Once, children, long ago—so long ago that the earth was formless and void, and Amazon had only been heard of by Greek mythologists, there were gatekeepers of publishing known as Editors.
Part of the editorial domain was the Slush Pile, the unsolicited manuscripts waiting to be read and chosen for publication. (Many an editorial assistant lost life or limb to a toppling Slush Pile, and the fire hazard can barely be imagined!) There was a formula for conquering the Slush Pile, a spell which, when executed correctly, would allow your book to rise up from the pile, and to an Editor’s attention. This spell would get you sales the only place you could in those far-off days—from a book publisher. (If you had not performed the ritual correctly, you would receive the dreaded missive “…does not meet our needs at the present time. We wish you luck placing it elsewhere…) This missive would generally be in the form of a post card, mailed out by surviving editorial assistants. And sometimes you got it even if you did perform the ritual correctly, because publishing is a capricious art, and it’s easier to mail a post card than it is to read a manuscript by an unknown author all the way through.
The incantation was called Manuscript Format. It was simple of purpose—a manuscript must be easy for an editor to read. There was one standard for all, with special rules for those works which required footnotes, and newspapers, where work was cut to length from the bottom up, so best keep anything important in the first paragraph.
White paper. 8 ½ x 11 inches. One side only. (Easy to photocopy.)
12 point type, same as a typewriter. Double Spaced. (Easy to read.)
Wide margins top, bottom, sides. (Plenty of room for editing. Or re-writing.)
Indent your paragraphs obviously, so the typesetter could see what you were doing.
No double spacing between paragraphs. # indicates a break in the text.
No pink paper. No fancy fonts or script. No longhand. (All too hard to read. Editors lived by their eyes. And the typesetters deserved a break too.)
Doesn’t matter today, you say? You are your own editor, your own typesetter, your own publisher, and you will do as you please! And when you do, reflect on this story, which I heard from the author’s own lips at a World Fantasy Convention many years ago:
Steven R. Donaldson had submitted his manuscript for the first of the Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever to every US publisher. (There were more of them in those days.) After wallpapering the bathroom, he decided to submit to European publishers. And while he waited to gather addresses, he thought he might as well start over again in the US. At the beginning of the alphabet. Ballantine Books. The manuscript landed in the slush pile of Lester del Rey, founding editor of Ballantine Del Rey Books. One Friday, Lester wanted a book to take home for weekend reading. He visited the pile, and chose the first book he came to that was easy to read. Can you guess whose book he chose? Fortune favors the prepared!
Learn how to present your work professionally. Basic formatting of your book is very…basic. It’s meant to be! You want your work to shine, which means putting as little between your story and your reader as you can. No weird type, no double spaces between paragraphs, no improper verb tenses, no misspelled words, functional punctuation,no odd word-pictures, no excuses! You are the Writer, you are the Editor, you are the Publisher—and you can never go wrong by being professional at every task, at all times.