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Writers Tip #49: Yes, You Must Have Basic Formatting

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When you read your story, does it sound off, maybe you can’t quite put your finger on it, but you know you’ve done something wrong? Sometimes–maybe even lots of times–there are simple fixes. These writer’s tips will come at you once a week, giving you plenty of time to go through your story and make the adjustments.

Today’s tip: Submittals must be done right.

When book agents and editors see a manuscript that isn’t double-spaced, they know right away that the author hasn’t done the basic groundwork needed. That likely means that their mss will be far from polished–too far to be worth the agent’s time.

Don’t blare that message to the person you desperately need to take you seriously. Follow your mom’s advice: Put your best foot forward every time you’re in public. In this case, ‘public’ is the eyes of the person who holds your future in your hands.

Here are a few simple rules:

  • Double-space the mss. The Query letter can be single-spaced, but not your submittal
  • Address the agent by name, not ‘Dear Sir/Madame’. Take the time to go to their website and get a name.
  • Keep the Query to one page. If they want more, they’ll ask.
  • 12-point font is standard and Courier or Times New Roman. Don’t try to be fancy or slip by with font size 11. They’ll notice.
  • ‘SASE’ means ‘self-addressed stamped envelope’. Send one if they request one.
  • Have one-inch margins.

That’s it. That’s formatting. Now be as creative as you can about selling your story.

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10 thoughts on “Writers Tip #49: Yes, You Must Have Basic Formatting

  1. I am nowhere near submitting anything to a publisher, but I am curious. Do different publishers have different formatting requirements? I’ve also heard that you should only send a sample of the book with the query letter, not the entire manuscript. Have I been hearing bad advice?

    • Formatting requirements are standard throughout the industry: Manuscripts need to be double-spaced, one inch margins, Times New Roman or Courier, 12 point. This standardizes everything so agents/editors can easily read the submission and so they can quickly assess the word count. A lot of inexperienced writers describe their manuscripts by the number of pages. But publishing professionals only look at work count. (The number of pages will vary, of course, based on the formatting, which is one of the reasons why the publishing industry has standardized that format.)

      The quickest way to highlight yourself as inexperienced is to submit a manuscript that tries to get creative with the formatting or tries to make the manuscript look like a book. Sticking with the standardized formatting rules will increase your odds of getting that all-important first toe in the door.

      Thanks, Jacqui, for bringing up this really important point. –Cheri

      • Great summary, Cheri. Thanx for jumping in.

        Each agent and/or publisher might have their own requirements so it’s important to check their website before sending your mss or query. If you pay attention to details, they’re much more likely to take you seriously. Having said that, the guidelines discussed here will apply 90% of the time.

        As for what to send, start with the Query letter and nothing else unless the agent’s website asks for it. Rarely do they want the entire mss–it’s safe to say you’ll annoy them by sending it. Sometimes they request 20 pages, 50, rarely more. They save that for their positive response to your query.

        Good luck. You’re smart to find out all the rules before sending anything. Stay in touch so we can see how you’re doing.

  2. What about chapter titles and the title of the book itself, cover page, etc? What is the formatting for those or, even better, where is the best place to get these formatting requirements? I’m in the editing stage and may be for a while, so it’d be nice to double check before I submit.

    Thanks! for this post and all the others. I love this blog :) I’m only twenty, so I need all the inspiration and advice I can get on writing and publishing and I certainly get lots here!

    • Hi, Michelle. A safe rule is to keep your formatting simple and uncomplicated. Agents want to see how you write, not your tech skills. The best place to get these details is from the agent’s website. Yes, it takes a while, but your book is worth it.

      Editing is fun, isn’t it? It makes you feel like the book is coming together. It takes me nonths to edit, whether I’m finishing a fic or non-fic mss. You’re smart to create good habits when you’re young. Thanks for dropping by. I’m glad I can assist you.

  3. Not that an agent will even consider a 500-page mss these days. That’s a ream of paper! I’d be happy if they’d read the first 20 pages.

    So many big dreams. Such a small rainbow.

  4. Pingback: Super-sexy Query Letters « Romancing for Thrills

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