A writer friend who teaches on various creative writing courses told me the other day that he had started one course by attempting to give students advice about layout, revisions and how to submit a manuscript. 'They laughed,' he said. 'They thought they already knew all about it.' Predictably, as soon as the coursework started to come in, he realised that they knew almost nothing about it. They just thought they did.
I've been considering this thorny issue recently for a number of reasons. My nice new agent, when reading through my latest manuscript, The Amber Heart, told me that he thought the actual novel was 'wonderful', but then went on to issue a rather stern admonition about my use of commas which was - seemingly - not all it should be. He was right, of course, and I went back over the manuscript with a fine tooth comb. But I've also spent some time, recently, reading other people's manuscripts for a literary competition which I was asked to judge, and although the standard of the actual writing was - in many cases - very high, the standard of presentation, even among the prizewinners, was not good. And it wasn't just commas and a bit of careless word spacing, either!
So here are my ten practical pieces of advice on preparing your manuscript for submission.
1 Never send in a handwritten manuscript, even if it means bribing a friend or relative to type it up for you.
2 Never attempt to save paper by copying or printing on both sides of the paper. Printer paper is cheap, especially in supermarkets (you can buy 500 sheets of good 80 gm paper in Morrisons for rather less than £3.00) and just for once, forget about saving the planet.
3 Never attempt to save paper by formatting your manuscript in 9 point with no spaces between lines. You need decent margins, 2 or at the very least 1.5 spaces between lines, and 12 point font, something clear like Ariel or Times New Roman. So it uses a bit more paper. See (2) above!
4 By all means use a Fast Draft setting for your own printouts, but when preparing a manuscript for submission, make sure that it is printed out properly, even if it means buying a new print cartridge. (These are always cheaper online.)
5 Never staple the pages together. Leave them loose. For stories or poems, you can use a paper clip, top left corner. For novels, leave all the pages loose. They can go in a box or wallet file if you are posting them.
6 When sending speculative submissions to publishers or agents, these should never be more than the first three chapters and a synopsis, plus covering letter and CV if applicable.
7 Do not lay out your manuscript, whether story or novel, in the 'report' format that seems to have become increasingly acceptable for academic essays. Have you ever seen a published novel laid out like this? It is very disconcerting indeed to see these strange blocks of paragraphs, with acres of white space between them and no indents. Write your story in the format that you see on the printed page with proper old fashioned paragraphs, with indents, with dialogue also indented, and with the occasional space which may indicate the passage of time within a chapter, or a change of perspective.
8 If you are not good at punctuation, try to get somebody else to check it for you.
9 Make sure you use your spell checker before sending your manuscript out.
10 Make sure that your whole submission, whether it is for a competition, an agent or a publication, looks neat and professional. If you ever find yourself thinking 'that'll do' you can be sure that it won't. And all of the above apply, even if you are making an online submission.
This may seem a little pedantic, and it is! But consider for a moment - the person you are submitting to may well be seeing not just dozens but perhaps hundreds of submissions every week. There is never enough time, nor enough people to read them and - as an editor once confessed to me - the easiest way of sorting them, initially, is to take all the badly laid out, badly spelled, poorly presented manuscripts and put them right at the bottom of the pile. Where they may well remain for ever. If you don't care enough about your work to devote a little time to presenting it in the right way, why on earth would you expect anyone else to care enough to read it?