I THINK THIS STUFF REALLY MATTERS
How you lay out your work is how you first appear, as a writer, to everyone reading you for the first time.
They open the document or turn the page, and they see you. They have a first impression – Is this good? Do I want to read more?
If you don’t care about the minute details of writing, meaning commas and typefaces, then you are undermining yourself.
Perhaps your writing is good enough to make up for this. But why risk it?
So, let’s fix that.
Recently, in an essay, a student of mine wrote, quoting Vincent Van Gogh, ‘Everything done with love is done well.’ Not just attentively or carefully but well.
There are times in your writing when it’s not useful to angst over the placement of a comma. First drafts aren’t about punctuation. Later drafts, though – every draft after the basics of the story are in place – should be about getting every detail as right as possible.
It is amazing, looking at students’ work, or work submitted to competitions and magazines, how often it undermines itself by being annoying or difficult to read.
All of the formatting rules I’m going to ask you to obey from now on are non-negotiable. But I am not simply going to order you to do them, I’m going to explain why they are necessary. At the end, you’ll see a page from a well-presented story. There is also a link to download a template from my website.
Because I don’t know which version of a word-processing programme you’re using, and because they get fiddled around with all the time, I am going to tell you how the document should look when you’re finished – I’m not going to be able to tell you which dropdown menu to locate. Sorry.
Mentally sign this:
I hereby promise to double space my life from now on.
As far as I know, all readers of manuscripts require double-spacing, far from all writers do it.
Single spaced paragraphs are harder to read. Each page feels more of a labour, less of a pleasure.
Often the default of a word-processing is to stick everything hard on the left margin, and to leave a gap between paragraphs.
Unless a particular agent, competition or editor asks for this, don’t do it. Make your text a double-spaced version of exactly how you’d like it to look in a finished book.
This means each new paragraph needs to be indented in a chunky enough way that there’s no doubt what’s happened – we’ve moved on, steps have been taken. That’s what a new paragraph means, movement on.
I would suggest that to begin with you set a universal tab that indents every new line by six spaces. It will do this automatically every time you hit return, both for new paragraphs of action or description and for dialogue.
Every new line of dialogue should be indented – otherwise you could end up with something like this –
‘I really hate the sight of you, you utter beast,’ she said. ‘But I have forgiven you, and will do your will,’ he replied.
This should read –
‘I really hate the sight of you, you utter beast,’ she said.
‘But I have forgiven you, and will do your will,’ he replied.
Confused to clear. Opposite meaning (for a while) to proper meaning.
As several early readers of this blog have pointed out, it’s conventional not to indent the first line of a new chapter or section.
If you’re a habitual non-indenter, then I’d set the universal indent and that’ll improve things 95% (apart from with the kinds of reader who’ve pointed this out).
If you really want to make things perfect, either use a manual tab for each new paragraph or line of dialogue, or use the universal indent and make sure you manually remove it when necessary.
Professional readers read a lot. Their eyes, as they become more senior, more likely to be able to change your life with a Yes! – their eyes get worse. Be kind to them. Make your text an easily readable size.
12pt should be standard.
Along with the double spacing and the paragraph indenting, this will also have the effect of making your pages read much faster.
There is a huge difference between a manuscript which seems effortless to read, and one which seems a slog.
Do your best to tend towards effortlessness.
Literary aside: There are some writers, many of whom I love, who make a virtue out of creating a slog for the reader. They write page after page of dense, often unparagraphed text – examples would be Samuel Beckett (see The Unnameable), Thomas Bernhard (see Gathering Evidence) or David Foster Wallace (see the footnotes to Infinite Jest). Compare these writers, in terms of density, to Armistead Maupin (Tales of the City) or P.G.Wodehouse (Jeeves and Wooster). The former are heavy writers, the latter a lot lighter. You can control this. But if you lapse into long unparagraphed chunks of text, without reason, as a default, you are signalling something to the reader – you are signalling I don’t care about you.
TEXT SIZE CONTINUED
Similarly, but more importantly, if you double space and so on, you will write twice as much – not twice as many words but almost twice as many pages.
It may be a cheap trick, but you will feel as if you are making greater progress – and, I believe, you will be making greater progress.
Your story is less likely to get stuck if it stands a decent chance, at least, of making it to the end of this page before you have your next birthday.
Do not feel guilty about using too much paper. I’ve said it before: It’s Writers vs Trees, and Writers are winning!
More seriously – use recycled paper. Recycle the paper of drafts you no longer need. But don’t be a cramped unhappy, hard-to-read writer because you’re trying to protect the environment.
Work each draft harder. Make twice as many corrections as you otherwise would. Then you won’t end up using any more paper at all.
So simple, yet so easy to forget.
Imagine the scene at the publishing house. The junior editor has read your brilliant manuscript and is rushing through to the editor’s office, carrying your brilliant but not page numbered manuscript. In their haste to get you published, they trip. They fall, and up the pages go and down the pages come. Yes, a manuscript containing all of them is reassembled or printed out again, but by the time that’s done, the editor is distracted. They can’t just start reading. By the time another copy has been mailed through by you, or printed out, the editor is off to the Frankfurt Bookfair where they blow their whole year’s acquisition budget on a first novelist whose pages were neatly numbered.
(The same goes for putting your name at least once somewhere in the manuscript. Probably, conventionally, beneath the title. Once it’s printed out, or just a file on a desktop, it’s anonymous. unless it’s claimed by your name. Email address, optional.)
Whether the page number is left, centre or right doesn’t matter so long as it’s there and logical.
It will take you a few seconds, at most – and if you save the document as a template, you will never have to do it again.
Personally, I find it distracting to have too many words at the bottom of the page. Especially if I keep rereading them as if they were a continuation of the text, because that’s what they look like. I don’t want to read the author’s name three hundred times in the course of reading their novel.
My suggestion is, you include the title of the story or novel in the footer, in the same or smaller point size as the text, but make it grey rather than black. Don’t include your name, email address or a copyright declaration. That will make you look like an egotistical freak or a paranoid freak. Editors only want to work with really successful freaks.
Don’t put anything in the header. Ever. Nothing. The first word the reader comes to on each page should be the next word of the sentence they have been reading. What they don’t Toby Litt Writing and Shit want is interruptions like that really annoying one just then.
FONT OR TYPE TYPE
I won’t be prescriptive here. Some professional readers will advise you to go for a sans serif font such as Ariel. A finished text will look more like Times Roman, but sans serif is reputedly faster to read.
Times Roman reads quite small, and can come across as a little anonymous – particularly if the margins of the page are very narrow.
My taste is for wide margins creating a narrow plunging column of text down the middle of the page.
If you are writing non-genre fiction, what I’d suggest you do is find the book you most enjoy reading, in terms of the way it looks on the page, and try to copy that exactly.
If you are writing genre fiction, what I’d suggest you do is find the novel that is most similar to the kind of writing you’re doing and then try to make your text look exactly like what you’re reading.
If it’s a thriller, it will have bigger type, wider margins and fewer lines per page. If it’s a literary novel, smaller type, narrower margins (often) and more lines per page.
Page layout is generic. Make your layout fit that of the genre in which you’re writing. If you don’t think you’re writing in a genre, make your text helpful and good to look at.
If you think this stuff is boring, perhaps you shouldn’t be a writer. Painters get to spend time cleaning their brushes with fragrant turps and preparing new canvases with funky tools. All writers get to do is buy stationery and obsess over page layouts. It’s all that’s left of the craft, now we no longer have to carve our own quills.
Literary aside: A brilliant book on how texts can look amazing is The Elements of Typographic Style by Robert Bringhurst.
If you want total control over text layout, and it isn’t going to be edited immediately, send pdfs.
If your work is going to be edited, send it in two versions – the version in the file format you usually work in and also in a hopefully more accessible version, so .doc rather than .docx.
This will save you having to resend files to annoyed editors.
People who read a lot of manuscripts can get cranky about their personal hates. Someone I work with goes crazy when he sees the default Microsoft gap between paragraphs. ‘Everything looks like a bloody section break,’ he says.
You probably can’t avoid all of annoyances, but you can make your manuscript easy to read.
Here’s an example, based on one used by a student, that you can use as a start: