FAQ for Beginning Writers

Frequently Asked Questions

Answered for Beginning Writers

Q: How do I keep from looking like an amateur when I submit a story?

A: By acting like a professional.

Do your homework. Find out what the editor you are submitting to wants. Let the story speak for itself. Be willing to work with the editor on requested changes. Learn what you can do to make the editor’s job easier. Pay attention to the following:

Do not put extra spaces between the paragraphs (set them off by indenting at the beginning of each paragraph instead). Do not put the creation date on the manuscript, a rights-offered statement, or the Copyright notice (see the question on manuscript format). Do not end the story with -30- (this used to be a telegraphic signal for the end of a message when the message was long, and was later used by journalists–it has no place in fiction).

Do not bind or staple your manuscript. Do not use ring binders, clamp binders, comb binders, brads, string, or any other thing that cannot be easily removed. Paper clips or rubber bands are OK. (See also the question on how to send the manuscript.)

Always include a SASE (self-addressed, stamped envelope) that is large enough and has enough postage. Do not send a letter-sized envelope if you expect to get your manuscript back.

Do not attempt to draw attention to your manuscript by using colored paper or colored ink. Do not use specialty typefaces. Do not put each page of the manuscript in sheet protectors. Do not try to write a “memorable” submission letter. Don’t be cute. Although your manuscript may be funny, its surroundings should not. Gifts for the editor, tie-dyed envelopes, and the like mark your submission as unprofessional.

Making your manuscript appear to be a thing of intrinsic value is a ploy much beloved of unpublished writers. That’s why editors get submissions in safe-deposit boxes, or couriered envelopes, or wrapped in fancy paper, etc. That’s why people worry about the effect of saying that a manuscript is disposable. However, a moment’s consideration will tell you that people like editors, who handle thousands of manuscripts a year, writing on them, copying them, sending them here and there, generally treating them like the pieces of paper they are–don’t place much value on physical manuscripts. The first thing an editor must learn to do is read the =text= and not the packaging. The words and story are the thing, not the frills.

Do not paste pages together, or turn a page upside down, or use any other clever device to find out if the editor has read the manuscript all the way through. Editors have seen these things over and over again.

Don’t ever miss your deadlines, even if the editor says it’s okay. Publishing seems to run on a slower clock some of the time, but when an editor gives you a deadline, that means there’s money involved. People don’t like it very much when you cost them money. If you are going to miss a deadline, please give them at least two months notice.

Don’t be afraid to call your editor or agent to talk about questions or problems concerning business. That’s what they’re there for. They won’t thank you if you don’t tell them about something vital because you didn’t want to bother them.

Remember that editors try to be nice and gentle and may understate things. Don’t take advantage of that. If an editor goes to the trouble of saying something to you, take it very seriously.

Q: Will it really hurt my manuscript’s chances if I don’t format it exactly right?

A: Probably not.

The bare-bones basics of manuscript preparation– double-spaced, right unjustified, margins of about an inch–really covers 99% of getting it right. Many aspiring writers can become a bit obsessive about the minutiae, as if submitting a letter-perfect manuscript format can supplement their stories’ uncertain merits. A perfect manuscript will not save a poor story.

Q: What’s the preferred format for a manuscript?

A: Paper: White 8 1/2″ x 11″ bond. At least 20-pound. Not erasable.

Type face: 10 pitch (12-point) Courier monospace, or other clearly readable face. Not proportionate. Do not use specialty typefaces. If you simply can’t abide Courier, use some other monospaced font. (See question on pitch versus point for clarification.)

Printer: In order of preference, 1) laser printer with fresh toner cartridge, 2) inkjet printer with fresh toner, 3) typewriter with a new carbon ribbon, 4) 24-pin dot matrix printer in near-letter-quality mode with a fresh ribbon. Not draft-quality dot matrix printers with faded ribbons, or anything else that makes the editor’s eyes hurt.

Page format: Double spaced. Indent first lines of paragraphs 3-5 spaces. Do not add an extra line space after paragraphs. Type the manuscript on one side of the page only.

Margins: 1″ to 1.5″ on all sides.

Character and line count: 65-72 characters per line. 25-27 lines per page. Do not justify your lines. Justified left, ragged right is what’s required.

Headers: About an inch from the top. Include your name, the title (or a few words from the title), and the page number on all pages–the page number should go in the upper right corner and nowhere else, but the rest of the format for the header is up to you as long as you have everything there somehow. (Putting the page number anywhere but in the upper right corner makes unnecessary trouble for editorial staff who have to make sure all the pages are there, refer to specific pages in notes and correspondence, etc.)

First page: Include your name, address, phone number, and an approximate word count (but do not put “approximate” by your word count number), on the first page. (See question on how editors count words.) Do not print/type the creation date on the manuscript. There’s no point in telling an editor how long a story has been circulating. SF/F practice is not to put a rights-offered statement on the first page of a manuscript, as in “First North American Serial Rights” in spite of standard writers’-manual advice.

Q: So I should put that in the cover letter instead?

A: No. Don’t put it anywhere. It is not needed. If the editor accepts your work, the contract she offers will tell you what rights she wants to buy. You can negotiate at that time.

Do not include a Copyright notice unless you have specific market information which suggests that such a notice may be appropriate. If the manuscript is disposable, you may put that on the first page. Center the title 10 or 15 lines from the top, put “by” and your name beneath the title, also centered. (Use the name you wish it published under, if different from your legal name.) If this is a title page (a title page is optional but recommended, especially for longer works), start the text on the next page. If this is the first page of the story, skip a line and start the text below your name. This should give you about 13 lines of story text on your first page.

Special characters: Avoid italic typefaces (use underlines instead), bold-face, and other special formats. If you have a long passage that you want printed in italics, you don’t need to underline the whole thing. It’s enough to mark the passage with a vertical line in the margin, write “set in italic” next to the line, and circle the phrase. (Please reconsider having a long passage in italics, though.) Foreign characters are okay, if your printer can do them right. If not, hand-correct them in black ink. Dashes can be indicated by a pair of hyphens. (Do =not= put spaces before and after them. Do it–like this, rather than — this –) Don’t break words at the ends of lines with a hyphen, even hyphenated words. To indicate a line break, you may type the character “#” centered, on a line by itself (or the character “*” or three of them, or you may just leave an extra space–this isn’t crucial to perfect manuscript format). Be sure your punctuation is correct–get a copy of The Chicago Manual of Style or Words Into Type and study it often.

Endings: If you want to let the reader know your story or novel is ended, just center the word “END” in capital letters two lines below the last line of the work. You don’t need to do this, though, since the story should be written so it is clear to the readers when they have reached the end.

Q: What about formatting electronic submissions?

A: For the most part formatting it as a print submission works well, but the preferences vary market by market.

Start by reading the guidelines, some markets don’t allow e-subs at all.  Others want them in the body of an email, some attached as a .doc or .rtf, and some have special webforms. The bottom line is that, as with any market, reading the guidelines is extremely important.

Q: Is 12 POINT Courier the same as 10 PITCH Courier?

A: Yes, it works out that way. What the Mac calls “12-point Courier” (measuring by height of character) is 10 pitch, meaning there are ten letters and/or spaces in an inch.

Point describes the vertical height of typefaces in 1/72nds of an inch.

Pitch defines typefaces horizontally, by the number of characters that can fit in an inch. “Point up, pitch across.”

One problem with pitch vs. point is that, if you have a PostScript printer, the fonts on your menu are defined by point size – Courier 10 point, Courier 12 point. But the HP PCL fonts for your laserjet will be given in cpi–characters per inch (=pitch). So if you change the printer selection on your PC from the HP Laserjet III with the Post Script option on, you select Courier 12 point. If you decide to use THE VERY SAME PRINTER BUT WITHOUT POST SCRIPT, you have to choose Courier 10 cpi.

So, pitch = cpi.

It doesn’t help that 12 cpi/pitch = 10 point and 10 cpi/pitch = 12 point, more or less.

Q: How do you correctly package a novel manuscript?

I’m using a box that bond paper came in, but how do I handle the postage and label and wrapping for the return trip? I plan on putting the postage and label in a separate envelope. Will the publishing house use their own wrapping paper, or am I expected to provide a large envelope or something?

A: For the return of your novel, provide a envelope big enough to hold the box your manuscript is in. Put an address label on the envelope, along with the postage.

If you sent your manuscript in one of those heavy-duty manuscript mailing boxes, you can include a return label and postage inside. The publisher will tape the box shut, and apply the label and new postage. Nobody wraps manuscript boxes.

Don’t send the manuscript in a box that is twenty times the size of the manuscript. And make sure the box is easy to open. If you want the editor to use the box to return the manuscript, make sure the box is also easy to seal.

Bubble-pak envelopes are a good choice if you use an envelope.

Jiffy Paks are a royal pain to open (especially when sealed with fifteen heavy-duty staples and five yards of strapping tape) and they tend to cover the innocent editor with clinging gray fluff.

Tyvek envelopes seem to result in very battered manuscripts which are harder to page through. Particularly when a 250-page manuscript is left loose in a Tyvek envelope the size of a small desktop, as seems to happen constantly.

Office Depot (and probably lots of other places) has quite inexpensive manuscript boxes that you fold up, nice and sturdy and easy to use; all the editor has to do to return the ms is paste on a new label which you can provide. (Return postage could be included in a labeled envelope taped inside the top). No gray fluff, easy to stack on a desk, and a nice neat manuscript both ways if such should be the writer’s fate.

Another possibility is to use those corrugated cardboard manuscript boxes. Affix the return postage and address on the box, then wrap it in brown postal wrapping paper and address the whole thing to the publisher. That way, all the publisher has to do to return it is pop it back in the box, seal it up and drop it in the outgoing mail. Keeps the manuscript presentable enough to go out again, as well.

Do NOT submit your only copy.

Do NOT send by mail formats that require the recipient to sign for delivery (such as registered or certified mail or return receipt).

Do NOT use metered postage for your return postage. Use stamps. The post office will not accept outdated metered postage, and you won’t get your manuscript back.

Q: Do you need to include a cover letter when you send in a manuscript?

A: There are several reasons why an editor would want a cover letter:

It has the author’s name, address and phone number on it, along with the name of the story. It’s a good place to make notes about the story and the editor’s reaction to it. If the editor decides to acquire the story, it is also a good place for notes about the offer. And it is used to draft a rejection letter if the editor doesn’t buy the story. A cover letter just makes it easier to keep things straight when an editor is dealing with dozens of manuscripts.

You definitely need a cover letter to tell the editor if you are making a simultaneous submission, or if the manuscript is disposable (in which case, the SASE only needs to be a standard letter-sized envelope).

This material was developed as a service to writers by members of GEnie’s Science Fiction Roundtable, many of them professional writers and editors. Contributors include James Brunet, John C. Bunnell, Gregory Feeley, Larry Hammer, David M. Harris, Glenn Hauman, John E. Johnston III, Tappan King, Damon Knight, James D. Macdonald, Beth Meacham, Kevin O’Donnell Jr., Elizabeth Perry, Susan Shwartz, Martha Soukup, Judith Tarr and Mitch Wagner.

It was compiled by Kathleen Dalton-Woodbury. Copyright © 1994 by GEnie Information Service. All rights reserved.