The new age of self-publishing with platforms like Kindle Direct Publishing, Smashwords and Draft-to-Digital has paved the way for many, many new authors. The very technology that authors use has changed over this generation from the battered, Underwood typewriter to the PC/Mac to the tablet. Heck, some authors don't even type at all any more. They speak. Naturally. Like a dragon.
Where does that leave manuscript formatting? I'm not talking about the final product that one submits to a POD publishing platform like Createspace. I'm not talking about that all-too-perfect PDF that gets sent to a digital typesetter. No, I'm talking about the format in which we actually write our books.
In the Beginning...
there was a typewriter. We put in a sheet of actual paper and then we pressed keys (we didn't tap them, we pressed them) representing letters. Those keys pushed a metal arm with a letter embedded on the tip against an inked ribbon, which left the image of that letter on the sheet of actual paper. We did this over and over again until the page was full. At that time, we pulled the paper out, laid it gently on a stack of its brethren next to our typewriter, inserted another sheet and started all over again. If we were lucky, we could produce a full page of usable, presentable text, appropriate for submission to an editor, with the utter obliteration of only 10 or so sheets of actual paper.
The proper format for this document was as follows:
Double-spaced. In the top right corner, we'd include our name: Last name, followed by first name. Beneath that, we'd place our working title, and finally the page number. The right margin was ragged, of course. If any words required italics in the final version, those words were underlined in the manuscript. (If one wanted typed italics, one had to use a second typewriter.)
This caused a specific pattern to emerge. Because all typewriters had the same font (courier) and the same font size, every manuscript was the same upon submission. The editors could see the total number of pages and estimate the total number of words. The standard became 250 words per page.
Later, when personal computers took over the world, the appropriate and acceptable formatting for manuscripts did not change. We set up our pages to have exactly 25 lines per page. We used courier, 12 pt. font (sometimes TNR). The lines were right-margin ragged. We included the header and page number on every page.
Publishers (often slow to catch up with the rest of the technological world) didn't care that we could format our manuscripts however we liked, or however they liked. They simply didn't want to know (and they didn't care) that we were using a computer instead of a typewriter.
Today, I am amazed by how many new authors are unaware of the very real necessity of actual manuscript formatting when it comes to submissions. At IAP, we list our required formatting on our submission guidelines page, and we're not kidding about it. These aren't suggestions.
I'm as guilty as the next guy. I love to see what progress I'm making on a final draft by typing directly into the format I'll publish in. It's cool to see those justified paragraphs and page counts increase by using a page set up that is only 5x8 or 6x9 inches. It's fun. I get it.
It's not professional to submit this to an editor or a publisher for consideration.
Double Spacing and/or 25 Lines per Page:
This makes reading easier. This makes commenting on a manuscript easier. I still print out the submissions sent to me via email and mark them up with a blood red pen. If I have to take the time to reformat your manuscript in order to make my life easier when we've asked for an industry standard submission, you're placing your submission in front of an angry and frustrated editor. Not a formula for success.
Underline, not Italics:
As technology advanced, it became possible to actually italicize words in a manuscript. (Again, it made us early transitional authors feel pretty awesome to do that.) Who needs to underline when it totally works with the real thing?!
That might have worked for a moment, but the publishing industry soon learned that spotting an italicized phrase or two within an entire manuscript for purposes of typesetting was a royal, italicized pain in the rear. Even now, when I'm interior formatting a manuscript into a book, I will completely miss italicized sections as I work my way through. If those passages are underlined, I can find them easily and convert them as I go.
Yes, yes, I know that I could use the search feature to locate all instances of italics. Believe it or not, my scroll finger is faster. It's much easier for me to place the document into a screen that contains 15 or so pages at once, find the underlines and do my wicked little thing with the I-button.
Really, what it all boils down to is the fact that every publisher has its own submission guidelines. They are published where any serious author can easily find them and they are a litmus test to the user's ability to follow directions. A well-formatted manuscript submitted in accordance with established guidelines can indicate how productive it will be to work with an author; will he or she listen? Are they a diva who believes the rules don't apply?
When you're writing your novel, format it however you like. But when it comes time to submit it to another professional, proper formatting of your manuscript can mean the difference between a contract offer and a trip to the round file of despair.