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Jay Lake
Date: 2012-07-29 08:43
Subject: [writing|process] Don't give me those hand-me-down shoes; or, the virtues of manuscript formatting
Security: Public
Tags:conventions, process, writing
One topic that comes up fairly often when I'm working with aspiring writers is the subject of standard manuscript format. New writers are often puzzled as to why this is important, while established professional writers are so accustomed to the concept that they tend to not even think about. It's one of this things that feels kind of stupid and arbitrary, and often seems baffling to people just beginning their encounters with the magical fairyland that is publishing.

Well, it is kind of stupid and baffling. But that's the way things work.

Here at Cascade Writers this weekend, I hit on an analogy which seemed to help explain why.

When you go for a job interview, you fix your hair and put on a nice pair of shoes. Outside of consumer facing retail or front desk work, not all that many jobs actually require good hair and nice pair of shoes in order to perform your job functions. For example, most programmers I know work in cargo shorts and sandals and t-shirts, and you're lucky they're wearing clothes. Yet even most of them fixed their hair and put on a nice pair of shoes when they interviewed. Likewise, I don't really care what my plumber is wearing so long as I don't have to think about their anatomy while they're working.

The reason you dress like this for a job interview is fairly clear. You want the interviewer to focus on your qualifications for the job. You don't want them wondering if you slept in the bed of a pickup truck last night. The purpose of fixing your hair and wearing nice shoes to make your personal presentation transparent within the context of the social standards of job interviewing process. You are removing distractions.

So it is with standard manuscript format. The manuscript is not the story. At best, it's a tool for transmitting a version of the story from the writer to the reader. In this case, the editorial reader. If you follow standard manuscript format, your manuscript is functionally invisible, and all the reader sees is the story. You don't want them wondering why the heck you used Zapf Chancery for the font, or glancing at the sweet kittens at the top of your lavender letterhead. The purpose of standard manuscript format is to make your story's presentation transparent within the context of the professional standards of the editorial process. You are removing distractions.

And yes, if you're a brilliant enough writer, you can submit something written in crayon on butcher paper and get it published. Just like if you're a brilliant enough whatever, you can get a job in your field even if you show up to the interview hung over and decked out in bad skag. But why create the distraction?

Standard manuscript format brings the focus in sharply on the story. Exactly where you want it.

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User: jeanineers
Date: 2012-07-29 17:09 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Nice analogy. Makes sense.
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Sue Burke
User: mount_oregano
Date: 2012-07-29 19:43 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I've been asked this too. "Should I submit this article exactly the way they'll lay it out in the magazine?" Well, no, for a lot of reasons, but mainly this one: The editors don't buy articles, they buy manuscripts. Try to sell them them a manuscript. That's what they want to buy.
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User: (Anonymous)
Date: 2012-07-29 20:29 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Yes. Aren't there also practical factors? With a standard formatted ms, the purchasing editor can almost by reflex make her own estimate of how many of their pages the text would require in their own signature formats. (And if she, like Stephen King, thinks the paragraph length and shape of the white space on the page matters, she can estimate that too.)

For the author to try to format the ms in the style of the publication, would mean re-formatting it for each publication zie submits to.

The standard formatting may have evolved for dinosaurs, but so did the Qwerty keyboard, for which we are all dinosaurs now.

/bemused leftist here/

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They Didn't Ask Me: writing-winslet-1-bw
User: dr_phil_physics
Date: 2012-07-29 19:59 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Excellent analogy, good sir. I hope it gets cited far and wide -- I intend to. There is just one professional way to get your story noticed. Write a good one. (grin)

Dr. Phil
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User: nicosian
Date: 2012-07-29 22:47 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
We're going self pub with my work but we're formatting it with a vengeance. We pulled down copies of mass market paperbacks from the shelves to compare). My spouse the genius is the one who printed like, 8 different font test pages, layout, spellcheck, grammar, edits...he goes to bed and I review stuff that's flagged.

The way we see it the very best thing we can do for the thing I wrote for a year, is to make it look just as good as we can. Straighten its tie, polish the shoes. In part its also the "self pub is full of errors, flaws, bad covers, weird fonts!" I can spend the time to make sure the reader isn't distracted.
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User: halloranelder
Date: 2012-07-30 13:29 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Thank you, that makes clear and understandable sense.
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