KISS Your Manuscript

KISS: Keep it simple, scribbler.

When I’m working with writers, I ask that manuscripts be submitted to me in Times New Roman typeface, 12-point font, double-spaced, with one-inch margins and a half-inch indentation at each new paragraph. Why? Well, yes, it makes my job easier–help me help you and all that. But most importantly, this is the standard manuscript format that most agents and publishers will ask you to use, and you may as well get used to it.

William Shunn has a great website full of resources for formatting every kind of manuscript: Proper Manuscript Format for Fiction Writers 

Writers often argue against simplicity when it comes to formatting manuscripts. I once had a writer tell me he had to use Lucida Handwriting 11-point font, and that he might be able to give me 1.15 spacing, but he could never give me double spacing. That’s fine. I’m your book coach and your editor–you don’t have to please me. I’ll take it in whatever form you send it to me, then I’ll change it into standard manuscript format before I begin my work. For both our sakes. But an agent or a publisher may not let you off the hook so easily.

I get it. You’re an artist, and you shouldn’t be constrained by standard manuscript format. It interferes with your creativity. I was once a promoter for rock and punk bands, so I know all about artists, and riders demanding multiple packs of Extra Polar Ice chewing gum, and aversions to abiding by the rules. And I’m a writer too, so I know about finding inspiration in places and routines that may seem strange or quirky or eccentric to others.

So listen, while you’re creating, I don’t care if you use Modern Love Grunge typeface in lime green bold and italicized 18-point font, single-spaced, with three-inch margins. I really don’t. I’m all for you doing whatever it takes to get those words on the page. And if you want me to change the formatting for you so you don’t have to witness the carnage, I can do that. We are in this together, and I want to help you and your book succeed.

But when it’s time to send your work out into the world, let’s keep it simple, scribbler. Use simple, standard formatting, and let your story be the thing that shines.

WRITER TIP: Don’t get too attached to the way your manuscript looks. Remember, the formatting of your manuscript is not story. Pretty typeface won’t make a bad story better, and it may obscure a good story and make it unreadable. When you’re ready to submit your work to an agent or a publisher, let go of the fancy formatting that can be distracting, detract from your story, and frustrate readers. Don’t give an agent a reason to put your manuscript down. You’ve put all that hard work into writing your novel. Now’s the time to make it as easy as possible for people to say yes.

Buy a Dictionary

My dad would be the first to admit he wasn’t great at spelling. You’d never know it to read anything he ever wrote. At home, we had a Webster’s dictionary and a full set of the Encyclopædia Britannica. But that wasn’t good enough—my dad carried a pocket dictionary with him wherever he went. If he had any doubt about a word’s spelling or meaning, he looked it up. He sat at his desk or at our dining room table, writing in long hand with an open dictionary beside him. It was tedious, and it meant everything was more difficult and took longer for him than it did for someone else. The fact that it mattered so much to him made an impression on me. He took pride in his work, and it made me proud of him.

Growing up, if my siblings and I didn’t know how to spell a word or didn’t know a word’s meaning, my dad insisted we look it up in the dictionary. It’s a tradition I carried on with my own children and now my grandchildren. When you have to make an effort to do the learning, it sticks.

Today, we have the luxury of spellchecking programs and all sorts of other writing tools. I suggest you familiarize yourself with them and make use of the ones that work for you. But I also suggest you don’t rely on them to the exclusion of your own judgment. It’s easy to become complacent these days and to think it doesn’t matter–we have computers to check our spelling and grammar and punctuation for us. But computers aren’t always accurate, and nothing beats the empowered feeling of finding the answers yourself. So buy a dictionary or subscribe to Merriam-Webster online. Become a student of words, and make sure the words in your manuscript are spelled and used correctly. If spelling or vocabulary don’t come easily, you can make a game or a project of it. Buy a word-a-day calendar or subscribe to Merriam-Webster Word of the Day. Pick up a cheap, old dictionary from a thrift shop and learn a new word every day. Consider brushing up on grammar and punctuation too. Dreyer’s English is a great place to start, also available in a day-to-day calendar and a game called Stet!

Why should I worry about it? you may ask. I’m a writer, an artist, a creative person. My editor will fix all that.

Yes, you are a creative person, and you shouldn’t worry about such things while you’re writing and rewriting and revising your first drafts. Your focus at that point should be on telling your story. Don’t let worries about spelling, grammar, and punctuation, or worries about any little details, distract you.

And yes, your editor will fix all that if need be. Any serious writer is going to work with one or more editors through the process of developmental edits, line edits, and copyedits. This especially holds true if you are a self-publishing author or don’t have an agent or publisher to vet your work. Your editorial team will help you get your manuscript in the best shape possible for your desired goal, whether that’s publication or querying agents, and that includes catching and correcting errors in spelling, punctuation, and grammar.

So take comfort in the fact your editor will have your back in the end. But take control of your own destiny too. After you’ve finished with your manuscript, and before you send it off, run spellcheck and make an editorial pass of your own. Read your manuscript out loud, word by word, to catch errors. Or have MS Word’s “Read Aloud” feature read it to you. Presenting your editor with a manuscript that’s in the best possible shape will often save you money on editing costs. Plus, the more work you put into your manuscript, the better each subsequent revision will be. How can this help but result in a better book in the end, whether you’re self-publishing your book or sending the manuscript to an agent or a traditional or hybrid publisher? You don’t want your readers distracted by mistakes—you want them caught up in your story, and errors in spelling, grammar, or punctuation are a surefire way to pull them out of it.

WRITER TIP: No matter where you’re sending your work, whether it’s to an agent, a publisher, a direct publishing company, or an editor, send them your best work. Once your manuscript is ready to send out, get it even more ready. Sweat the small stuff: put a little time and effort into making sure words are spelled and used correctly, and make sure punctuation and grammar are up to snuff. It makes a big difference, and it will put you ahead of the game.