Manuscript Preparation Redux

A blogger recently had some nice things to say about my venerable writing workshop handout, “Manuscript Preparation.”

I first wrote the handout in the days when typewriters roamed the land, gobbling WiteOut and correcttype. Pre-World Wide Web. Pre-email. It’s been through a couple of dozen revisions since then, each tending more toward the formatting of doc files and electronic submissions.

I polled both print and online magazine editors before the last update, asking if it was even necessary to have a Manuscript Prep handout anymore, and they all said yes. F&SF sends people to the SFWA website for the guidelines. The SFWA Advice for New Writers section has a number of useful articles, as does BVC’s Brewing Fine Fiction.

But, please note that the handout says that the first thing to do is go to the website of the market and look for *their* guidelines and follow them slavishly. If they say to leave out the hash mark as a sign of a scene break, follow that recommendation slavishly. They must surely have a standard method of keeping track of scene breaks. (I think it’s risky to mark a scene break with an empty paragraph, which is easily lost, but you aren’t submitting a story to me.)

If the magazine or fiction website wants you to send in your story formatted as shadowed bold goldleaf Bodoni Intricate, with tiny little porn graphics to separate scenes, do that, assuming you still want to send a story to that market. Do not get into an argument with the editor about how you prefer WingDings to PornDings and how Times New Roman is a better font. (Since TNR is a newspaper font, you’d be displaying your ignorance of basic typesetting.) Do not tell the editor that you’ll give up your two spaces between sentences when you’re dead, no matter what they want. (Ditto, basic ignorance.)

I get notes all the time from people who want to know if they’ll be blacklisted by every editor in the known universe if they make some trivial error in formatting. (I exaggerate, but not by much.) My answer to them is No — do you really think a sane editor would take note of such a blacklisting attempt? And my question to them is, if the editor is that bat-crazy, to turn down a good story because of a minor formatting glitch, do you really want to work with such a person?

I did know one editor who was that bat-crazy, and my answer to the question was “No.”

Good luck,


DreamsnakeVonda N. McIntyre is a founding member of Book View Café.

Dreamsnake, The Moon and the Sun, and The Starfarers Quartet are now available as ebooks at Book View Café. 

For autographed print copies of The Moon and the Sun and my other SF novels, visit my website’s Basement Full of Books.



Manuscript Preparation Redux — 4 Comments

  1. There are masses of anecdotes about people successfully breaking the ms submission rules. LOOK HOMEWARD ANGEL was, reportedly, written by Thomas Wolfe on scrap paper, the backs of envelopes, and cocktail napkins, which he dropped into a steamer trunk as he went along; his editor took the trunk away and amalgamated the scraps into the novel. GONE WITH THE WIND was another actual trunk novel, although I think it fit into a suitcase. LORD OF THE RINGS was rewritten by Tolkien by hand, over the original handwritten ms — because of wartime paper shortages he just wrote the new words over the old ones rather than starting in on a fresh sheet.
    The key fact behind these anecdotes, however, is that the book beyond those grotty mss was spectacular. It was worth it, in the end, for the editors and publishers to scale the mountain of cocktail napkins and scribbles. If your book is even slightly less good, maybe you don’t want to erect a huge barrier between it and a sale. Maybe it would be smarter to make it easy for your editor to fall in love.
    Or maybe you can think of it as dating. If you are Angelina Jolie, beautiful as the sun, you can roll out of bed in sweats and flipflops for that first date. If you are a regular person, brushing your teeth and selecting a pretty blouse is sensible.

  2. My first editor told me that James Clavell’s Shogun was written in pencil on yellow legal pads, and for all the power of the story, it had to be massively re-organized in order to flow comprehensibly. But he already had a reputation, and I doubt that would happen today.

    Basically, you don’t want anything to stand between the story and a sympathetic reading. A book written in pink ink on yellow paper is distracting. An e-manuscript in all caps, likewise. It’s not snobbery on the part of the first reader–it’s time pressure; if you make it look like it’s going to take more time for your story to be read than the next submission, the next story is likely to be the one that gets read.

  3. When I work as an editor I can deal with extra spaces, strange paragraph marks, tab indents, etc.

    What I don’t want to have to deal with are authors who argue with me how my pre-formatting differs from some “how to” website and therefore I am ignorant, stupid, and so old school I’ll never make it in the ever changing market place.

    Every publisher has their own style sheet, allowing 1 newbie to format his own story within an anthology to a different style is a nightmare.

    Arguing with an editor is more of a black mark on your career than a strangely formatted MS. JMHO