sweating the small stuff

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As a writer, there are some very very simple things that you can do to improve your chances of getting published. They’re so simple, that I feel sad when I see an aspiring author’s work which, through carelessness or ignorance, has got them wrong.

These little things can make the difference between an agent, or an editor, or a contest judge, or even a writing instructor like me thinking ‘Hey, yeah, that looks good and professional’, or thinking ‘Hmm, this might be hard work.’

Here they are.

Check your work for spelling, punctuation and grammar errors. Computers do this fairly well, but not all that well, especially with things like homophones and punctuating speech. So you need to learn as best you can how to spell, punctuate and express yourself accurately, and check your own work carefully. If you know you have difficulty with this (and many excellent writers are dyslexic, for example), recruit someone to help you.

Format your work correctly. This means the following:

  • Font should be black, 12-point, and easily readable (eg Times New Roman or Arial).
  • Your story should be double-spaced. (Your covering letter and, usually, your synopsis can be single-spaced; check guidelines.)
  • Indent your paragraphs. Don’t skip an extra line between paragraphs within your story unless you have been asked to do so (this is okay in a single-spaced synopsis).
  • Don’t fiddle with margins to make them smaller or bigger.
  • Get rid of ‘widows and orphans’ in your formatting menu (it’s usually under Format: Paragraph).
  • Left-align your work.
  • Include a header or footer with your title and the page number, and also your name unless you have specifically been asked not to do so (for example in a contest with anonymous entries).

Send in what you’ve been asked to send. If they categorically only want a one-page synopsis, don’t send a two-pager. If they ask for only a covering letter with a short blurb, don’t also send a synopsis. If you’ve been asked to send the first page of your manuscript, don’t send page 38, or the entire thing. If they want 1000 words, don’t send 1500.
When I get a manuscript to read that doesn’t follow these simple bits of advice, I feel…cranky.
Is that how you want people to feel when they read your work?

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  1. Urgh! I was doing so well until the ‘windows and orphans’ part. Am feeling silly that I didn’t know about this feature. Why would they set that to automatically on? Stupid is what it is.

    Thanks, Julie!

    • I don’t know if anyone else hates widows and orphans as much as I do, but it does make your bottom margins raggedy and uneven, and you don’t need it.

      Have you found where to turn it off? I’m not using Word at the moment and it’s in a different place in OpenOffice.

  2. Eeek. What are windows and orphans?

    • Ah. I’m glad you asked.

      ‘Widows and orphans’ are bits of sentences at the end of the page that word processing programs decide look strange beginning a new page on their own. The practical outcome is that quite often, your program will end a page quite a bit above where it would normally end, so that it can have a satisfying-looking (to the program) chunk of text at the beginning of every page, instead of a little sentence scrap.

      On a manuscript, this ends up with half-filled pages that can make it difficult to estimate word count. Plus, it wastes paper.

      As I said, I’m sure some editors and agents don’t mind, but to me, it makes your manuscript look very uneven.

  3. I did because it was exactly where you said it would be – in the paragraph section, mocking me with a tick. Thanks, Julie 🙂

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