Wednesday, July 13, 2011


by Margaret Birth

This blog entry is on a subject that shouldn’t even need mentioning—but evidently it does, because I’ve seen so many manuscripts that don’t measure up in this basic area. The best way to summarize it is to say that you must make sure to: Dot your “i”’s and cross your “t”’s, and mind your “p”’s and “q”’s. If you haven’t guessed it yet, I’m talking about professional presentation of your manuscript.

It never ceases to amaze me how many authors submit manuscripts that are dog-eared; part-typewritten photocopies, part-typewritten carbon copies (!!!), part-computer printed copies; missing page numbers; and full of typos. Every time I see a manuscript like this, I want to take the author by the shoulders and shake her (or him).

Some writers may think that a messy manuscript is endearing, a sign of disorganized genius, the on-paper equivalent of Albert Einstein’s unfortunate hairdo. But I’m here to tell them (and you): Don’t do it! A messy manuscript does not look like disorganized genius; it looks like disorganized idiocy.

Herewith, a few pointers to make your manuscript look as fantastic as your story must have sounded in that query letter (You did already introduce yourself to the agent or editor in a query letter, didn’t you?):

Make sure the pages of your manuscript are clean and neatly aligned. Keep the food-stained, or dog-eared previous copies for scrap paper if you want to be that environmentally friendly (I do), but please don’t let a sloppy stack of paper be your introduction to an editor or agent. Otherwise, how will they get the impression that you’ll do a careful, thoughtful job for them if they accept your story or take you on as a client?

Use one font (something sedate, like Courier or Times New Roman) and type size (12- or 14-point, please) consistently throughout, and use black ink on clean, white, 20-lb. paper. Not only is it irritating to have to read carbon copies mixed in with photocopies, but it’s also irritating to have to read hot-pink fourteen-point Allegro, black bold-face twelve-point Sans Serif and black ten-point Courier all on one page of deckled gray paper. Think I’m kidding when I say that I’ve seen this before? I’m not. It was blinding to read.

Double-check that your manuscript contains all of its pages, and that they’re all facing in the same direction. Few things are more frustrating to a manuscript reader, agent, or editor than to be reading a story—especially one that shows promise—and then discover that there’s no page 213 but two copies of page 252! The reader has no choice, then, but to stop, leaf through the entire manuscript in search of the missing page(s), and fume at the lost time and story parts.

And finally… Proofread! Don’t rely on your computer’s spell-checker. It won’t catch correctly-spelled homonyms (“to/too/two”) or spelling errors which are words, themselves (“of” versus “off”), nor will it catch punctuation or grammar goofs. Pay close attention to capitalization and punctuation (no “’that stinks.’ He said.”), and to proper usage (“lie” versus “lay”).

Just follow these guidelines, and your manuscript should look like a million bucks! Now, about the size of that advance....♥

Margaret Birth is a Christian writer who has been widely published in short fiction, short nonfiction, and poetry, both in the U.S. and abroad; in addition to working as a freelance writer, she's spent over a decade freelancing for multiple publishers as a manuscript reader, proofreader, and copy editor.

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