Monday, 25 March 2013

Manuscripts Dressed to Impress

Imagine going to a job interview. You are by far the most qualified person for the job, but you show up to the interview in sweat pants and a stained hoodie. We all wish the world were a place where that wouldn’t matter, where the boss would overlook your outward sloppiness and give you the job based only on your brilliant ideas and excellent record of success. But we know the world doesn’t work like that.

A previous toolbox post talks about the importance of professional cover design ( However, professional presentation starts with our manuscripts, well before the book hits the shelves. Whether we’re submitting to an agent, an editor, a workshop, or a critique group, the document’s spelling, grammar, punctuation and formatting will make an impression on readers. Therefore, it’s to our advantage to make sure our work is professionally dressed anytime we send it out into the world.

Ensuring a professional-looking manuscript requires spending time on two skill sets: language skills of spelling, grammar and punctuation; and technological skills of formatting and submitting.

Language Skills

While it’s a good idea to hire a professional proofreader if you are publishing independently or submitting to an agent, it’s still worthwhile to invest time in learning to proofread yourself. The following resources can help.

Fellow writers: It takes time to learn to identify your mistakes. Editing other writers’ work helps build an awareness you can apply to your own work. If a fellow writer proofreads well, ask them to line edit a short piece. Their edits will show you what mistakes you often make. Then you can create a list of these mistakes to refer to while proofreading.

Style guides: A style guide is the ultimate resource when you’re not sure where that comma goes, how to abbreviate a certain word, or when to use italics. If your form of writing doesn’t require a certain style, pick a style you like and use it consistently. Style guides include The Associated Press Style Book, The Chicago Manual of Style, and Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style. The Economist provides a free A-Z style guide online here:

The Internet: There’s little excuse for language mistakes when we have the whole Internet at our disposal. Use an online dictionary if you’re not absolutely sure of a word’s spelling or meaning. Also check the idioms in your piece. If you’re not positive whether it’s ‘chock full’ or ‘chocked full’, do a Google search for each. The phrasing with more search results normally is the correct one. For quick and entertaining tutorials on mistakes we all make, check out the series of grammar-themed online comics at (

One note: Correct language doesn’t mean your piece must sound like an encyclopedia entry. Depending on the piece’s tone and voice, you might break some rules. What’s important is to know when you’re breaking rules and to be able to justify how breaking them enhances your story.

Technology Skills

Today’s writers can’t avoid using computers, so it’s crucial to learn how to change font sizes, margins and line spacing; add headers and footers; determine your word count; and upload or send your files via e-mail. The Help function in your word-processing program is a primary resource, followed by an Internet search for your specific question. If you are seriously technologically challenged, basic tutorials or classes could be a worthwhile investment.

Formatting guidelines: Before submitting your work anywhere, check for preferred formatting and submission procedures. For example, many publications prefer that you paste your piece into the body of an e-mail and may automatically delete your submission if you send an attachment. That said, formatting your submission according to the following guidelines will be appropriate most of the time.

- Use an 11-12 point serif font like Times New Roman. Serif fonts are more comfortable to read.

- Double space between lines, even between paragraphs. Scene breaks can be indicated by an extra line of white space or a small centered symbol. Use only one spacebar space between sentences.

- Use 1 inch/2.54 cm margins.

- Include a header or footer on each page with your last name and the page number (Example: Smith pg. 7 of 8). Your name is there in case your printed piece is accidentally scattered all over the floor along with several other submissions, and the page number makes it easier for readers to point out specific passages for critique.

- Save your work as a Microsoft Word document (.doc, not .docx) or .pdf file. These file formats will most likely work on all computers.

- Include your last name in the file name (Example: Smith_BestStoryEver.pdf). Again, having your name in the file name makes it easier to identify your work in a sea of submissions.

Improving language and technology skills can seem like a waste of precious creative writing time, but over the long term you will avoid stress and your readers will avoid frustration. It could even save your submission from instant rejection.

Kelly Jarosz is a published academic writer and award-winning communications consultant. She is co-founder of the Zurich Writers Workshop ( and is actively working on a novel.

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