Preparing your manuscript for submission to literary agents and publishers should be an uncomplicated business. If your writing is strong enough, an agent/editor is unlikely to care if you’ve written the entire draft in block capital letters with an indigo conté crayon and given it a coat of Ronseal. But with the slim odds of an agent/editor plucking your novel out of the slush pile already against you, it makes sense to give serious consideration to the presentation of your work. Trust me, it’s more important than you think.
Agents and editors read through a vanload of submissions every year, and some of them need only the slightest excuse to turn your book down. Your bizarre choice of font might not be the only reason they stop reading, aghast, but it certainly won’t make them think you’re a serious writer who pays attention to minutiae. If you make rookie mistakes with your presentation, you’ll come across as a rookie writer. Any television cook will tell you: the first bite is with the eye. So don’t ruin your wonderful novel by plating it up as gracelessly as a Little Chef breakfast. Think about it. Be meticulous.
If the formatting tips below seem incredibly obvious to you, that’s because they are. Still, you wouldn’t believe how many submissions fail to adhere to at least five of these bullet-points…
1. Double-Space It
I shouldn’t have to tell you that your manuscript should be typed. If you want to use an antique Olivetti typewriter and auction it off for charity when you’re an uber-successful author like Cormac McCarthy, that’s great (though you’d save yourself a lot of sore fingertips by investing in a basic computer). What’s absolutely imperative is that you double-space your typescript. It might use up a few more trees, but it makes it easier for an agent/editor to read. And simple things like ease-of-reading tend to please them greatly.
2. Add Page Numbers
Always put these at the bottom, not at the top. Even if I’m Australian, you ask, where we always do things upside down, just like in the cartoons? Yes. Even if you’re Australian. And preferably, put the numbers over on the right-hand side of the page, too.
3. Put the Title and Your Name on Every Page
The title of the book and your name should appear on each page as a footer. This is just in case a page goes missing when your agent-to-be is reading your typescript. That way, when she finds the errant page creased up inside the vacuum cleaner, she knows which of the hundreds of typescripts in her office it belongs to and can finally piece together the intricate jigsaw of your heart-stopping plot. Plus, it can’t hurt to remind the agent/editor of your name every thirty seconds. You want it to invade their dreams.
4. Contact Details
Put your address and contact information underneath your name on the cover page of the typescript. You want an agent to know exactly how to get in touch with you when you’ve impressed her with the quality of your writing. Here’s an example I made in about twenty-eight seconds: Hot to Trot.doc (see page 3).
5. For Heaven’s Sake Use a Sensible Font
Without getting into a debate about design aesthetics, I want to stress the importance of this issue. Use an honest, hard-working serif font like Times New Roman, Garamond, Bell MT, or Book Antiqua. Or a classy, clean non-serif font like Arial, Helvetica, Verdana, or Gil Sans. These are just a few suggested typefaces; there is some wiggle-room, of course, but be sensible in your font choice. Unless you’re writing a novel in the form of a 300-page ransom note, wacky fonts will go unappreciated. What about Courier, you ask? Save it for your screenplays…
6. For Pete’s Sake Use a Sensible Font Size
For a traditional kind of story, using anything over 12pt for the body of your text is quite simply ridiculous. If you happen to be a super-cool, edgy postmodernist like Mark Danielewski, anything goes – you have licence to write a whole novel in 45pt Wingdings – but you’re probably not, so don’t.
7. Single Sided, Please
This is a kind of unspoken industry expectation. Don’t try to save ink by printing your novel on both sides of the page. I’m afraid it’s a sad truth that agents and editors don’t care about how much inkjet cartridges cost, or how much they charge per page at your local copy shop. You have to speculate to accumulate, right? Fewer trees equals more room for supermarkets!
8. Don’t Bind It
Forget that spiral-binding machine you bought. Forget the translucent green plastic Rexel wallet. Forget those cute Hello Kitty paper clips. Just print it, stack the pages up, and put a big elastic band around it. Buy a big enough padded envelope to house it and send it off. You could put it in a small box—the kind that printer paper generally comes in—or a sturdy box file. An agent will want to be able to leaf through your ts (industry shorthand there) very easily. She may want to leave the parts of it in the office and take the unread parts home. She may want to make copies of it for other people in the agency or the editors on her wish list. Don’t make her job any harder with your giant staples, and don’t clog her briefcase with your cumbersome lever-arch files.
9. Be Consistent
Inconsistent formatting implies the writer’s concentration is inconsistent, too. It doesn’t matter if you format your dialogue with double quotations, single quotations, italics, em-dashes, or with no punctuation at all—as long as you’re consistent. It doesn’t matter if you format your prose by left-aligning it, leaving double-spaces between paragraphs rather than indenting every first line, as long as you’re consistent. If Chapter One’s heading was underlined and centred on page 1, then Chapter Thirty-Eight’s heading better not be italicised and left-aligned on page 274. Come on now. Concentrate.
10. Proofread It
Your book may be 1000 pages long and there are bound to be at least fifty typos in it. Try your best to spot them all and eradicate them like the vermin they are. Reading over your typescript in hardcopy is the easiest way. At the very least, you should aim to have no typos in the first 50 pages. Anything that makes an agent/editor stop reading in these early stages should be avoided at all costs, whether it’s an innocuous misspelled word (“there” instead of “their”) or a seriously embarrassing typo (you meant “pens” but you wrote “penis”). Proofreading your typescript thoroughly before sending it out will help you sleep better at night.
11. Make It a PDF
This is completely optional, but advisable. Saving your typescript as a PDF will retain all of your formatting. If you wrote it on a Mac, using a beautiful Mac-only font, it won’t default to another font when opened on a PC, and vice versa. Nor will your perfectly established page breaks be altered, screwing up your layout. It’s a sure-fire way to ensure that your meticulous formatting doesn’t go to waste when your agent requests an electronic copy of your manuscript.
12. No Dedications or Acknowledgments (Yet)
Could just be my own pet peeve, this one, but I think it’s a little presumptuous to include a gushing dedication to your boyfriend at the beginning of your typescript (“To Reggie, My Tower of Strength”) or to give a list of acknowledgements at the end (“…and finally, to my cats, Wilson and Barry, for their companionship in the lonely process of writing this novel”). Save these for when the book is accepted. You can thank whoever you want to then (e.g. “To Benjamin Wood, for sound formatting advice”).
From this point forward, it’s all a lot of nervous waiting…
Hot to Trot
122 Format Road
London W1C 00L
0207 888 8888