Monday, September 22, 2008

Emerging Authors Want to Know!

Hello, my name is Emma Larkins and I'll be running a feature called Emerging Authors Want To Know! I'm just starting out on the path to publishdom (and, hopefully, to making a living as a professional writer someday) so you can imagine I have a lot of questions on my mind.

Dear Exalted Editors,

My first question is based on an event that heaped a whole lot of stress on me - my first story submission to a literary magazine. I had the usual worries about whether the editors would like the story or not, and whether there was anything I could have done to improve the flow or the character interactions. But the one thing that truly terrified me, that made my finger quake as I pressed the submit button, was this - what if I hadn't formatted my submission correctly?

I'd like to hear it straight from the experienced editors here - how important is correct formatting? I already know that spelling and grammar mistakes can easily get a story thrown on the slush pile, but what about the formatting requirements unique to this industry that aren't taught to us in grammar school? Am I supposed to use Courier New, Courier Old, Courier Ancient? Are there editors out there with magnifying glasses trying to deduce whether I've used 11 point font or 11.5? Will my story automatically be rejected if one of my quotation marks is not straight, but instead (gasp!) curved?

Dani: Well, first Emma, did the contest/magazine itself state specific requirements for your entry? Follow those to the letter, no ifs, ands, or buts. They gave you rules for one reason - to follow.

Maryann: Even though it can sometimes be a pain to find and follow all the formatting requirements for different places, it is worth the trouble. An editor once told me that because of the sheer volume of sumissions he receives, he looks for any excuse to pass on a manuscript and go on to the next. I also heard the same thing from a reader at a major film studio. So, yes, adhering to the format requirements is a must.

Helen: As Dani and Maryann have already said, follow the guidelines given by the magazine, contest, agent, newspaper or editor. If you can't find any and you've tried all avenues, call them. If that doesn't help, go with either Courier New or Times New Roman, 12 point, double spaced.

Elsa: Another minor point that many new writers love to do is plaster the word "Copyright" and/or the copyright symbol on their manuscripts - this marks the writer as an amateur. Agents and publishers work in the publishing industry; they know that your manuscript is copyrighted. If the person reading your ms is in a bad mood or looking for any excuse to get something off his slush pile, this can be an easy one to justify because a writer desperate to protect their copyright could prove to be hard work because he "doesn't understand the industry".

Having said that, take inspiration from the fact that JK Rowling broke all the rules and still got read and published. She submitted a dog-eared, ring-bound, single-spaced ms, typed on both sides of the page.

I'd like it if you could provide a simple set of guidelines to follow, or tell me where to find such a Holy Grail. Or, even better, tell me that formatting isn't as big of an issue in this digital age as it used to be! I know enough to check the publisher's website for submission details, but sometimes those details don't cover formatting. Help!

Dani: If the publisher's website doesn't give you specifics, a good guide is always The Writers Market which gives you that information in each and every annual edition. This book is money well-spent even if you never submit work to any one of the publishers listed. Just the basic information packed into one volume is worth the cost. Don't you all agree?

Maryann: I agree that Writers Market is a great resource, but I don't know how current it is for small publishers and e-publishers who have their own set of formatting requirements. The best best is still a publisher's Web site.

Dani: That's true. Everyone seems to be developing their own informal style books these days. It's difficult to know what to do, and that's not just a newbie issue.

Helen: Go with the publisher's website. Almost all of them will give you guidelines for submitting. It is a big issue, actually. Agents and editors have to read so many submissions that if your manuscript doesn't fit their rules, it gives them a reason to say no. Unless they instruct otherwise, always double-space. That's easier on their eyes.

Elsa: The publishing industry is notoriously slow to change, so no, formatting is just as important in the digital age as it has ever been. But that does mean that giving the agent or publisher the formatting that they expect is the easiest way to handle this issue. If they don't specify how they want the submission handled, go with the standard rules.


My dream is to make a living as a published author, and I'm doing everything in my power to make it happen. To that end, I'm blogging, tweeting, Facebook-friending, linking in and building Squidoo lenses to my heart's content. Oh, and I occasionally manage to type a few words on my novel or my short stories! My publication credits include a story titled Midsummer Disc Dreams in the outdoor literary magazine , In the Mist, and an article called The Writer's Passion on the Feminine Aspects

Emma Larkins' Blog

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  1. Thanks for the questions, Emma.

    I hope you'll come up with some more!

  2. I'm surprised no one has asked what a fledgling author should do if the publisher's website doesn't give good information. Is it okay to contact them for more help? Scary thought for a newcomer!


  3. Thanks everyone for your great answers! At least now I know I'm not the only one who worries about this stuff. And Dani, you're right - contacting a publisher IS scary! Even after the editor contacted me to let me know my story was accepted, I was afraid to email her back too many times. I thought maybe she'd revoke my publication :o

  4. On the contrary, I worked as a trade magazine editor for years, and even though we had submission guidelines, formatting was irrelevant to me. All I cared about was content, and I accepted or rejected articles, based entirely on value to our readers. Every submitted file had to be stripped of formatting (paste special!) before it even went into a Word document for editing. Then it was flowed into Quark for layout. I'm not suggesting you ignore the rules, but good content trumps everything.

  5. Very cool concept for a series!

    When I was a mag editor, proper formatting was nice...but content and a strong voice were better.

  6. The thing to remember about manuscript format is that it is all intended to make someone else's job easier, whether that someone is an acquisitions editor, copy editor or layout person. Coach Bilmo ( gives a pretty good account of how the different specs from courier to underlining, help someone do their job better. It's worth noting, too, that if a certain format makes an editor's job easier, it also makes the writer's job easier when the writer is wearing his/her editor hat.

    As others have said, it is important to check out publishers and agents websites for guidelines. If your look around the Larson/Pomada Agency website, you will find a downloadable font called "Dark Courier." I suspect that Larson or Pomada read so many manuscripts that they become fatigued quite easily by faint type. Regardless of why they recommend it. I made sure to download it and reformat my submission before sending it to them. Heck, I'd have downloaded it if it were "Vampire Fang Gothic." Always try to make it easy for the editor/agent to evaluate your submission.


The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.


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