I’ve been professionally editing for over two years now, which is stunning, it’s gone so fast. Yet on the other hand it feels like I’ve been doing this forever. I have to say that editing has taught me a lot as a writer, not least of which is the importance of listening to criticism.
Oddly listening to criticism is not an easy lesson to learn, but good writers learn it and learn from the criticism. However, there are easy lessons to learn, one of the most basic is professional presentation of your document when submitting for editing (or any other submission for that matter).
I can tell as soon as I open a document what kind of writer I’m dealing with just from the formatting. Professional formatting does not guarantee a good manuscript, but it will tell me how much of a pain in the butt the editing process is going to be.
If I see good clear formatting I know that even if the story is pants, the edit shouldn’t be overly painful. Content is easier to comment on when it’s properly presented.
If I see poor formatting I know that even if this is the best story in the world ever, I’m going to have an absolute nightmare editing it. Poor formatting will make prose unreadable, dialogue won’t make sense, any message or action will be lost in the fog of ‘where the hell did that come from’ confusion because nothing will have the proper impact.
Worst of all is inconsistent formatting.
If a writer always gets something wrong but gets it wrong in a consistent way, the that’s easy to deal with, a mass find and replace will sort it out and a comment will hopefully tell the writer what they need to learn. If a writer gets things wrong in places and right in others, I can’t tell if they know what they are doing or not, I don’t know if they were so involved in the writing that they just missed the formatting or if they just don’t have any idea and need a slap around the head.
Now I’ve had good writers who can write, but can’t format, initially irritating, but by the second edit you know that they’ve learned something and improved no end (actually have a few repeat customers like this, they’re great to work with). I’ve had others who can format and can’t write, these are depressing because I have to wade through rubbish and know that there was no pay off at the end – mind you I had one in this category who clearly understood the importance of criticism and when that author came back for the second edit, it was so improved it was fantastic.
Authors who can write and can format – well I and every other editor, we love you. And yes I have dealt with a few of these. One was so good I offered to edit his book for free, unfortunately he didn’t take the offer up and when I read the e-book it was a crying shame, the number of typos and inconsistencies really detracted from the fact that it was a fabulous concept. There’s another hint for you authors – if a professional editor offers an edit for free, take them up on it!
But there is something that really gets the goat, a repeat customer (yes I do have several), who an editor knows can write and can format, who comes again and is suddenly inconsistent. Have worked on one recently, thankfully I spotted the inconsistency quickly so did a visual check through the whole manuscript and managed to make the format consistent without reading or even skim reading. So got the formatting right and then read the story – which was great – without the annoying distractions.
Remember that busy commissioning editors (I’m a structural editor – different job) haven’t got time to scrutinize every line to mine for gold, so bad formatting could give them the reason for throwing your manuscript in the rejection pile. Don’t give them that reason.
So if you don’t want to piss off your editor off, here are a few tips that can help:
- Use a fixed width font left aligned. Personally I like Courier New, but there are other ones. The reason for using a fixed width font left aligned is that as you read through it, you will notice little problems like inconsistent or missing spacing. I recently had a document where lack of spaces between words – yes a very basic formatting issue and the one that spurred me on to write this blog – meant that the word count was shy by the best part of 2000 words. Missing spacing when you’re typing is normal, we authors get so involved with the story we miss the typing, but a professional will go through and find those typos for himself.
- Double spacing. This comes from the days when editing was done by hand with a red pen, but there are times when people send me stuff in PDF where I still use a red pen and, therefore, need the space to comment/amend. These days though when most editing is done on screen it does help reduce eye-strain and the likelihood of losing my place when reading.
- Margins. All margins should be a minimum of 1 inch or 2.5 cm. Again, this is a hangover from red-pen days, but it’s still important, again for space and clarity and keeping your editor on side. Cram too much into a small space and it will be impossible to read for any sustained period. Have you tried reading a bible lately? Regardless of religion it’s physically difficult to read most bibles because the text is so small and cramped, don’t put your editor through that pain, we won’t thank you.
- Use indented paragraphs. This is important as it really separates chucks of prose. Indented paragraphs are the ones that come in on the first line. In Word this is easy to achieve, (Word 2007 and later) select the Home ribbon, then the full paragraph popup (the little box with the arrow coming out in the bottom right-hand side of the section marked Paragraph) then select Indentation, Special, first line. DO NOT indent with tabs or multiple spaces, this really mucks up typesetting if you’re lucky enough to get printed. Readers should note that I’ve used block paragraphs here because I can’t find the way to change the settings on WordPress (my bad sorry, but if anyone knows how to make that change, please comment and let me know!).
- New chapter new page. This is fairly simple and a lot of people do this, but a lot of them get it wrong. It’s something that authors will do by using the return key, but that only works with the font and wording that they have used, as soon as there are amendments of font or spacing or changing any wording, then the page position will change. You get around this my using manual page breaks, the easiest way to achieve this is [Ctrl][Return].
- Learn the rules of Dialogue formatting. Have to admit that this isn’t the most basic thing to learn, but it is important if you want the reader to understand what’s going on in a conversation. Correct formatting can show who says what without the constant use of speech tags, it gives the reader the right emphasis, indicates the tempo of the spoken word and the manner in which it was spoken.
- Read the submission guidelines. Again this seems basic, but it’s amazing how many people don’t do it. There are some general rules, those that I’ve given here, but each editor/agent/publisher will have their own rules, make sure you read them, and make sure you follow them. For example, I’ve been a short story competition judge, the remit was an anonymous short story between 1500 and 2500 words, so submitting a 1400 word story with the authors by line was instant disqualification, which was a bit of a shame because the story was really quite good and could have been placed or at least commended if the author had only read and followed the guidelines (so I’m told by another judge who apparently had the time to waste).
- Read your work before submitting it. This is basic, and hugely important. If something isn’t clear to the author, how will it ever be clear to the reader? If you follow the tips above, you’ll be surprised what you pick up yourself.
- Be consistent! If you read what came above, you’ll already know the importance of this one.
There are other tips, but these are formatting ones. Hope it helps those who read it.
Oh, by the way, have no idea what Part 2 will be about, or when, but I suspect it’ll happen the next time I edit something that pees me off. 🙂
Bye bye for now.