Recently I’ve been reviewing some unpublished manuscripts which are, the authors tell me, ready for submission to an agent or publisher.
To quote George Takei, Oh my…
While some of these stories were intriguing, they all shared the same fundamental flaws. See if you’re guilty of any of these. If you are, you might want to revisit your work before you submit it anywhere:
1. Punctuation is not an optional extra.
I was amazed at how many of these writers had no clue about the most basic elements of punctuation. We’re not just talking ‘difficult’ things like apostrophes, but commas, quote marks, and even full stops. In most cases, these were randomly scattered across these pages, as if someone had filled a salt shaker with punctuation marks and randomly scattered the contents. Some people wrote whole paragraphs with nary a punctuation mark in sight — and that includes a full stop at the end.
Punctuation is not supposed to be haphazard. It is meant to make reading more comprehensible for the poor sod trying to plough through your stuff. That, by the way, includes editors and agents who are deciding whether or not to publish your work.
Submitting a manuscript without taking the time to punctuate it properly and apply the basic rules of grammar is like showing up for a job interview with dirty clothes and fingernails.
Do your job. Punctuate. If you really think it’s not your job then, really, what is it you think a writer does?
2. Beware the pesky homophone
Again, this was a mistake made repeatedly in these manuscripts. A homophone, by the way, refers to words that sound the same but have different spelling and a different meaning. If you don’t know the difference between to, two, and too, then find out, will you, please. Likewise, their, they’re, and there. Bear and bare. Compliment and complement… You should know there are more than 3.000 homonyms in the Concise English Dictionary (8th Edition), so getting confused is understandable. Staying confused, however, is not.
“Secret-keeping is a complicated endeavor. One has to be concerned not only about what one says, but about facial expressions, autonomic reflexes. When I try to deceive, I myself have more nervous tics than a Lyme disease research facility. [pause] It’s a joke. It relies on the homonymic relationship between tick, the blood-sucking arachnid, and tic, the involuntary muscular contraction. I made it up myself.”
(Jim Parsons as Sheldon Cooper in “The Bad Fish Paradigm.” The Big Bang Theory, 2008)
If you use MS Word, one way to be sure you’ve used the write word is to right click on it and check the synonym. If you check the word ‘bare’, for instance, you will find options include simple, unadorned, and naked. ‘Bear’, on the other hand, suggests tolerate or accept.
There are lots of examples on the internet to help you learn more about homonyms and homophones and homographs. Here’s one of many: Homonym-Homophone-Homograph.
3. Get the words right
Similarly, some writers are writing so quickly, they just go with the wrong word. These aren’t homophones, necessarily, but are similar enough to what the writer is going for. Lose rather than loose, for instance. Lose rhymes with ooze and means to mislay.
“Did you lose your watch?”
“Yes, the strap was too loose…”
Loose rhymes with goose and is an antonym (opposite) to tight.
Someone else wrote that the family wrote in a ‘gentile’ house. So, not Jewish, then?
Listen, snafus like this happen all the time. In first drafts. Catching them is what your later drafts are for.
4. Avoid barbed wire sentences
These are the clumsy ones that catch the unfortunate reader and force a re-reading –sometimes more than one — to make sense of the thing. One sentence (which I’ve revised slightly to underscore the point), said, “to Dot Leonard’s widow in the garden…” The lack of punctuation doesn’t help, but in my initial reading I was left wondering why would Leonard’s widow need to be dotted. Of course, the name is capitalized, but it remains the sort of sentence you need to read at least twice to understand. Maybe if it were rewritten, “Leonard’s widow Dot thought…” Or, you know, punctuate.
Other say-what sentences include:
- Joe saw the dog looking out the window.
- Alice’s floor needed sweeping badly.
- Gordon made a suit entirely from his head.
Here are a few from the press. You know. Professionals:
- “This is the first time there has been institutional support,” said Martin Levinson, the director of the drug prevention program in District 30 in Queens. “For the morale of the drug workers, it is a shot in the arm.”(3)
- Like the family barn, Harold Wright’s car is still going strong after 285,000 miles.
- The task force said it looked at hunger as a social problem in which some people cannot obtain adequate amounts of food.
- Nannouk is a 10-week-old Spitz mix female and will grow to be medium sized. She does well inside. Sterilization is mandatory for anyone wanting to take her.
5. Formatting in the 21st Century
When I started to write, I used an antique Royal typewriter. Back then, you needed to underline a word if it was meant to be italicised. You had to click five spaces to indent a paragraph. At the end of a writing session, you ended up with black ink on your fingers because the ribbon jammed (again), and you probably had to type the same sheet at least three times to make sure there were no typos.
Now, we have templates at our fingertips, and can set up our computers to do all the hard work. Editors have come to expect pristine documents.
Once you have made your list of preferred agents or editors, check their websites for any formatting preferences. Some sites like specific fonts, for instance. Others have expectations regarding spacing, headers, or some other weirdness. Sorry. Eccentricity.
Assuming there are no preferences listed, however, you can reasonably go with the standard.
- Use a 1″ margin on all sides.
- Use a title page. This includes the title of the work, your name, contact information, and word count. Do not use the word or symbol ‘copyright’.
- Don’t number the title page. Begin numbering with the first page of the text of the book, usually the introduction, prologue, or chapter one.
- Use a header on each page, including your name, the title of your novel in all caps, and the page number.
- Start each new chapter on its own page, one-third of the way down the page.
- The chapter number should be in all caps.
- Begin the body of the chapter 4-6 lines below the chapter number.
- Indent fives spaces for each new paragraph (MS Word defaults to 1.27cm, which is usually fine).
- Double-space the entire text.
- Use a standard font, 12-point type. Times New Roman, Arial, or Courier is fine.
- Use a heavy paper such as 20-lb. bond if you are submitting a hard copy.
If you aren’t sure how to format other documents such as a cover letter, synopsis, or short story, don’t guess, look it up.