Imagine you’re going to a job interview. You care about the impression you’ll make, so you dress thoughtfully, according to the needs of the job. If you’re a man and the job is professional in nature, you probably wear a suit, shirt, and tie. You may pay special attention to your shoes, cleaning and shining them beforehand. If you’re a woman, you make sure your accessories coordinate with your outfit, your hair is styled, and makeup just right. You may leave the house early—better safe than sorry. You arrive on time, and with confidence, having practiced how you’ll present yourself.
Imagine, instead, that you pull some clothes from the dryer. They’re wrinkled, but you haven’t got time to worry about that. Anyway, any good interviewer will be able to see past the wrinkles to your great personality. You’re running late, so you quickly pull on your shirt and pants (or skirt), grab your wallet or purse, and run your fingers through your hair. You arrive for your interview breathless, and barely in time. But you made it.
Now, imagine that you are the interviewer. Which of the two characters above will make a good impression and be more apt to get the job? This is not a trick question. It will always be the first one.
As an editor and writing teacher, one of the first things I notice when I receive a piece of writing is how it’s formatted. I know immediately whether or not the writer knows how to use her word processing program and whether she views herself as a professional or an amateur. When her submissions arrive on time and “well dressed,” I know she’s taken the time and effort to make the best impression she can—not to mention saving my precious time in the bargain.
Yet, many writers seem to believe, as in scenario number two, that it’s not their job to make their piece perfect. That’s the editor’s job. Besides, any good editor will see past their poor formatting, grammar, spelling and punctuation to the great story behind it. Right?
Wrong! Most editors will, like any job interviewer, prefer the person who comes prepared to the interview. And just like the fact that there are conventions of attire, there are guidelines for what’s acceptable to most editors.
General Purpose Formatting Tips for Prose:
- Use a 1″ margin on all sides of your document.
- Use a common 12-point, serif font, such as Times New Roman.
- On the first page, include your name and contact information in the top, left corner, and approximate word count in the top, right corner.
- Don’t number the first page.
- Put the title in all caps or boldface about 1/3 down from the top.
- In the header of subsequent pages (page 2 on), include your name, the title of the piece, and the page number.
- Double space the entire text of the story using paragraph formatting options in your word processor. (Don’t press the return key to create the double line space! And don’t put extra space between paragraphs.)
- Indent the first line of every paragraph except the very first one. Do this by specifying a first-line indent in the Paragraph Format dialogue box of your word processor, instead of pressing the tab key.
- Use one space between sentences (two spaces haven’t been standard since the advent of the word processor in the early 80s).
- Never, ever, ever use spaces or tabs to format text or pictures on the page.
That about sums it up. If you don’t know how to specify paragraph formatting, make it your business to learn. After all, if you want someone to read your work, you want to make it easy for them. And even if you’re only sending your work to a teacher or writing coach, he or she will appreciate you for sending it in standard format and saving precious time.
For more detailed formatting specifications, I highly recommend Formatting & Submitting Your Manuscript by Chuck Sambuchino and the editors of Writer’s Digest Books. They publish an updated version almost every year.
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