The subliminal impact of style

Appearances aren’t everything – we know that! But when it comes to presenting manuscript, writers can do a lot to get noticed by conforming to publishers’ guidelines.

These are based on long-held conventions and I know from many years of editing how frustrating it is to receive fancied-up ms. It’s so distracting. And it means a lot of extra work, undoing formatting before the edit can begin.

We – editors, publishers, agents – are accustomed to reading manuscript in its traditional form: typed on one side of an A4 page, double spaced, no extra space between paragraphs, and all paragraphs uniformly indented (other than those immediately following a heading, which are, of course, flush left). We can visualise what the text will look like when it’s typeset: you don’t need to show us.

No amount of clever styling, boxed features or variations in typeface will make poor or ordinary writing brilliant. Nor will eye-catching quirky layouts impress us. In fact, the more tizzied up a manuscript appears, the warier I am: what is this writer trying to disguise? Why do they not let the words speak for themselves?

Enough of the rant … I’m sure you’ve got my message.

So how did the convention arise? Double line spacing allows for ease of reading, and editors traditionally made their changes in the space between the lines, adding hand-written notes in the wide margins. Most of us edit mainly on screen these days, but we generally still have a hard copy of the manuscript sitting beside the keyboard.

In this digital age there are practical software-based reasons, too, for maintaining traditional ms presentation. Final edited manuscript, in the form of a Word file, is electronically transmitted to the typesetter or graphic artist who creates the artwork for book pages, usually InDesign. Any extraneous spaces, boxes, tabs or returns, for example, will slow the designer down, not to mention causing great frustration.

Manuscript should look like this:

And this presentation is easy to achieve. Here’s a simple checklist you can work through (hint: the Font and Format menus in Word, and the search and replace facility, are a gift to writers and editors) before you send your baby off for consideration:

  • only one typeface (a classic serif face like Times New Roman or Garamond is easy to read), in a uniform size, typically 12pt
  • manuscript double spaced with generous margins
  • paragraphs uniformly indented (use the Format/Paragraph menu)
  • all extraneous spaces between words, sentences and paragraphs deleted
  • no tabs
  • no extra returns (i.e. no extra space between paragraphs)
  • no boxes (indicate boxed copy with tags <begin boxed copy> / <end boxed copy>)
  • all pages numbered (use the Insert menu), with a runner line stating the book title and author name

Who said editors are pedantic? I promise something less didactic next week.

Meanwhile, may your words shine!

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3 Responses to The subliminal impact of style

  1. jeff apter says:

    Hi Desney, Good to see that you’re keeping writers honest. Sound advice. Have you blogged your thoughts on e-readers yet, incidentally? All the best, Jeff Apter

  2. Desney King says:

    Thanks, Jeff.
    I’ve been holding off commenting on e-readers. There’s so much being written on the subject – great overview article in a recent Good Weekend, for example. But like all of us who love books and reading, and especially those of us who earn a living from the publishing industry, I’m watching developments closely and with keen interest. My gut feeling is that within a short time (the next few years?), most of us will be reading both: traditional paper books, and ebooks.

  3. jeff apter says:

    Desney, There was a great cartoon in a recent New Yorker, in which a flight attendant is walking through a plane’s cabin while announcing: ‘As we prepare for landing, can you please turn off your books.’ I don’t think we’ve quite gotten to that stage yet. However, as an author — and a Kindle lover — I’m now very open to the concept of e-books, and while writing I keep handy any additional material I may have (interviews, videos, etc) that would work in an e-book. E-books are now being built into most contracts, too, even though a standard e-royalty rate is not yet clear. Very much the way forward, I think, for authors and publishers. All the best, Jeff

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