While so much of writing is subjective, formatting is not. Writing professionals generally agree with the following guidelines:
- The manuscript must be typed or computer-generated. No handwritten submissions, regardless of how wonderful your handwriting.
- Use 8 1/2 by 11-inch white unlined paper of average thickness (no onion skin and no card stock). Don’t use cute graphics or pretty flowers.
- Use an easy-to-read font, preferably Times New Roman in 12 point.
- Left adjust the print. Do not right adjust, center or fill the line to force a right flush.
- Leave at least a one inch margin on all sides of the print.
- Double space. Use your computer settings; do not manually enter the spaces. Don’t skip a line between paragraphs or scenes.
- Indent each paragraph five spaces (1/2 inch). Again, use your settings.
- Do not skip a line between paragraphs.
- Center asterisks, dashes, or dots when you intentionally leave a line blank.
- Unless your manuscript is a submission for a contest with different instructions, put the name of the manuscript and your name, separated by a slash, on the upper left corner of every page. (Skip the first page if you include your name and info on it.)
- Unless otherwise instructed, put the word “page” and the page number (use a number, not the spelling) on the upper right corner of each page.
- Do not staple the pages or use bindings. For small manuscripts, use a paper clip. For larger ones, put in an appropriately sized box.
- Spell check.
- Never send the only copy of your work.
- Verify that all pages are included and that all are in readable condition.
- Include a cover letter, unless requested not to. It can be short, simple, and to the point, but should include the author’s full name and address, telephone number with best time to call, and email address. It should give the name of the manuscript, the approximate word count, and a statement as to why you’re sending it. (Be specific. If for publication in a magazine, list the magazine name. If for a contest, list the contest name and end date. If for a critique, say so.) You may also mention the reason for writing and anything else pertinent or special about the manuscript or the author. Give special instructions, such as if you do not want the manuscript returned. Keep the cover letter to one page, single spaced.
- If a query is enclosed, it should take the place of the cover letter. A query should have one paragraph about the manuscript, one paragraph about the author (include any awards, special qualifications and publishing history) and one paragraph about what you want (representation, published) and what you are willing do to get it (book-signings, speeches, sacrifice your firstborn). Don’t try to be funny. It’s almost guaranteed that the professional won’t share your sense of humor and will reject your work.
- Include a stamped, self-addressed envelope. Be sure to include ample postage, enough for the professional to add three or four pages of her own in addition to your manuscript. If you live in a different country than the recipient, do not adhere the postage. Instead, paper clip international reply coupons or the funds to cover the postage. This should be noted on the cover page.
- If a fee is required, send a check or money order, never cash. When you live in a different country than the recipient, send a money order in the correct funds for the recipient’s country. For example, if you live in Canada and you are sending to a US address, get a money order payable in US funds. Most banks, post offices and — last resort — international airports, can handle this transaction for a small fee.
- Never pay an agent or publisher, unless you are well aware of exactly what you will receive for your money. Legitimate agents and publishers do not charge reading fees. Likewise, be wary of an agent or publisher who recommends a specific book doctor or editor. It is likely that there is a kick-back involved and you’ll be paying for it.
- Double check everything before mailing, including the recipient’s address. Seal, drop in the mailbox and say a prayer.
There are entire books devoted to manuscript formats and submission, but these are the basics. Unless you need specific information or guidance for writing a query letter, you should be fine. Also keep in mind that some publishers have specific guidelines. If you are working without an agent, pay attention to these.
- Remember, you will never be published (or win a contest) if you don’t take that first step and make a submission.
- Rejection, however uncomfortable, is not fatal.
For additional tips, worksheets, and discussions, order your own copy of the The Plain English Writer’s Workbook.
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