I’m a small press author. While I hope to one day make it to the big leagues, so to speak, right now I’m with a few different small presses, and that’s just fine by me. The majority of the presses I’ve worked with have been wonderful. I’ve had great experiences and I’m more than happy to continue growing my career and bibliography with publishers like Eraserhead Press (and their imprints ) and Thunderstorm Books. But this post isn’t about publishers… I know, weird segue right? Stay with me, I brought this up for a reason.
Working with small presses has a side effect. Essentially, the vast majority of editors I’ve worked with have been around my age, some actually younger. That’s not an issue, but it does mean that their standards (especially in regards to formatting, which is actually the topic of this post) vary a bit from that of a more traditional, larger, more established, etc publisher. That’s a long winded way of saying that different presses want submissions in different ways, and that what’s considered “standard” for one may not be for another.
Honestly, that wasn’t something I ever really gave much thought to. After all, writing is supposed to be the hard part, right? Or is that editing? Both can be pretty difficult, honestly… but formatting? That should be easy! Just make it readable, right? As it turns out, not exactly.
Now while I am a small press author, and I’m relatively small potatoes as authors go, I do like to share things when I learn them. If I stumble over something and sharing that information can help someone else avoid it themselves, then at least some good has come of it, right? After all, we are all in this together and sharing knowledge helps everyone in the community. I like to think so, anyway.
Recently I attended a workshop lead by Christopher Golden and James A. Moore. The class itself was excellent and more than worth the tuition fee. I’d highly recommend it to anyone looking to improve their writing… but I’m meandering again, aren’t I?
So in one of the sessions, the topic of formatting came up, and that brings us to this blog post. Up until then, I formatted everything the same basic way I always had and that was just how I operated. I didn’t worry so much about fonts or paragraph styles or any of the other subtle nuances that make up a word document, I just focused on submitting something relatively readable and following the guidelines the publisher I was submitting to requested, just sort of assuming that the quality of my work would speak for itself. Working with an editor who has been in the business for decades and worked with the Big Five, as well as having worked with other editors on my bucket list opened my eyes to the differences in expectations there are or can be in regards to formatting.
First and foremost, the guidelines take precedent over anything I’ve said here or anything else you might find online. READ THEM. I repeat, read the guidelines. Make sure that what you’re submitting follows them, don’t just spam everyone with an email address your story and hope it fits. The “spray and pray” approach is really kind of obnoxious, but that’s another blog post. Just to reiterate, read the guidelines for whatever publisher you’re submitting to and make sure your story matches up with what they’ve asked for. If they want tab indents and no extra space between paragraphs, do it that way even if it involves spending some time making changes. If they want nontab indents, do that.
One handy trick I’ve used for a while is to create a document I actually have saved as “Story Starter”. It’s standard Word document that contains my contact information on the left, a formula that calculates word count on the right, and headers/footers that contain a page number (also a formula), my name, and a placeholder for the story title. It’s set to 12 point Courier New as the font, and double spaced. I begin almost every new story using that document, then I make a few tiny changes, File>Save As and I’m already a step ahead of the game. That’s not to say that I don’t ever have to tweak or fix things to meet specific guidelines, I do, but changing the font, size, or spacing is simple and I’d have to manually indent or remove/change indentation, anyway.
A wise man, and someone I’ve looked up to for a long time, once told me that a good old school editor typically prefers documents that look like they were typed on a type writer. While that’s probably not true of everyone, it does sound like a good idea, as typewriters were created to make documents readable. If the guidelines don’t specifically list a font, use something like that. I find that both Courier New and Times New Roman generally fit the bill. You definitely don’t want to go crazy, though. If you use a font that isn’t part of MS Office by default, it might look wonky if whomever opens it doesn’t have it installed.
Yet another wise and wonderful editor said that if you want notes, make sure you leave enough space for an editor to write them in. Some editors DO print out your stories and write notes as they read, so make sure you’ve left space for those notes. They can be invaluable as far as improving your craft, and who wants to squint at a jumble of too-close text, anyway? I always use AT LEAST 1.5 spacing, usually a full 2, depending on specific guidelines.
If all else fails, think about your intended audience and do so with the awareness that some small presses prefer formatting that looks good on an e-reader (no indents, double space between paragraphs) and larger presses seem to want things more old school.
I hope this was helpful!