12 July 2014

The Old and the New

Like most of my SleuthSayers colleagues, I've been writing fiction for a long time. I like to think that I've learned, during those years, some things about the craft. Unfortunately, though, putting the right words together in the right order is not enough to ensure success in this crazy business, so I have also tried (and often failed) to keep up with changes in all the kinds of things editors want to see, in the submissions they receive. That, as everyone knows, can be a moving target.

A small-caliber evolver

That's what I am, I suppose. A low-profile writer of crime fiction who has finally realized that novels and short stories, like the language they're written in, are evolving--and that if I want to survive I have to evolve also. I won't attempt in today's column to address issues like traditional publishing vs. self-publishing, printed fiction vs. e-books, mailed submissions vs. electronic submissions, and zombie/vampire trends--but I do want to talk a little about small changes in the way we're supposed to put our stories and novels on paper. Or, more accurately, on our hard drives. 

Twenty years ago, when I started writing for publication, there were a group of formatting rules that writers followed, in order to better their chances of getting accepted and published. Some of those requirements are still around and some have become optional, but a great many have disappeared, or at least changed.

Once upon a time …

Consider the following half-dozen "old" rules of writing. Most of them were made because of typewriters and their limitations, but the rules somehow remained in effect for quite some time after computers and word-processing programs and laser/inkjet printers arrived.

1. Always use Courier font. A lot of writers still choose to use Courier for their manuscripts because of its readability, but very few markets require it anymore in their guidelines. I switched over to Times New Roman years ago because so many editors and publishers seem to prefer it. Only once have I had to use something different: an editor asked me awhile back to submit using Verdana. Verdana?? But I did it, and she bought the story.

2. Always put two spaces after a period. This goes back to the way most of us learned to type, in high school. When you had only one font available (Courier), and that font was non-proportional (every letter was the same width), two spaces after a period made sense; one space just didn't seem to "look" right. Now some short-fiction markets and some book publishers--mine, for example--require only one space after a period. I still use two spaces in my e-mails, text messages, personal letters, etc., because it somehow seems more natural and comfortable, but I dutifully follow the current one-space-after-a-period rule in all my manuscripts and in my SleuthSayers columns.

3. Always underline to indicate italics. This is another throwback to the times when there was no way to italicize text in a manuscript. I don't obey that rule anymore, except when submitting to certain publications; some markets, like AHMM, still require underlining rather than italicizing in their submissions. (I suspect that it's because an underlined word can be easier to spot than an italicized word.) Underlined text is of course then changed to italics in the printed, published version of the story. NOTE: If you submit to a market electronically and are asked to copy/paste your manuscript into the body of an e-mail, special features like italics and underlining are of course lost when you save and reopen the file in .txt format. In that case, I use the underscore key ( _ ) just before and just after the word or phrase that should be italicized. The editor will know what you mean.

4. Always round off your word count. I still do this occasionally before typing it in at the upper right corner of the first page of my ready-to-be-submitted manuscript--and when I do, I round it to the nearest 100 words. Usually, though, I just highlight the manuscript text--everything between my byline and the words THE END--and press the "word count" key. I then use that exact figure. This isn't something I worry much about, since I doubt editors really care whether I say "about 2400 words" or "2389 words." But I imagine Faulkner and Hemingway would have been tickled pink and shocked sober to be able to hit a key and get an exact word count.

5. Always use two hyphens for a dash. Some submission guidelines still ask that we writers do that--but most markets are fine with the em dash, which is created by typing the two hyphens together with no spaces before or after and then hitting the space bar after the next word. (Assuming, of course, that that feature has been activated in your word processor.) In my opinion, an em dash is another of those things that just "looks" more correct, and more professional, in a manuscript.

6. Always double-space twice to indicate a scene break. For years I did exactly that. The only time I typed any kind of character in between the ending line of a scene and the beginning line of the next was for clarity purposes, if the break occurred at the very top or bottom of a page. And then something crazy happened: a magazine accepted my correctly typed manuscript and then published my story without one of my scene breaks. They just left it out and butted the two paragraphs together, presumably because they or their formatting software never noticed the two blank lines between the scenes. I've been paranoid about it ever since then, and have always put something in there, between the scenes: an asterisk, several asterisks, a pound-sign (hash), whatever. AHMM, in its submission guidelines, specifically requests that writers insert a centered "#" between scenes, and my publisher requires three grouped asterisks (***). I prefer the #.

Post scripts

There are plenty of other manuscript formatting rules: use one-inch margins, use 12-point font, double-space, left-justify, and so on, and all of those appear to have remained in force to this day. There are also a lot of formatting rules for cover letters, envelopes, etc. I guess the main thing is, standardize as much as possible but try also to be aware of any changing of those standards. Getting published is an uphill battle anyway; you certainly want to appear knowledgable and not be annoying, at least not to an editor/agent/publisher. More and more of these "gatekeepers" seem to be young and female and far more receptive to change than the old male stereotypes who used to read our stories and make decisions about which ones to publish and which ones to reject. Don't get me wrong--that change is probably a good thing.

How about you? What writing rules do you follow, or voluntarily break, in the creation and submission of your fiction manuscripts? Do you still stand by the older rules, or have you evolved along with some of the requirements?

In closing, and on an entirely different subject, I'd like to again welcome Melodie Campbell to our group. I'm proud and honored to have her as my new Saturday blog-sister, and I look forward to her posts every other week. (I'm even hoping some of her fans might get their Saturdays mixed up and pop in to read my columns now and then as well.)

To today's readers, whether you're here on purpose or by accident, I hope to see you here again in two weeks.

And I'll try to stick to the rules.


  1. THANK YOU, JOHN!!! I recently met with a very small group of writers. Some of them are beginners while others have been around awhile but have dismal publication records. The topic was manuscript preparation.

    I tried to make it clear to them that even the best-looking manuscript won't be accepted unless the story is good, but following some "rules" is important.

    One gentleman argued with me that what I tried to tell them was "all wrong." He was especially adamant that writers should ALWAYS underline for italics. He also advised that using an unusual font and/or colored paper would catch attention and get the manuscript read more quickly. No, I didn't ask how many of his stories have been published because I knew the answer--none.

    I'm going to pass out copies of your today's column next time I do that talk.

    Personally, I seem to be doing things the modern way except for one: I still use two spaces after a period. It's not a protest against change, but the result of old fingers doing what has come automatically for so many years.

    The one "rule" I stress about manuscript preparation is that it be consistent and follow posted guidelines, if any, for specific publishers.

  2. Fran, I actually did stick with most of those older standards for a long time after computers and dot-matrix/laser/inkjet printers became commonplace, because I had heard from so many sources that it was risky not to. But I don't think there's any doubt that most editors have now eased up on a lot of those so-called rules, so I've tried to follow suit.

    As for the one- vs. two-spaces rule, I tell my writing students to do whichever they feel is more comfortable. It's far more important (as you mentioned) to be consistent.

    You are also correct that all this is worthless anyway if you don't write a good story.

  3. Wise words.

    I think I broke every one of those rules when I submitted my first story, and I had a title page, too!

  4. I still double space at the end of a sentence: old dog, etc. But I have switched to Times New Roman. And absolutely - without the story the format just doesn't matter...

  5. Stephen, I think I put title pages on my first couple of submissions also. Beginning writers get such conflicting advice, it's sometimes hard to know what's correct and what's not.

    Eve, if we took a poll I suspect the one-spacers and two-spacers would come out about even. Again, I think consistency throughout the manuscript is the only really important thing, there.

    Some of my writer friends still insist that page numbers should be on the bottom of every page, rather than at the top right, where I put them. And that right and left margins should be an inch and a half instead of an inch. All I can tell them is that I'm going to stick by what has always worked for me.

  6. I suspect that the changes aren't so much the result of editors loosening their requirements, but more the result of the number of editors who have entered the field with little or no knowledge of printing and publishing.

    Most of the manuscript preparation rules existed for good reason, and they persisted well beyond the advent of personal computers and word processing because the editors of the day had been trained and had worked for many years pre-word processing. They wanted what they were accustomed to seeing, so that's what we (the professionals among us, anyhow) provided.

    I'm one of those editors, having entered printing and publishing in the decade before personal computers, and trained in the old ways. When not writing, I edit a good bit of non-fiction for publication, and I often long for the manuscript preparation standards that have disappeared.

    I work primarily with people who are specialists or experts in their field but who are not writers. Unlike for us, writing for them is a byproduct and many of them have never known what manuscript preparation standards are. So, I work with manuscripts that violate every rule I was ever taught, and sometimes violate all of them in the same manuscript!

    Thus, much of my editing involves liberal use of the search-and replace function (for example: search for two spaces and replace with one space). For that reason, I'll reiterate one important "rule":

    Whatever you do, BE CONSISTENT.

    If you're consistent, even if you're wrong, an editor can do a quick search-and-replace. If you're inconsistent, you do two things: 1) You make it obvious you don't know what to do and 2) You make an editor's job much, much harder than it needs to be.

  7. Michael -- I was sort of hoping you'd chime in on this subject, and I appreciate it. It's good to get an editor's firsthand perspective on this.

    Like you, I learned using the old and time-proven rules, and it's still a little difficult for me to italicize and use em dashes and a different font and that one space instead of two. The old ways die hard.

  8. John, as usual a very helpful article. I try to follow manuscript preparation standards, particularly if they are spelled out by a market I am submitting to. I still double space after a period. Like Eve, an old habit that is very difficult to break. It seems to me a little picky anyway. I'm not sure it changes anything that much.

    Of course, as all have said, the best preparation in the world isn't going to help if you don't have a good story.

  9. I agree, Herschel, that the one-space vs. two-spaces rule is picky, and I feel fairly certain that no manuscript has ever been rejected solely because the "new" rule wasn't followed. As others have said, the important thing is consistency--and yes, to tell a good story.

    The scary but real fact that is that if some of the more serious style/grammar/formatting rules are broken, and especially if they're broken early in the manuscript, the editor/publisher/agent probably won't read enough of the story to find out whether it's a good story or not. Life just ain't fair.

  10. Groan...yes, I am guilty of all these. It's hard to break 25 years of habit. Now, I try to correct that double space between sentences all at once by find/replace, at the end of the edit process. Oh look, I'm doing it now...
    grin - enjoyed this, John!

  11. I'm a member of the "2-spaces after a sentence" group -- due largely to this practice having been drummed into me during my high school typing class. As Fran said: It's a tough habit to break. Interestingly, I find that this double-spacing is changed to single-spacing when I save as a txt file and post on blogger.

    I once had a secretary in a creative writing class I took, years ago, complain that I used two em-dashes to separate a parenthetical, instead of initiating the separation with an em-dash and closing it with an en-dash. Later, however, in J-school, I was taught to follow AP guidelines, which call for an em-dash at each end. To this day, that's how I write them, and why. Though I always feel a bit guilty about it, when writing fiction. LOL

    Incidentally, I simultaneously press: CTRL, ALT, NUM LOCK and (-) [i.e.: the minus sign on my number pad] to create my em-dashes, which I know I was taught to do -- though I have no idea where or when I was taught this four-finger key stroke. lol


  12. Thanks, Melodie. I'll try not to violate any rules in this comment.

  13. Dix, I too enclose parentheticals with two em dashes. And I had never before heard of your little 4-keystroke method--I intend to give that a try.


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