M Is for Manuscript

“Manuscript” literally means “written by hand.” Sounds like “handwriting,” doesn’t it? Not all that long ago most manuscripts (“mss.” for short; the singular is “ms.”) were handwritten. Some of us still do a fair amount of first-drafting in longhand.

These days, however, when we talk about manuscripts, we’re usually referring to the finished (at least for the time being) product that we circulate to our writer friends, hand over to an editor, or submit to a publisher. That manuscript had better not be handwritten. Go back to “H Is for Handwriting” (or take a close look at the photo at the top of this page) and you’ll see why.

Some manuscripts are handwritten, of course. They are generally found in archives and libraries, where they are pored over by scholars, not read by the general public.

Though often hard to read, handwritten manuscripts are undeniably full of personality. Standard manuscript format isn’t. That’s part of its point. It says little about the writer’s personality, but what it does say is important. It tells the agent or editor who reads it “This writer knows what she’s doing. She’s prepared a manuscript that makes it possible for you to focus on the writing.”

So what is “standard manuscript format”? Most how-to-get-published books and websites will tell you, but here are the basics:

  • Double-spaced
  • One-inch margins all around
  • Serif font (sometimes a particular font is specified, like Times New Roman)
  • 12 point type
  • A header that includes the author’s surname, a word or two from the title, and the page number

My writers’ group members bring paper pages to our weekly meetings. Here’s one of mine. It illustrates all of the above points, plus the convention that the first page of a new chapter begins some ways down the page, usually between a third and a half. Note also that the header includes “draft 3.” Version control — keeping track of revisions and rewrites — deserves a post of its own. Maybe when we get to V?

manuscript page

Manuscripts submitted electronically can of course be reformatted by the recipient, but you want to create a good first impression. Freelance editors often wind up tweaking (at least) the mss. submitted by our less experienced clients, but we’re generally charging for the time we spend doing this. Unless you already have a big name or a hot topic, agents and publishers are doing you a favor by reading your work. Make it easy for them.

Cranky editor

For both fiction and nonfiction writers, the Chicago Manual of Style‘s section “Manuscript Preparation for Authors” is  a good place to start. Different genres, journals, and academic disciplines often have their own requirements, some of which are very specific and should be followed to the letter.

Learn the conventions and expectations that prevail in whatever field you’re in. This is especially true if your ms. includes citations — footnotes and/or endnotes, bibliography or reference list. As I noted in “B Is for Backmatter,” messily formatted citations make editors very cranky. Writers are well advised to avoid this whenever possible.

Why I Always Read the Acknowledgments

As an editor, I work mostly on completed or nearly completed manuscripts. I straighten out the punctuation here, insert a paragraph break there, invert a couple of sentences here, point out an inconsistency there . . . It’s all in a day’s work.

What I seldom think about is what an astonishing feat it is to complete a 300- or 400- or 600-page manuscript of any kind, to get it to the point where pretty much all it needs is fine-tuning.

As a writer, however, I think about this all the time. It’s the reason the subtitle of Write Through It includes “how to keep going.”

If you don’t manage to keep going, you’ll never have a completed manuscript. It’s hard to keep going. It’s so easy to stop — or to not start at all.

And the authors of all those completed or nearly completed manuscripts managed to do it. Hats off to all of them — all of us. How the hell do we do it?

This is why I eventually turn to the acknowledgments section of every book I work on and every book I read. It’s not so I can find out if my name is there, although sometimes it is. What I want to know is how the author managed to accomplish this amazing thing: completing a manuscript and getting it into print.

Lesson #1: No writer who gets anywhere gets there alone.

Most authors thank their editor(s), agent (if any), and, often, the designer, proofreader, and others involved on the production end. They may thank the parents and teachers who inspired them, and the partners and children who put up with them while they worked on the book. Both fiction and nonfiction writers often acknowledge those who read, commented on, or critiqued various drafts of the manuscript. With academic authors, the list of names can be quite long — and readers familiar with the field will often skim that list in an attempt to ascertain whether the author has done her homework.

Fiction writers often include the friends and acquaintances who gave them crash courses on police procedures, quantum theory, dog training, life in an urban hospital’s ER . . . Writing what we know usually leads us into stuff we don’t know, and there we need some help.

I recently edited a university-press book whose author had done extensive research in several languages and far-flung places. Her acknowledgments section included the people who’d opened their homes to her while she was on the road. I loved it.

Moral of story: Don’t get too caught up in this writing-is-a-solitary-endeavor thing. You may be alone when you write, but you’re not writing in isolation.