful her perm would answer all her questions that we ignored everyone’s advice of , “Lynn, don’t do it. Nothing good can come from this.” And my sis had to wander around work looking like the only thing missing was a bone running through her nose. I’m still amazed she didn’t kill me.

And this is what I see with authors who want to be published  so badly that they turn their back on compelling evidence of a publisher’s weak points. They’ve heard the siren’s song – “We’d like to offer you a contract,” and no amount of warning can sway their decision. No one believes bad things can happen. After all, they’ve worked so hard on their books and, gosh, the editor is so nice. What could go wrong?


  • Your book could be poorly edited.
  • Your publisher has no distribution, so your book could never sell, unless you sell it from the trunk of your car.
  • Your publisher could be abusive and threaten you.
  • Your publisher could never pay you royalties due you.
  • Your publisher could have no clue what they’re doing.

New publishers pop up every day – many of them nowadays are e-publishers – and you have to be so careful about placing your book in the wrong hands.

“But they’re so nice!” – A nice editor who compliments you on your writing is nice and it certainly feels good, but it’s not a litmus for ability to get your book sold. Experience and a successful track record  speaks more loudly than a compliment and a smile. But, sadly, authors become blinded by the pearly teeth and sign with inexperienced and under-educated publishers all the time…even when they’ve been warned by others who have done their research.

Hopey Hope is great, but it comes with its own set of blinders. If you go to a site like the Water Cooler, asking for advice, then you owe it to your book and yourself to actually listen. Just today, I read yet another author who, despite all warnings to run, held up her Hopey Hope card and said that based on the publisher’s website and things she’d heard elsewhere, she was hopeful. So she chose to disregard all the warnings – given from experienced people in the biz, I might add – and walked into the light.

You just can save ’em all, and that’s why these ineffective publishers exist. The prevailing attitude seems to have changed from, “I’ll work at perfecting my craft so I can be well-published,” to “I’ll keep running down a long list to find someone who will publish me.”

And just like my sister’s decision to let me perm her hair, these authors will find their decisions aren’t based on sound advice from others, but from wanting something far too much that it shorts out their decision-making capabilities.

You wouldn’t let a blind man work on your car, so why would you let someone who lacks the ability to create a quality product and get it out to market sign your book? Sometimes Hopey Hope sucks stale Twinkie cream.

“They Did a Great Job”

Keeping along this same theme, there’s the “I went with them based on a recommendation.” This is prevalent on writer’s boards. Everyone is eager to find information on a publisher, so it’s gold when someone who is actually with that publisher chimes in to give their opinions. Invariably, the opinions are while the author is still in the honeymoon phase with their publisher, meaning they’re in editing and don’t have a finished product that’s out in the marketplace.

So they chime in to say, “Oh, I lurve my editor! She is an excellent editor, and is so thorough! And she’s so fast in getting back to me.” In nearly every case, the author hasn’t been published before, so they aren’t in a position to distinguish a “good” edit from a crappy edit. Additionally, it’s not at all unusual for there to be a lot of communication back and forth…it’s editing, after all.

Editing is subjective. I’ve seen many books from the Big Guys that made me want to perform a ritualistic eye bleach while wondering what twelve-year-old rested their fingers upon this book. Conversely, I’ve seen fabulously edited books from all kinds of publishers – big and small. The ultimate proof is in the reviews and sales.

  • Does the publisher have great distribution and good sales?
  • Do their books win awards and have good reviews from known sources?

That’s the danger of the honeymoon phase when discussing a publisher whose abilities are in question. Authors are high on life at this point because they’re actively involved in the production of their book. That sheen, however, fades dramatically when the book is done and sent out to market. Reality sets in when they see that their books won’t ever be in the bookstores, will have no distribution, and the only way their books will sell is if they personally sell them.

If you’re tempted to listen to an author’s recommendation regarding a publisher, make sure they aren’t in the honeymoon phase, but are on the back end of having their book in the marketplace.

What kind of coverage does their book have?
What are sales like?
How much promotion and marketing did the publisher do?

At that point, if authors say, “They did a great job,” you have verifiable proof of those claims. That’s why the standard reply to the “I lurve them” is “Come back in a year and tell us your experiences.” Most never do because they found out the hard way that their publisher wasn’t what they’d hoped they’d be.

When asking for recommendations, it’s imperative to know where the author is in the production process because that could vastly influence their opinion. I’ve seen this time and time again when someone listens to their Hopey Hope side and goes against the prevailing advice.

When asking for recommendations, you owe it to yourself to look at all opinions, not just the ones that tell you what you want to hear. It could be the difference between abject sorrow and delirious joy.

Open Letter to Agents – and a warning to authors…

Formatting. Yes,  I know I just blogged about it, but this has a bit of a different twist. When I receive partials or fulls from agents, I have a higher expectation of excellence – especially if it’s from a solid agent. I expect that all their ducks will be in a row, and a big part of this is making sure your manuscript is properly formatted.

You’d think agents would ensure that this simple element would be addressed, but I’m amazed at how many partials I receive that are dreadfully out of whack. It’s not that I’m some snobbo who won’t touch a less-than-perfect manuscript. It’s a matter of being extremely fond of my eyes and their ability to see. So when I get a manuscript that has no indents and an extra carriage return to denote a new paragraph, my eyes complain bitterly because the differentiation of that extra carriage return is minimal with a 1.5 or double-spaced format. This means my baby blues get very tired very fast because there’s no break. It’s all text and very little white space.

So, authors, don’t assume your agent will call you to task on your formatting. Be a good girl scout and be prepared. With all the information on the internet, there is no legit excuse for not knowing how to format a manuscript.

Know Your Competition

I know I harp on this so much that I now see books floating past me in my dreams. Either that or I need to lay off the beagle’s chocolate martinis before bedtime. Whether you write fiction or nonfiction, you need to know your genre. Who’s hot and who’s getting recognition? And I’m not just talking about the Big Names, but the solid mid-lister books that sell quite respectably and you hear about.

How does your book compare in your genre?
Has this been done before?
What makes your book unique?
Why would readers want to read your book?

These are questions that many authors don’t ask themselves, and this lack of knowledge betrays them when they get to the query stage. We editors gotta sell your book to a whole sales team, those magic bundles of love who have seen it all and done it all. They know books and genre like I know the beagle’s soft groans means she’s been out partying with the Dalmations again. They know when something is unique and when it’s a” been thar, done that, we don’t need it.”

If I can’t convince the sales guys, then how good do you think my chances are of them pitching it with huge enthusiasm? I’m not just a humorless windbag because it thrills my blackened heart. Convincing people to love and buy a book is like walking uphill carrying a ten-ton boulder…on ice. The better prepared you are, the better able you are to advocate your book’s brilliance to me.

Preparation – The Book Proposal

I’ve discussed book proposals before – here’s a link to my other posts. Effectively advocating your book takes big preparation, and I always recommend writing a book proposal…even if you write fiction…because it forces you to think about all the nitpicky questions you’ll be asked at some point. Do you have to do this? ‘Course not. But look at it this way – if I’m given two books of equal quality and desirability, except one query states that they have a full proposal prepared and the other doesn’t, which way do you think I’ll lean?

The more information I have going into a partial read, the clearer picture I have of the book’s possibilities, and the more excited I am about taking the next step of asking for the full, and discussing the book with the sales guys.

There are all kinds of proposals, but the best one I’ve seen to date is from one of our new authors, Amanda Adams, author of Heart Warriors (release June 2012). Her proposal was so keenly thought out, and had anticipated my every question, that she gave me no reason to say no. That is preparation.

The view from my batcave is this: Preparation is the best defense in becoming the cream that will float to the top. Obviously, there are no guarantees – what is in life, right? – but those who take the extra step to anticipate are giving themselves the best chances of all. And I do want you to be successful.

Public Service # 245 – Formatting your manuscript

July 15, 2011

I’ve actually talked about this before, but it always bears updating and repeating. Formatting is the lifeblood to our tired eyes. When you send a manuscript out, it should be:

Times New Roman – 12 pt.
Double spaced
1 inch margins
Page numbers – Some say not to include page numbers, some say to include them. Personally I like them because I can remember where I left off if I’m reading on my computer. But to be sure, always look at the submission guidelines of those you query.

What Not to Add

Design: I know some authors like to design their manuscripts so they’re all pretty and artsy fartsy. They add cute little graphics at the beginning of their chapters or sprinkle them around the text. This is window dressing, and we don’t need it. If we sign you, we have to remove all those little cutsies, which is enough to make me mainline engine grease.

Chapter Headings/Formatting:  Chapter headings are a particularly fun playground for authors. I’ve seen cases where the chapter headings are formatted with some enormous line spacing, placed halfway down the page, then added about fifteen carriage returns so only a couple paragraphs make it on the first page of each new chapter. Gah.

For us, your manuscript isn’t about pretty pretty and bling, it’s about reading or editing the manuscript. There’s no need to get fancy. In fact, we’d love it if you wouldn’t get fancy. We have interior designers who take care of that business.

Photos:  It’s fine to you mention that you have photos, but please don’t include them because it blows up the size of the file. It’s not about the photos – it’s about the story. If your editor decides to use the photos, she’ll correspond with you on how she wants them sent to her.

**A quick sideline about photos – lots of authors (nonfiction) want to use photos in their stories. It’s helpful if you undestand that your editor may feel differently about them. They take up space and add pages, which every penny-pinching, hawk-nosed editor tries to keep to a minimum. If it makes sense to include them, she’ll tell you. But don’t assume they’ll be included.

Acknowledgments/Dedication:  I normally ask for an these after we’ve completed the final edits and it’s time to insert all the other stuff, like a TOC and a bibliography (if there is one), and we’re getting ready to do the layout. For query purposes, it’s simply extra fluff we don’t need.

In closing, I have to admit to losing count of the many times I’ve had to reformat submissions just so I could read them. And it always makes the beagle grumble because it’s her job to reformat.

So for the love of the beagle – or some other agent’s or editor’s beagle – keep it simple and straightforward.

Formatting your manuscript – the silent scream

January 11, 2011

There are some formatting transgressions that will get you spanked and sent to the corner so your editor can quietly down a bottle of Draino. So let’s talk about those, ok?

It goes without saying that your manuscript should be:

  • double spaced,
  • 12 pt. Times New Roman,
  • .05 paragraph indents

To do anything else would make your editor jump off a cliff at low tide. But there are the little nigglies that authors can take care of before they send their darlings out to play on the literary playground.

Spacing after full stop

Regardless of what punctuation you use to designate a full stop of a sentence, there should only be ONE space. Not two. Yes, that’s the way we were taught in high school and college. But publishing only uses one space when printing a book. Space wasters = money busters. We’re a cheap lot, and we know that removing one space between sentences reduces page counts.

Will I send out the beagle and her gang of leather-frocked German Shepherds? Nah. I’ll just go in and do the universal presto-change-o from two spaces to one. But it’s lovely when an author understands this ahead of time and formats their ms with one space.

Double dash = em dash

If you want to use an em dash then use an em dash (—), don’t use two little dashes (–) because we have to go in and change it. Again, it’s not a big deal, but it’s a time waster.

And while you’re at it, check to see if you have a lot of the little beggars. I edited a manuscript where I noticed they’d used the little double dashes. I went in with my Seek and Destroy and noticed they’d used 283 dashes.

Thatsa lotta dashes, and I did a LOT of refining because those dashes create a pace and flow. Used properly, they’re great. Overused, and they are clunky little whippersnappers than make me drool. Like my love for chocolate martinis, everything in moderation is best.


Be careful with your use of colons. They have a clinic-y feel to them, and they can easily take the softness and poetic flavor out of your writing. Think about using a comma or semi-colon instead. If you don’t, chances are your editor will.

Underline = italics

This is really old-fashioned. Back in the day when typewriters didn’t have italics, writers would underline to denote italics. We don’t have that problem nowadays, so join the 21st Century and use them. This is a particularly irksome feature that takes a lot of time because I can’t use the universal seek and destroy feature. I have to manually fix them one by one, which makes my teeth itch.


I always have my punctuation phaser set to stun because it’s so easy to let them do the heavy lifting. Thing is, punctuation wasn’t meant to do heavy lifting. So if your manuscript has a ton of exclamation points, I know that you’ve let them do the job your writing is supposed to do. I had a manuscript that was roughly 100,000 words and it contained 265 exclamation points. I nearly fainted.

If you need to communicate excitement, tension, or fear, show it, don’t tell it by sticking an exclamation point at the end and calling it a day.


Lazy way out: Overworked and Underpaid Editor was out of Twinkies and was so upset!

Putting some elbow grease into it: Overworked and Underpaid Editor broke out in a cold sweat. Her stomach rumbled, and her heart rate jump-roped into triple digits. She was out of Twinkies.

You’ll find that by forcing yourself to review your use of exclamation points, you’ll become a better writer because you’re not using punctuation as a crutch.

So these are a few of the little things you can do to make keep your editor’s hair from turning white. Will any of this result in instant death rejection? Nah. But it’s always lovely to avoid that silent scream that makes us break out into cold sweats at 3 a.m.

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