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Wednesday, November 29, 2006


How to present a manuscript

Moving on from the theme of self-publishing, though I'm still open to discussion if anyone wants to continue, today we're going to be talking about what your manuscript should look like when you send it off to an agency or publisher. (I'm generally saying 'editor', because that's what I used to do, but the advice applies to agencies as well. I'd always advise people to get an agent before approaching publishers.)

A manuscript submitted for consideration should look like this:

Printed on plain white A4 paper.
Printed in Times New Roman or Times, 12pt in size.
Double spaced.
Numbered pages.
Paragraphs indented rather than separated by a line break.

That's the easiest possible combination on the eye. It means that the format is simple and clean, with nothing standing between the editor's attention and the story.

What you don't need:

Coloured or fancy paper. White is cheaper for you and much easier on the editor's eye, and fancy paper is distracting. The editor doesn't need a beautiful object; after all, the more she's enjoying the story the more likely she is to leave absent-minded coffee stains.

A 'sexy' font. Sexy fonts are hard to read.

A 'mock-up' or 'temporary' piece of cover art. That's getting way ahead of yourself. If they publish it, they'll have excellent people in the art department to handle the cover, who have skills and experience and knowledge of the marketplace that it's probable you won't have. In any case, that's for later on in the process; what they're interested in now is the words on the page.

Gimmicky icons in the text, separating sections or highlighting chapter openings. Unless you're a professional typesetter, the editor (who looks at typeset manuscripts for a living) will find it hard not to notice that they're low quality, especially if you've just pasted them on Word. As with cover art, if they buy the book they'll have it done properly later.

All of those things are trying too hard. If the editor likes your book, you don't need them, and if she doesn't, they won't change her mind. Editors are suspicious of such things; as well as being visually tiring, they look like you're trying to distract her from the text, which risks implying you don't think it's good enough to impress her on its own.

A copyright statement. The manuscript is your copyright whether you state it explicitly or not; the only way it wouldn't be is if you signed away your rights to it, which no reputable publisher or agent will ask for. (If anyone does, run like the wind.) A copyright statement implies you think the publishers or agency might nick your ideas if you don't warn them off, which is not a good way to establish a working relationship.

Any kind of binding. The agent or editor may want to take fifty pages home to read on the train, and she can't do that if you've stuck them together. Folders and files take up limited desk space. Publishing people are well accustomed to handling piles of paper, and binding gets in the way.

Un-numbered pages. Sometimes piles of paper get dropped. Worse, someone may want to make notes about the story, and if they don't have page numbers to navigate by, it's impossible. Unlike you, they don't have the story by heart, so they need page numbers if they're going to refer back. Reading an un-numbered manuscript is like trying to drive through a strange city at night without a map; it's terribly disorientating and makes editors miserable. Either that or they'll start numbering pages themselves, resenting you for making it necessary.

A lot of the overkills are done on the assumption that 'good presentation can't hurt'. It can't. But an editor's idea of well-presented means clear, simple and manageable. Extras are almost always unwelcome; agents and publishers are looking for people who will make professional writers, and bindings, fancy paper and visual gimmicks look amateurish. Trust me: the duller your physical presentation, the more interested people will be.

Thanks - that all seems like good, sensible advice.

One little query though: I've got into the habit of using Courier instead of Times, pretty much as per the template that the BBC offer here.

I have to say, I do prefer a fixed-width font to a proportional one. Courier's not too 'fancy' though, is it? (Perhaps it's more 'old-fashioned' than anything?)
I guess it depends on what you're submitting. If you're submitting to the BBC, then by all means listen to them rather than me when it comes to formats: they know what they like. If it's a novel and publishers, I'd personally go with Times or Times New Roman as it's a bit easier to read - but don't sue me if I'm wrong! If you have somewhere in particular in mind, you can always call them and ask what they prefer.

Courier isn't too fancy, no, though I seldom saw it in submissions and didn't much care for it - it is a bit old-fashioned-looking. I was thinking more of all those submissions I gave up on that were in fake copperplate, scary-scary Gothick, or something equally illegible. Man, I hated getting those.
Thanks for your advice. they are really helpful!
Thanks for the advice, but would it have to be indented instead of line space? I mean, I'll change it if it will really help, but it would take a lot of time. Thanks
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