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Monday, January 20, 2014

THE ABC'S OF HOW 'NOT' to WRITE SPECULATIVE FICTION: F is for FORMATTING

FORMATTING IS SO BASIC, I WASN'T EVEN GOING TO BRING IT UP, but I suppose I will. If you're eating your cereal, or doing your laundry, or taking a coffee break, you may as well go back to it, because this post is about as interesting (to me) as dishwater. I'm about twenty stories into the slush (of the 100+ I've been assigned), and already there are four of them that show me some writers don't know any better.

Huge sigh. I'll start with the most obvious:

1). Just because it's an e-mailed submission doesn't mean we don't need to know your personal information including your mailing address. Yes, On Spec publishes work from writers who aren't Canadian, but we still need to keep an eye on where the submissions come from. Because of our grant funding, we can publish up to 40% non-Canadian work. If you are a Canadian, but living outside of Canada, it helps us if you point that out - we'll include you in the 60%, so your chances of publication are slightly higher. Put this information on the first page of the manuscript, upper left-hand corner.

2). Word Count: Our upper limit is 6,000 words. I'm suspicious when I don't see a word count mentioned. It may be that the writer just didn't think it was important (it is - there are only so many words we can put into the magazine), or that they're over the limit and don't want me to notice. I will notice. If you included your word count, and it's 'about 6,000 words', that translates to me as over 6,000. Trim it down. I've never run into a manuscript that can't be trimmed somewhere. Include the exact word count following your personal info in the upper left-hand corner.

3). The old font stand-by was Courier. If you like Courier, fine. I don't, particularly. I'd much rather read something in Times New Roman, 12 count. (Strangely enough, this is a battle I have with this blog almost every time I post. I've edited this post in Times New Roman. When I look at it on the Preview page, it shows up as Arial. I have no idea why. I'm not going to fight with it. But just so you know...) Font isn't a big issue, but for me, my preference is TNR.

4). Right and left margins should be about an inch. Just enough white space to make reading comfortable. Ditto for top and bottom.

5). Please double-space and indent five spaces for each new paragraph. I don't know whether it's Submittable, our new submissions handling software or what, but for some reason, I'm seeing a lot of manuscripts that indent the first line of every paragraph half-way across the page. Very odd.

6). Please DO NOT double-space after sentences. If we end up buying your work, I'll make you take them out, so I don't have to.

7). Since we are a Canadian magazine, the house style is for Canadian/British spelling. The copy-editing will be much easier on me later, if you take pains to make it so.

8). Please include your bio at the end of your story.

I'm hoping to get through my assigned first-reads within the next month, as I'm heading to Cancun mid-February for my son's destination wedding. I must say, I'm reading some really great stuff. (I thought I should mention this, in case you think I do nothing but carp about what I'm seeing in my ABC's and Letters to the Slush Pile posts.) These are the stories that make my job as an editor worthwhile. If you're not sure yet whether I'm talking about you, you will, eventually. Keep up the excellent (and well-formatted) work. :-) Happy writing!

7 comments:

  1. Steve Donnelly12:07 PM

    a) My understanding of word count is you 'round the number to the nearest 1,000'. So 6,049 counts as 6,000 and 6,051 counts as 6,100, for instance.

    If you really do mean the EXACT word count, that probably should be pointed out rather explicitly since it deviates from what I understand to be common practice.

    b) I have an empty manuscript document that has all the standard formatting. So I just open it up and do a 'Save As' when starting a story. That usually takes care of most issues.

    c) My God I wish everyone would get rid of Courier or Courier New font. It is probably one of the most unattractive fonts imaginable.

    When writing, I usually use Time New Roman and then flip to whatever font is required for submission (and when in doubt I use Courier New).

    d) And I wish editors would get rid of the "Underline-in-place-of-Italics" thing. We are way, way, way passed the manual typewriter era. And sure, I know old habits die hard. But Courier font and underlining instead of italics looks so, so, so ugly!

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  2. Steve, thanks so much for bringing the italics thing up. I should have, but didn't think of it. We no longer require writers to underline italicized words. I end up going through a manuscript and deleting the underline, only to replace with italics, so it would save me some effort if writers just italicized wherever they think it is warranted. And you're right, we should mention this in our guidelines if we don't. (I haven't read them lately, so I'm not sure what's there.) Ditto about the exact word count. For us, please don't round up or down. We need the exact count because space is a consideration.

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  3. I also want to point out that since penning this post this morning, I've been reading the slush. I just opened a submission with a word count of 6900 words. Normally, this would be an automatic reason for me to reject it, but I always give the first paragraphs of these 'over-lengths' a read. Lucky for the writer, he's grabbed me with his first paragraph, so I'll read a little further. For his sake, I hope the story is solid and entertaining. If it isn't, I won't' waste my time going through those 6,900 words.

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  4. William6:48 PM

    I don't mind the look of Courier, but I hate how much space it takes up on the page. I had 400 pages of 12 point Courier New come in at 298 pages when I converted it to 12 points Times New Roman. Sure am glad I did that before printing a copy.

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  5. Courier is tedious to read, too, William. It's like waiting for a slow speaker to finish his sentence. It makes me impatient.

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  6. Anonymous2:08 PM

    While I hate Courier too, I feel obligated to point out that On Spec's guidelines requested Courier and rounded word counts, so that's what I sent. How's a poor submitter to know what you folks really want?

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  7. Obviously, this is a case of the right hand not knowing what the left hand is doing. Courier isn't verboten, we'll certainly still consider what you've sent. After all, it's the story that counts, not the font. We have our AGM coming up shortly. I'll bring this and the rounded word count up - I'm really surprised to learn that this is still in the guidelines. Thanks for pointing it out.

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