Secret Handshake

When I was a nascent writer I used to jokingly ask professional authors what the secret handshake was to getting published.  I was kidding around, but there was a serious edge to my question.  I felt like they had some clue to the whole publishing industry that I was missing.  I knew there was no simple answer to how to break in, but part of me seriously hoped there was. 

In the intervening years, I’ve had an epiphany about “the secret handshake.”  I now believe there is one, and I think it’s surprisingly easy and accessible to anyone who wants in on the arcane knowledge.   

Here it is, and I pass it on to you:  write what you will, but for goodness sake use proper manuscript format. 

Proper manuscript format might seem like a stupid answer.  But, the thing is, there are so many ways to write stories that work.  There is no single, simple way to learn how to tell the perfect story, because each one has its own process, requirements, style, etc.  Learning that part of our craft is messy and complicated and, if you’re at all like me, figuring out how to do it right will be, in point of fact, your life’s work.  So, that part is nearly impossible to control. Thus, the one thing you can do to signal to an editor that you’re serious about your craft is to take the time to learn manuscript format. 

There are, of course, lots of quibbles about what EXACTLY constitutes manuscript format.  Personally, I go with the tried and true.  I use Vonda McIntyre’s classic.  If it’s good enough for SFWA, it’s good enough for me. Whatever you prefer, find one “authority” — be it SFWA or Writer’s Digest — and stick with it.  After all, you can waste a lot of valuable time and energy splitting hairs over the minutiae, but it’s my opinion that if an author has it mostly right it signals something very important to an editor.  And that is, that said author took the time to learn something about the business aspect of their craft.  It says, “I’m serious enough about writing that I bothered.” 

Okay, so it’s not earth shattering.  It’s not a golden egg.  My big, fat secret really isn’t much at all.   But, as someone who has taught science fiction/fantasy writing for over a decade, I’ve come to realize how important passing on this basic bit of information really is.  And, it’s so easy, I can’t understand why anyone would resist it.  Even though I truly believe that good stories will sell even if they’re written in Crayon on toilet paper, why take the risk of being rejected out of hand?   

A lot of my students whine:  “But Courier is so ugly!”  It is, and, guess what, computers have made it possible to italicize easily too, but proper manuscript format means making your story look like something that came off a typewriter in 1953.  Yeah, it’s kind of silly, given how many publications now accept electronic submissions, but why not get in the habit?  Who does it hurt really?  Computers have also made it ridiculously easy to move between formats quickly.  You can reformat any moderately sized story in a matter of minutes.   

I agree that in this modern age, manuscript format seems like something from the Late Jurassic and it’s baffling on many levels that some editors still prefer it, but what if it is the secret handshake?  And, okay, what if it isn’t?  Isn’t an easier to just do it?

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  1. 1. Bran Fan

    Okay! So I wasn’t obsessing when I spent extra time to make sure all my formatting was correct. That is good to know.

    The nice thing about a properly formatted manuscript is that the formatting then becomes invisible and the editor is free to read the story.

  2. 2. Marie Brennan

    I can still see arguments for many aspects of SMF, even in this day and age of computers. A bit less so when the entire submission is electronic via file attachment, but that might as well be the same format you’ll be using if you hit “print” and mail it.

    Interestingly, there’s kind of a semi-standard electronic format now, for when a story is put into the body of a message.

  3. 3. Kelly McCullough

    True dat, Lyda.

  4. 4. CE Murphy

    I love the look of a Courier-printed manuscript. :) I can’t stand reading printouts in other fonts anymore. Soooo twisted, that. :)

    -Catie

  5. 5. Kristine

    I made my last novel submission electronically. After years of underlining internal thought and emphasis and typing two spaces between sentences, I now had to cut it down to a single space and show the emphasized bits and internal thought in actual italics, so that the submission manuscript looked more like the final book. It felt weird, as though I was breaking several major rules. Still feels weird, but I’m getting used to it.

  6. 6. Laura Castelli

    Just being a newbie at writing, it’s good to know what is mostly acceptable at this stage.

    I don’t think it’s too hard to understand why editos like this format, when you look at there job from an eye strain point of view.

    When you read for a living one standard format saves your eyes. Anything flashy or even a different style can give you a headache. I speak from expirence.

    My former career was as a Programmer Analyst. And when you are reading through several different programs written by umpteen programmers, you actually cry for standardization. You would even sacrifice a chicken to what ever diety would provide it.

  7. 7. S.C. Butler

    I got away with not underlining the italics. Then again, the only italics were separate poems, so I guess no one noticed.

    Common format is a good thing.

  8. 8. Radish

    Okay, I’m an oddball — I actually like Courier. Somehow the mss pages just don’t look right to me in any other font.

  9. 9. Alma Alexander

    And I don’t remember EVER handing in a MS in courier, and the ones that were rejected were rejected because of the story and not the font, and the ones that were accepted were accepted in SPITE of the font. I write on-screen in Times New Roman, which is a perfectly acceptable adequate and common font, and nobody has actually complained about it yet…

  10. 10. lyda morehouse

    I’ve sold short stories that weren’t in official mss. format, too, but my point here (and to my students) is that it’s one thing — beyond the quality of their writing, luck, etc. — that they CAN easily control.

    It’s so easy to do, and unless your publisher asks for something different, why not do it?

  11. 11. bob charters

    I was told that perfection was the key. I guess that could include format. For me, it included grammar, spelling, style and typos. They said, if an editor finds more than two mistakes on the front page of the manuscript, they trash it.

    For some, I guess, that means finding a professional editor. I had an aunt…

  12. 12. Keilexandra

    I hate reading Courier on screen, though I’ve learned to live with it. But in print, I actually prefer the huge spacing for editing purposes–it’s just more airy and gives me more room to scribble.

  13. 13. David B. Coe

    Great post, Lyda. The thing that many people starting out don’t get is that editors are inundated with work. Often they’re not looking for reasons to love your work; they’re looking for excuses to toss it aside and reduce that stack of unread manuscripts. If you submit a clean manuscript, in proper form, in a readable font, with no typos, you deny them excuses to stop reading, and force them to evaluate the manuscript on its merits. That’s my 2 cents.

  14. 14. C.E. Petit

    One caution:

    Different parts of the publishing industry have different “standard manuscript formats.” For example, don’t even think about using underlining instead of italics for a text involving math, the sciences, or the social sciences. Know when to use footnotes, endnotes, and other citation/documentation forms. If it’s book-length, don’t bother with Courier, and do use true italics. And so on.

    So-called “standard manuscript format” is for articles and short fiction only.

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Author Information

Lyda Morehouse

Lyda Morehouse is the author of the science fiction AngeLINK series. She's won the Shamus and the Philip K. Dick Special Citation for Excellence (aka 2nd place). Her books have also been nominated for the Romantic Times Critics' Choice and preliminary Nebula ballot. She lives in the deep-freeze of Saint Paul, MN with her partner of twenty-odd years, their son, and lots and lots of cats (and fish!) Visit site.

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