Friday, May 8, 2009

Manuscript Mechanics In The Modern World

Word processors are amazing things. As someone just old enough to remember that venerable writing machine known as the typewriter, I've really come to appreciate the power and flexibility that today's word processors offer the writer. It sure is a far cry from the days of loading paper into a typewriter, struggling to maintain consistent margins, then ripping the paper out of the machine, swearing, and loading in a new sheet whenever you made a mistake. Editing and rewriting was tedious and involved retyping the same text over and over again.

Over the years, typewriters evolved, first from manual to electric. Then in 1961, IBM introduced its famous, groundbreaking Selectric typewriter, which featured one type ball instead of individual type bars for striking characters onto paper. Shaped like a golf ball, but slightly larger in size, the type ball increased typing speed and accuracy while reducing wear and tear on the typist's hands and wrists. The days of type bars jamming together and bringing the typist to a screeching halt were over.

Even typing ribbons evolved, from manually threaded (which always smudged the typist's fingers) to cartridges. Correction ribbons, which were a clean and neat alternative to whiteout, also evolved into cartridges.

The greatest evolution of all came in 1974, when the first word processor was introduced by the Wang company. Text was typed on a conventional IBM Selectric typewriter, stored on a cassette tape, (each tape could store up to 20 pages of text) edited, then printed out later. In 1976, Wang introduced the first word processor to have a CRT monitor screen. Soon, word processing machines came with floppy disk drives for storage. The machines looked like computer printers with built-in monitor screens and storage drives, and an external keyboard.

By the mid-1980's, the personal computer replaced the word processor as the writing machine of choice. But throughout all this technical evolution, one thing stayed the same: the way manuscripts were formatted. Even in the early 1990s, when the Windows 3.1 and Apple Macintosh operating systems offered numerous fonts to choose from, writers stuck to the old Courier typewriter font.

In the old days, editors used the fixed width of Courier font characters to guesstimate word counts, a practice made obsolete by today's word processing software. Another practice carried over from the typewriter days was
underlining text to indicate italics. Even today in 2009, some writers still follow these customs. But more and more editors are saying they're not necessary anymore. Which is good for writers, as Courier looks too light when printed by today's ink jet and laser printers. Also, Courier is not exactly a practical font to use when submitting complete manuscripts through the mail. By switching from 12-point Courier to 12-point Roman, you can save on both paper and postage costs.

Of course, when considering a particular market, you should always read the writer's guidelines carefully. If they specify a particular font, use it. For example, I know one online publisher of short stories who specifically requests that writers use 12-point Roman as their font for submissions. If no particular font is specified, don't assume you that you must use Courier. Just keep two things in mind: the font you choose should be easy on your editor's eyes and give your writing a professional appearance.

So don't be a schmuck and use arty fonts like Comic Sans MS and Papyrus. And for the love of god, don't EVER use one of those script fonts that make your text look like cursive handwriting.

Now, there are some manuscript formatting traditions from the typewriter days that should still be adhered to, such as one-inch margins all around, and half-inch paragraph indentations. Always double-space your manuscripts, but be aware that for electronic submissions, you'll probably be asked to single-space your manuscripts because reading a double-spaced manuscript pasted into a plain text e-mail is hard on the eyes and distracts from the writing.

Which brings me to another point. In this Internet age that we live in, more and more markets are accepting electronic submissions. Instead of having to print out your manuscript and mail it, you can e-mail it directly to the publisher. Read the writer's guidelines carefully for details about electronic submissions. Some markets may allow you to attach a word processor file (such as a Word DOC file) to your e-mail, but due to virus and malicious code concerns, more and more publishers are requesting that electronic submissions be made in the bodies of plain text e-mails only. If that's the case, send a plain text e-mail. Don't send an attached file or rich text (HTML) formatted e-mail hoping that the publisher won't care. They will. And your rejection letter will reflect that.

Here's a tip for plain text electronic submissions. To indicate italicized text, you can *use asterisks like this* or you can _use underscores like this_ in place of rich text italics. I use asterisks myself.

The modern age has been good to writers. Word processors like Microsoft Word and OpenOffice Writer (which I use) have taken the drudgery out of the writing process and let writers concentrate on the creative process and, well, write. While it's no longer necessary to maintain most practices from the old days of the typewriter, a common sense approach to manuscript mechanics still applies in the modern world.

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