Grammar Queen and Editor Extraordinaire, Ricki Schultz is back for the last post in her series of revision tips for writers. Be sure to check out the first three posts in this series, Editfication Part I, Editfication Part II and Sweat the Grammar.
Sweat the Format: Common Chicago-Style Missteps
Your last step—before a proper proofread* (or seven) should be checking out your formatting.
*I can’t stress this enough!
When I taught high school, I could often tell—without even reading Word One of a student’s research paper—whether or not it was going to be a pleasant or horrendous experience, based on the formatting alone. If a student properly formatted the cover page and page one, chances were, they took time and care in writing the essay. This was not an exact science; but, in my experience, it held true much of the time.
I have to think literary agents have the same thoughts. If they open a manuscript, and notice it’s written in Comic Sans—or 13-pt font—that’s got to be a red flag of annoyance right there. And—believe me—if I could have stopped at line one of a shoddy-looking research paper the way agents can stop at line one of manuscript? I would have. (Um, that kind of makes agents rock stars, in my book!)
But, can agents really tell the difference between something as miniscule as 12- and 13-pt font?
As a teacher, I could. And, I would imagine, with the sheer volume of pages agents see all the time, they must have razor-sharp senses for formatting. So get it right!
Here are the basics:
- Use one-inch margins on all sides.
- Use a standard font. Times New Roman is preferred, but Arial and Courier are also okay. Use 12-pt font regardless.
- Use a header on each page, which includes your last name, your manuscript title in all caps, and page number. The name and title should be flush left—and separated by a slash (/). The page number should be flush right
- Begin numbering on the first page of the manuscript itself—not the title page. The title page should not have the last name/title header either.
- Start chapters one-third of the way down a page with chapter number and title in all caps, separated by two hyphens, and centered.
- Begin the body of the chapter four to six lines below the chapter title—flush left.
- Align text to the left—leave a “ragged right” (do not justify).
- Double space—and make sure there isn’t extra space in between paragraphs.
- After periods, make sure you only have one space—not two. Yes, even this one is noticeable to the trained eye.
- Indent each new paragraph (excluding the first one of a new chapter or the first one after a scene change) using the tab key or five spaces.
All that said, will any one of these things cause an agent or editor to pass on your work? Probably not, in and of itself. Two or three might not even deter them, if your story is good enough. So don’t freak out.
However, remember this: These industry professionals are inundated with manuscripts every single day. They are looking for reasons to say no. The less of those reasons you give them, the more of your work they’ll read—and the closer you will get to representation and publication.
Ricki Schultz is a freelance writer/editor. She writes young adult fiction, contributes to Writer’s Digest Books, runs The Write-Brained Network, and speaks at writers’ conferences. Check out two series on her writing blog, My Daytime Drama: “The Straight Dope (on Grammar)” and “Pointers from the Pros.” Also, please visit her professional Web site or follow her on Twitter.