Rejection – there’s no escaping it – is horrid part of the writer’s life. But there are practical steps we can take to, at a minimum, give our writing the best possible opportunity to succeed. There are a number of things we can do but, today, I want to concentrate on the most basic of skills:
This might seem to be the least of our concerns when we’re writing a story, and you may be thinking: Who cares about such mundane things, as long as my characters are vibrant, and my plot is sizzling, and my settings are authentic?
Well, the professional publisher, editor, agent, or judge of a competition (or teacher, for that matter), you want to read your story cares, and – aside from your cover letter (which we’ll discuss in a future blog) – your formatting is the first message that these people receive about your professionalism, and whether you take yourself seriously as a writer.
Think of formatting as your introductory handshake – if it is loose, perfunctory, or non-existent, this creates a negative impression. If it is confident and appropriate, this tells your reader that you know what you’re doing and, that you respect the time they are about to give to your work.
The other reason you should care is because poor formatting can kill your story before your amazing characters/plot/setting etc. even get a chance to impress. Consider the position of the person who you want to read your work: they receive hundreds of submissions in a year. They can’t read everything, so how do they cull the herd?
The first way is by tossing or deleting work that doesn’t meet their submission guidelines. Not following a publisher’s submission guidelines to the letter is foolish and a waste of time. Not the publisher’s time, but your time, because the publisher won’t read your work. Simple.
Now, if you have followed the guidelines, this should mean your work is formatted in the way the publisher wants – great! You’re over the first hurdle. But, what if the publisher isn’t specific about how a work should be formatted. In this case, you should fall back on the industry standard.
This can be a little difficult because there are variations in what industry standards might be – hence, the reason we read and follow the submission guidelines – but there are a few things that are standard, and which will give your writing the professional look that will, at least, encourage a publisher to start reading.
1. Use a standard font – Arial, Times New Roman, or Calibri are good choices. Avoid fancy fonts – these will not impress a publisher, or make your work stand out from the crowd (well, it will, but for the wrong reason).
2. Set line spacing to 1.5 or 2 (double). Avoid single or 1.15 line spacing. Your goal is to make your work accessible. Single line spacing is hard to read in hardcopy and on the screen. If you are offering a work for appraisal, narrow line spacing makes feedback harder. Give your reader a break; help them to get into your work by making their job easier.
3. Paragraphing – avoid inserting lines between or after paragraphs (i.e. block paragraphs). Look at a novel – have you ever seen one that uses block paragraphs? No – and there’s a practical reason for this: length. If block paragraphs were the standard format, novels would be twice as long and cost twice as much to produce (roughly). The other reason we don’t use spaces between our paragraphs is because this space actually has a purpose. When we double line space, it indicates to the reader that the story has moved in time or location (this space maybe accompanied by a ‘slug’ – a single, centred asterix [*] – if you wish).
4. Indent paragraphs – all paragraphs are indented one tab space, except in the first paragraph – again, check out a novel – in any section (i.e. including after the above-mentioned double line space). This is very easy to set up in a MS Word document, either manually under the ‘Paragraphing’ tab in the top menu bar (this is important if you are self-publishing a work), or MS Word will do it for you automatically: type your first non-indented paragraph, press Enter for a new paragraph, then Tab and Word will do the rest.
5. Dialogue – has the same formatting rules as the rest of your story. Start a new paragraph when a character speaks (new event/topic = new paragraph). Indent the paragraph as you would all other paragraphs. And remember, dialogue must have correct punctuation: visit The Editor's Blog for an excellent guide on how to punctuate dialogue. One other thing, should you use single or double speech marks? Again, check the formatting guidelines, but as a general ‘rule’, American publications use double [“…”], while English/Australian publications (except newspapers) use single [‘…’].
6. Avoid the fancy – publishers aren’t interested in your fabulous artistic title art, or weird paragraphing (unless it has a purpose). They don’t want to see anything in all caps (this is ‘shouting’ in written form), or bold for emphasis. Like your writing, keep the formatting simple, clear and accessible. Although many publishers, editors, appraisalists, and competition will ask for digital copies of work, if you do have to submit in hardcopy, keep it basic. Use good quality white paper (nothing coloured – this only makes it easier to spot your work and dump it in the nearest shredder), and black ink; don’t attach bribes (e.g. your favourite chocolate, or tea bag) or thread a hair across the manuscript to ensure it’s been read (you laugh, but it happens). Nothing will entice a person to start reading your work as much a clean, professionally formatted manuscript.
7. Be Consistent – however you choose to present your manuscript, the golden rule is consistency. Like a silky Crème brûlée, it may be wrong to consume, but it’ll be smooth going down.
Writing is a tough business and we need to do everything we can to ensure our work is read, whether by a publisher or the judge in a competition. Keep them on your side: show them you’re serious, that you care about your work, and their experience of reading you. In my next blog, I’ll write about some other ways we can minimise that rejection pile.
Until then, in the words of Spinoza: