Saturday, April 14, 2007

The World's Most Boring Post? You Decide

I'll warn you upfront: It's about manuscript formatting.

I have opinions on the topic that deviate from conventional wisdom, but, even then, it's hard for me to maintain that this will be a dramatic, suspense-filled post. (Look, guys--renegade formatting! Shall we read about that...or watch the Teletubbies?)

There's three items I want to touch on, each more thrilling than the one before: Fonts, Margins, and Headers/Pagination. Buckle up, we're in for a wild ride.

DISCLAIMER: If an agency or house declares what they would prefer in terms of manuscript formatting, for the love of Pete (whatever that means) give it to them.

Fonts

There seem to be three schools of thought on the topic of fonts:

Courier Only, Infidel: Many of the Courier lovers are old-school types (or folks who have been associated with screenwriting). Some of them are handy at doing eyeball word counts based on secret whitespace formulas they learned from Max Perkins, though some of the formulas require dragging out the old slide rule. They may tolerate a manuscript in something other than Courier, but they won't be happy about it. Copyeditors tend to prefer it, but when you are submitting for acquistion or representation, the copyeditor is miles down the road (and can usualy print it out to please themself, since by that late date you and your publisher are usually dealing in electronic copy).

Ya Gotta Change with the Times (New Roman): TNR freaks tend to be on the young side (and many agents and editors are). Many of these folks have never seen (much less touched) a typewriter, but they can do 50 wpm on their Blackberries. If you send them a manuscript in Courier, they'll worry you're a fusty old Luddite who won't be able to open e-mail attachments.

The Get-A-Grip School: The redoubtable Miss Snark is the foremost advocate of a philosophy that says a writer has more important things to worry about and that any agent or editor you really want to be associated with won't really give a damn what font you use as long as it isn't utterly frou-frou. (I think she's absolutely right, but I'm going to ignore that fact. Otherwise I won't be able to complete this post.)

Why Courier is great: Courier carries along lots of extra whitespace. That means less words per page. That means that, ceteris paribus, the pages turn faster.

Why Courier is not so great: Aside from the fact that it looks like you borrowed Grandma's typewriter to hammer out your 7th-grade book report, Courier isn't that easy to read. Many people find themselves sort of s-p-e-l-l-i-n-g o-u-t e-v-e-r-y w-o-r-d when they read Courier. Some publishing professionals claim Courier is intrinsically easier on the eyes and quicker to read...but I notice they seldom publish their books in Courier. Don't they care about our eyes?

Why Times New Roman is great: TNR is a clean, no-nonsense, proportionally spaced font. It looks professional, and most studies show it's easier to read, as the words are tied together into packages.

Why Times New Roman is not so great: It's dense. Oh, baby, can it pack the words into a small space. Readable, yes...but you may feel as though the page you are reading was written in the 19th Century by someone who was being paid by the word. Probably translated from the Russian (poorly). Any minute now, you expect itty-bitty footnotes. All things held equal, Times New Roman may be easier to read...but those are lonnnnngggg, dense pages. (If you are worried about minimizing page count rather than word count for some reason, Times New Roman is the way to go.)

Courier moves the pages faster, Times New Roman speeds the eye through each word. It's a tradeoff, but I've got a sneaky solution. Which brings us to...

Margins

The so-called 'standard' margins are one-inch all around. I agree that whatever you do, you should never go narrower than this. In fact, one-inch margins with Times New Roman to my eye look impossibly cramped already, so narrowing the margins would make your text look like the fine print on an insurance form.

Wider, on the other hand...

I use 1.5 inch margins on Left, Top, and Bottom (LTB), and 1 inch on the Right (where the ragged margin contributes its own white space.) It might seem that this would make the text look tall and skinny, but in fact it looks fine, and I've never had anyone remark on how it appears. (Trust me, the crowd I hang with will remark on anything.)

Here's the secret to this manuever: to a very close approximation, in the number of words per page, 1.5" LTB and 1" R in Times New Roman equals 1" LTBR in Courier.

In other words, using Times New Roman and widening the margins to 1.5 inches LTB gives you the same word count per page as Courier with standard 1 inch margins, but the proportional spacing of the Times New Roman draws the eye along more rapidly. I believe the net result is the reader turning pages faster, and feeling less cramped, than under either of the standard approaches.

I started using this format intuitively, feeling that Courier was clunky and outdated and Times New Roman was too dense. How do I know it works? I don't. I only know I've never had any complaints; but I have had many compliments about my page-turning writing. Now, I like to flatter myself that at least some of that is a result of my prose, but I'm pretty sure that going for this best-of-both-worlds' formatting approach has never hurt me.

Headers/Pagination

I can't claim authorship of this last idea, since I outright stole it from Sol Stein, a great writer and a great editor. (He's one of those who asserts, by the way, that an advantage of Courier is that the lower word count per page makes the pages turn faster.)

Stein claims that when the reader hops from the bottom of one manuscript page to the top of the next, anything in the header temporarily distracts the eye. So he makes what he calls a "sly" suggestion: use footers rather than headers. Keep the page numbers and author name down at the bottom. The momentum of the sentence will draw the reader right past the footer and up to the top of the next page without pause.

I think he's right. I don't always do it that way, and it looks a touch odd at first, but when I've done it, it doesn't seem to have perturbed anyone. It seems to have helped preserve continuity, which is a bigger problem when one is flipping loose manuscript pages than when one is reading a printed book.

Okay, Already

I admit that was probably boring. And Lord knows that skillfully deployed formatting in your manuscript will win you no kudos from the critics (who will never see it in any case). None of this matters nearly as much as the writing itself. Agents and editors are schooled in reading past the mechanics of presentation...when they are in the mood. Problem is, it's easy to hit them on a bad day. I think they need all the help they can get. So do our manuscripts.

As more manuscripts are submitted electronically, of course, this will matter less, as the recipients will change the fonts and margins to whatever they damn well please.


11 comments:

Jeremy James said...

Hi David. I actually found this post to be fascinating. I especially liked your suggestion for margins. Thanks.

David Isaak said...

That suggests that your mental health is no better than mine. (Poor guy.)

(Someone once told me that when writers get together they never talk about books--just money, agents, and formatting.)

cate sweeney said...

Hi David
I didn't find it boring either.
Particularly like the use of frou-frou (where does that come from french?)
Almost lost it when you came to margins though. I just ignore them and hope they sort themselves.
Use TNR mostly myself with the occassioanl Arial if I feel it's a bit more contemporary.
Enjoy your trip.
Cate

pheeliques said...

not boring! twas not boring!

formatting is a sticky issue. we writers want our manuscripts to look professional, so as to best showcase the professional quality (we hope) of our writing. it reminds me of the "crystal goblet" principle in typesetting: you want the text to look as beautiful as possible without type and/or design overly calling attention to itself. it's the contents that are important; the container--not so much. type/design/fonts/margins/headers/spacing are all employed so as to best show off the writing.

i've noticed that if someone tries to fudge their font and margins too much, i end up distracted from the writing and irritated and thus less inclined to regard textual foibles with indulgence (i've also noticed that, generally, those who fudge too much often aren't quite in the "writing of professional quality" range anyhow).

i'm glad you wrote about this with such clarity and candidness. this really demystifies the issues and gives practical tips. i'm really glad i found your blog.

pheeliques

pheeliques said...

not boring! twas not boring!

formatting is a sticky issue. we writers want our manuscripts to look professional, so as to best showcase the professional quality (we hope) of our writing. it reminds me of the "crystal goblet" principle in typesetting: you want the text to look as beautiful as possible without type and/or design overly calling attention to itself. it's the contents that are important; the container--not so much. type/design/fonts/margins/headers/spacing are all employed so as to best show off the writing.

i've noticed that if someone tries to fudge their font and margins too much, i end up distracted from the writing and irritated and thus less inclined to regard textual foibles with indulgence (i've also noticed that, generally, those who fudge too much often aren't quite in the "writing of professional quality" range anyhow).

i'm glad you wrote about this with such clarity and candidness. this really demystifies the issues and gives practical tips. i'm really glad i found your blog.

pheeliques

Jake said...

I found this post very interesting, actually. This is Shit I Wonder About. And it's entertaining writing. Who could ask for more?

Neil said...

David, I will go one step further--the TNR margin suggestion is sheer genius! I will be employing it forthwith and to hell with the frou frou.

The footer thing is also interesting, though I need to test it, although I might not be the best to test, being a southpaw I've a feeling the way I read is slightly different to 'normal' people and different things are more likely to distract me.

David Isaak said...

Hey Cate, good to hear from you.

Neil, I brought your novel on this trip.

Pheeliques, nice to meet you. Hope to see you again!

Deanna Hoak said...

Actually, if you're with one of the big houses, copyeditors cannot print out a copy to please themselves--usually, we don't even get an electronic copy.

Because of the white space, it's easier to spot typos in Courier. With Times, it's even hard to tell the difference between a comma and a semicolon. (I tried to put an example in the comment, but your blog wouldn't allow it. Look at "number;" and "number," in both Times and Courier--the difference is dramatic. (Or you can just look here, where I used the example on my blog a while back.)

Additionally, copyeditors are almost always expected to copyedit at a rate of about ten pages per hour regardless of the font used. (More ignorance, I know, but publishing is a hidebound industry.) Times will hold about 375 words per page, whereas Courier will hold about 250--that's a lot less time for the copyeditor to spend on your text.

Using Courier will help you ensure that the copyeditor can work with your manuscript in the best way possible--it isn't the fastest font to read, no. You don't want that for copyediting. Unfortunately, with few exceptions at the major publishers, whatever you submit the book in is what the copyeditor has to work with.

David Isaak said...

Hi, Deanna, thanks for dropping through!

In response to your comment:

"Additionally, copyeditors are almost always expected to copyedit at a rate of about ten pages per hour regardless of the font used...Times will hold about 375 words per page, whereas Courier will hold about 250--that's a lot less time for the copyeditor to spend on your text."

Well, with my margins, the number of words on a page of Times is about the same as the number of words on a page of Courier with standard margins. That's what I was searching for--the words per page of Courier with the readability of Times.

I realize that this does nothing to address the problem of spacing for copyediting, and I sympathize with your plight. But most of us out here writing are worried foremost about how well the agents and acquisitions editors enjoy reading our text. If they don't enjoy rwading it, the manuscript will never make it to the hands of a coyeditor.

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