03 July 2018

Manuscript Janitor

by Michael Bracken

I’m a manuscript janitor. I get paid to clean up electronic manuscripts to prepare them for editing and eventual publication. I’m the guy who removes all the extraneous junk writers and their word processing programs insert into files, and I’m the guy who takes all the inconsistent formatting and makes it consistent before editors begin the arduous task of turning word vomit into publishable copy.

Sometimes I hate writers for making me do all this work, but I would earn significantly less if they didn’t, and I earn more per hour cleaning up these messes than some writers earn creating them. Want to take food out of my mouth, save publishers money, and make editors happy? Learn to submit clean manuscripts.


Some of the many things I correct while cleaning up electronic manuscripts:

Extra Spaces. Don’t put extra spaces between words, between sentences, at the beginning of paragraphs, at the end of paragraphs, or on otherwise empty lines.

Tab Characters. Don’t randomly insert tabs. (Note: Many editors prefer you indent paragraphs using the Format Paragraph drop-down menu. More important than whether you do this or indent paragraphs by pressing the tab key once at the beginning of each paragraph is that you indent paragraphs exactly the same way each and every time throughout the entire manuscript. And don’t ever indent paragraphs by pressing the spacebar multiple times.)

Manual Line Breaks Instead of Paragraph Marks. Always end paragraphs by pressing the return key. (Note: Holding down the shift key and pressing the return key inserts a Manual Line Break. Don’t.)

Improperly Used Dashes. Know the difference between the hyphen, the en dash, and the em dash, and use them properly. (Note: House styles differ on whether or not there should be a space before and after the em dash. If in doubt, choose one style and be consistent throughout your entire manuscript.)

Sadly, the design department at my alma mater
does not know the difference between
an apostrophe and a single opening quotation
mark, leading to errors like this.
Quotation Marks (single and double) and apostrophes. Any text that will be professionally published will require the use of proper quotation marks (commonly referred to as curly quotes or typographer’s quotes), so use them. Do not use a single opening quotation mark when an apostrophe is the proper symbol.

The above problems appear in so many manuscripts that I do a series of search-and-replace passes through every manuscript to find and correct these problems.


Some of the changes I make address the requirements of individual publisher clients, and some of what I clean out of electronic files prior to beginning the editorial process is unique to individual writers, so I have developed search-and-replace procedures specific to them.

For example, one publisher’s house style requires a space before and after all em dashes, another requires that all author bylines be typed in caps. I address these and many other house style issues during the second go-round.

I have also learned the foibles of several writers whose work I regularly see. For example, one writer consistently misuses a word, using instead a sound-alike word, so when cleaning up that writer’s manuscripts I search for and replace the misused word with the correct word. Another writer consistently fails to put the comma after the state in statements such as “I went to Waco, Texas, to visit the Silos.” So, I search for state names and insert the missing commas as appropriate.

Then I format every manuscript to look identical. For one client this means 14-point Times New Roman, double-spaced, with a .5” indent on the first line of every paragraph.


The third go-round is the actual editing phase. After I have performed my janitorial duties, I pass the manuscripts on to the publishers’ editors. Depending on the client, it may be a single editor or it may be a team of editors, each tasked with a different responsibility. Some editors are subject matter experts, ensuring the accuracy of the information presented, while others edit for spelling, punctuation, and grammar.

Regardless of how many editors touch the manuscripts, sooner or later the manuscripts come back to me for a final pass. This is when I make last-minute tweaks before sending the manuscripts into production.

Production imports the electronic manuscripts into page layout programs such as InDesign, and the cleaner the electronic manuscripts, the less effort it takes production to format text and lay out pages.


Not all publishers use manuscript janitors (which isn’t even a real title). In many cases, the janitorial duties fall to copyeditors, who perform these tasks as part of the editing process rather than separate from it. Regardless, someone has to clean up the messes writers make.

In fact, right now there’s a manuscript janitor somewhere working her way through one of my manuscripts and shaking her head in dismay at the extraneous junk I failed to remove prior to submission.

Speaking of editing, I’ll soon be reading submissions for a new anthology series: Mickey Finn: 21st Century Noir isn’t watered-down mysteries for dilettantes; it’s a crime-fiction cocktail that will knock readers into a literary stupor. An annual anthology of hardboiled and noir crime fiction to be released each fall beginning in 2020, contributors will be encouraged to push their work into places short crime fiction doesn’t often go, into a world where the mean streets seem gentrified by comparison and happy endings are the exception rather than the rule. For complete details, visit www.crimefictionwriter.com/submissions/html.


O'Neil De Noux said...

Now this was an eye-opening blog to wake up to. Excellent points. I'm still laughing at the phrase, "... turning word vomit into publishable copy." One thing that helps me is to turn on 'show invisibles' when I'm composing to see the space marks.

Cool post.

Michael Bracken said...

Excellent suggestion, O'Neil. Writers who've never done that might be surprised at all the junk it exposes.

Steve Liskow said...

Great post, Michael. Informative, entertaining, and practical. I agree with O'Neil on the "word vomit" line, too.

Richard said...

Amen, brother.

Eve Fisher said...

Yep. I probably will always double-space after a sentence, but then I was a secretary for years back in the days of typewriters. And a double-space is an easy thing to edit out, thank God!

Kevin R. Tipple said...

I freely admit to having horrible computer skills on doing things. For example, how does one turn on "show invisibles?"

Deborah Elliott-Upton said...

Great article! We all need help now and then. Thanks for the reminders!

Michael Bracken said...

Alas, Kevin, every version of Word seems to hide it in a different place and may not identify the command as "show invisibles." For Word 2008 for the Mac, which is what I'm using right now: Go to the Word drop-down menu and select "Preferences." Under "Author and Proofing Tools," select "View." Under "nonprinting characters," select "All." Then select "OK." From that point on, every file you open should show invisibles. That is, it will show you spaces, paragraph marks, tab characters, optional hyphens, and hidden text.

Peter DiChellis said...

Thanks for this post. I always appreciate the inside scoop and do my best to follow guidelines and submit (what I thought were) clean manuscripts.

But I’ll confess, like your alma mater, I use the same key, same mark for both an apostrophe and single quotation mark (the only key I find on my keyboard; in the lower case position from the double quotation mark). My apologies to janitors everywhere.

Michael Bracken said...

Peter, to get an apostrophe to begin a word requires typing gymnastics. The only way I can get it to work is to type a letter, type the apostrophe, type the rest of the word, and then go back and get rid of the bogus first letter.

So, type:


Delete the "a" and type the rest of the title:

'Twas the Night Before Christmas

Though it doesn't look correct here because there seem to be only straight quotation marks in the comments section, if you follow these steps in Word (presuming you have the proper quotation marks turned on), this will get the desired result.

Peter DiChellis said...

Thank you, Michael. I appreciate the info.

Best wishes,