Monday, August 8, 2011

Writing 101: Yes, Virginia, This Is the Digital Age

In the past month or so I have received a number of manuscripts submitted to me electronically. Some nonfiction pieces, a few short stories, and one novel; a total of 15 manuscripts. All of these authors knew up front that their respective manuscripts would be published in print form.

And yet, only a handful of these manuscripts -- maybe five -- were formatted correctly for digital conversion from manuscript file to layout. Most were formatted as if they were being published on a blog: each paragraph was flush left (rather than indented) with a blank line between each paragraph. In the majority of instances underlining was still being used instead of actual italics, along with straight quotes (rather than the curly, or "smart" quotes).

Now what this means for me is that before I can submit these files to publishers, I have to reformat them completely. I have to:
1) set every paragraph indent by changing the actual left indent, not by tabbing or entering spaces;
2) remove the blank line between each paragraph;
3) manually search for underlines and change that text to italics;
4) replace straight single and double quote marks with smart quotes;
5) replace double-hyphens and en-dashes with em-dashes;
6) ensure there are no spaces before and after said em-dashes, as em-dashes should butt up against whatever character comes before and after;
7) fix all ellipses. These are interesting creatures: I see them with a space before, a space between each ellipsis point, and a space after; occasionally just one or two of those options, but most often all three. There is an ellipsis symbol in MS Word (if that's your word processor of choice) that should be used.
8) less I forget, ensure only one blank space between sentences or following a colon! There is absolutely no need to use two consecutive spaces in a manuscript, ever.

I don't know where the "blog format" has come from because there has never been a standard manuscript layout that requires a paragraph to be flush left followed by a blank line. For everyone else, the standard manuscript layout being followed (underlining, double-hyphens, two spaces etc.) is from the days of typesetting, which have pretty much been passé for nearly a decade now.

In other words, we have (and have had for quite a number of years now -- about 16 years, I believe) word processor capability such that what you see is what you get (WYSIWYG), and that's the same logic that should apply today to manuscript submissions.

In recent months, this discussion came up in at least two of my panels at both Baycon (Memorial Day weekend) and Westercon (Fourth of July weekend) -- and with multiple editors on the panels, the audience heard multiple responses.  Bottom line: an author needs to format his/her manuscript to meet the stated manuscript guidelines for that publisher or magazine. What I heard at these conventions from audience participants is that some of the micro presses and 'zines have far more restrictive (and in some instances absurd) manuscript guidelines. My response to that is: If you don't want to deal with such restrictive/absurd guidelines, don't submit to that magazine or press. If there are no guidelines posted, you could always contact the publisher for guidelines. If you get no response, or you don't see any quideline requirements, you can't go wrong with WYSIWYG. Format that manuscript with paragraphs, with italics, etc. so that it looks exactly like you would want it to look when printed.

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