Writers’ Fatal Flaws
Computers spread out temptation to lure writers away from the task of writing rather like a bakery’s street front window lures people away from their diets.
The greatest temptation of all rises from the variety of font sizes, types, and colors–as well as styles, templates, and layout options–that technology offers. The worst possible outcome is, of course, that writers will begin to replace careful revision and editing (not to mention creative sweat) with making words look good on the page. I’m reminded of my students who like to make words lively with punctuation!!!?**
The second worst outcome is that editors and agents will reject–without reading–manuscripts that display the writer’s creativity with page/font manipulation rather than simply providing clean, crisp text that lets excellent writing shine.
Most editors and publishers are very clear about their submission guidelines. In fact, the most common request is that authors “follow standard manuscript formatting,” a three-word request that assumes writers understand. Some understand but don’t care. Some don’t understand what that means. However, this is a vital directive to use and to understand to avoid getting rejected without getting read.
This old-fashioned approach has a serious purpose: editors/publishers read a lot in a hurry.
- Consequently, their eyes are tired.
- They’ve had too much coffee.
- They have deadlines, and they want to find the information they need in a hurry.
- They’ve had to send out more rejections than they’d like.
If such an editor/publisher looks at your manuscript and has to hunt for page numbers or your contact information or is faced with a font that is challenging to read on the page, then your work is apt to be dismissed before the content is assessed.
This isn’t editorial arrogance (editors want to find good material); however, such random or creative formatting and disregard of submission guidelines is most common among amateurs, which is an indication that the writing and marketing platform might not be strong. Because editors/publishers have a lot to read, they must have priorities in trying to find the best material as quickly as possible.
Also, following the directions in the submission guidelines indicates that you’re a writer who respects what others need, that you’re easy to work with, that you understand professional protocol, that you’ve overcome that fatal flaw.
Another issue is that if you’ve inserted creative formatting–word art or text boxes or font that shimmers, is shadowed, or is otherwise “creatively” designed–this causes problems when the material is set up for publication. If, for instance, InDesign is used, then when the document is uploaded, a lot of the special formatting will be turned into tedious corrections for someone to make. If you have a standard Word document with standard formatting, the conversion is much simpler. If the manuscript is being exported for ePub, then standard formatting is even more important.
In this era of self-publishing, the need for standard formatting even applies to yourself. The more creative you are with presentation, the more likely you are to have correction nightmares in setting the document up for POD or ePub.
You’ll find lots of information out there about how to write well and how to research markets, but the vital advice on how to follow guidelines and how to understand what directions/terms mean can be more difficult to find. That material is out there, and taking the time to find it is part of a writer’s job.
However, common sense is the best resource. The most common guideline requirement is for “readable” font (some even specify font, such as boring old Times New Roman). A clearly readable font is serif although debate continues about whether it’s clearest on a computer screen (and most manuscripts are submitted online). Recently, Times New Roman has been criticized as old-fashioned, but it’s still popular among editors, as are Arial and Courier, because it’s easy to read. Writers Digest offers clear guidelines at Formatting a Manuscript as do many other sites.
When computers became as common as telephones, writers became increasingly responsible for their own editing and layout. Many writers began hiring copyeditors, layout designers, and book doctors (see Critiques & Editing for Writers on this site) to help with manuscript final drafts. Some have chosen to do it all themselves, which can be as difficult as it is for lawyers to represent themselves. Manuscript presentation is not something one should allow the ego to protect; if you’re going to fight for something, make it your prose, your characters, your plot, and even your grammar/punctuation, not your font.
Some Added Don’ts to avoid Getting Rejected Without Getting Read
- Don’t bind your material. That includes spiral, hole-punched folders, and burlap twine.
- Don’t print double-sided.
- Don’t send cookies, candy, or cute cartoons about rejections.
- Don’t complicate the mail system by requiring a signature at the post office, etc.
- Don’t write a cover letter that explains away reasons for not following standard guidelines or other submission guidelines. Examples are many:
- I know you don’t usually like romance, but …
- Although you don’t want Westerns anymore, this one is different because…
- I’m submitting my entire manuscript, not just the first 25 pages, because…
- To understand why my book has no punctuation, you have to understand that…
- Many publishers are using online submissions in part to avoid some of the above issues. Don’t circumnavigate a publisher’s submission routines. For instance, if a publisher or agent wants email submissions only, you’re wasting your time sending something via USPS. Likewise, if no email submissions are wanted, you’re wasting your time writing an email to request an exception.
Disregard any of the above IF the submission guidelines request, for instance, candy bribes.
After saying all that, don’t feel you should never take advantage of your control over text. Adding emphasis, such as the capitalized IF two paragraphs up, or examples, such as the colored text in the second paragraph, can be useful.
Preparing your work for submission is the same as preparing yourself for an interview. You dress appropriately so that you won’t have barriers between you and your skills and the interviewer. You prepare (dress) your manuscript in the best way possible to make sure that something such as font doesn’t create a barrier between the reader and your important message.