Most industries have a prevailing way of doing things, a common language and style across a wide array of professionals that allows everyone in a field to be more or less on the same page.
So if you’re an architect, regardless of where you work or where you were educated, your work is going to follow a standardized model that will be recognized by everyone else who shares your specialty. Print journalists all follow the same very precise style guide so that all newspapers and magazines in a country will be consistent with each other in terms of spelling, capitalization, and punctuation.
This kind of standardization is also a key ingredient in our world of brands and franchises, even though most of us don’t give it much conscious thought. For example, there are thousands of McDonalds restaurants in Canada (about 40,000 in the world), and when you visit any particular one of them, you will have the same experience. The décor, the layout, the price and the employee uniforms will all be… well, uniform. The food will taste exactly the same, too. Everyone restaurant is a virtual clone of every other, and that is very much by design.
The same will be true of any franchised store you frequent. A Walmart in Victoria, British Columbia will be the same as a Walmart in St. John’s, Newfoundland. I even visited one up in Yellowknife a few years ago, and yup, you guessed it: Walmart was still recognizably Walmart.
As humans, we seem to really enjoy consistency.
Although writers hail from every geographic corner of the world, come from every conceivable culture or ethnicity, and write in an almost infinite diversity of genres and styles, when it comes to submitting their manuscripts for publication, they follow a consistent set of rules as well.
It’s called standard manuscript format. And if a writer is ignorant of this, it’s a big red flag to the publisher that they don’t necessarily know what they’re doing. In fact, there are a lot of publishers and agents out there who won’t even look at a book that doesn’t conform to standard manuscript format. In the writing industry, failing to conform to these rules can often result in instant disqualification.
Now, Word Alive Press is pretty lenient and isn’t going to turn anyone away for not knowing how to properly format their manuscripts. Still, when it comes to the annual Free Publishing Contest, held every summer, we do let authors knows about the standard manuscript format guidelines. If any of you have submitted a manuscript to the contest, you will have seen these guidelines—and hopefully you followed them.
Indeed, anytime you enter a contest, you should follow the guidelines laid out for you. When someone tells you how they want something done, it would be foolish to intentionally disregard those instructions. Consider how you would feel if you went to a steakhouse, ordered your filet mignon medium-well, and instead the chef decided that they’d rather prepare it medium-rare that day. That wouldn’t go over too well.
The same is true with writing.
Of course, you can write your book anyway you want, in any font, on any page size, with any spacing, and in any colour. Whatever helps spur your creative process, do it. Just do you!
But when your book is finished and you’re ready to share it with the world, here’s how to prepare it. The pages should be 8.5 by 11 inches with one-inch margins, the font should be 12-point Times New Roman, double-spaced, and you should start every paragraph with a one-inch indent.
There’s a reason for the consistency. For one thing, this layout is intentionally designed to be easy on the eyes, allowing an editor or contest judge to read quickly. When a contest judge is looking at books, sometimes reading through several books in one day, it’s helpful for everything to look precisely the same.
“But it’s so boring,” you protest.
True enough, it’s not meant to be exciting.
“But how will my work stand out?” you ask.
Personally, I love answering that question. It’s amazing to me how many writers think the best way to stand out is to print their manuscript on bright paper, the words formatted in a pretty cursive font. Such efforts will work against you, I promise.
The way to make your work stand out is to submit great writing. When your manuscript is really compelling, the format in which it’s presented will fade away, disappear into the background, and the story will take its rightful place as the most important factor.
That’s the reason, you see, why standard manuscript format is so boring. It’s not supposed to get anyone’s attention.
That’s what the words are for.
Evan Braun is a full-time author and editor. He has authored three novels, the first of which, The Book of Creation, was shortlisted in two categories at the 2012 Word Awards. He has released two sequels, The City of Darkness (2013) and The Law of Radiance (2015), completing the series. As a professional editor, Braun has seven years of experience working with Word Alive Press authors. He is also a regular contributor at The Fictorians, a popular writing blog.