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Editor's advice 7 - Presentation


The presentation of your manuscript - and why it matters

Maureen Kincaid SpellerMaureen Kincaid Speller a reviewer, writer, editor and former librarian, is our book reviewer and also works for WritersServices as a freelance editor. is a long-serving WritersServices freelance editor. This new series, based on the advice she has given writers over the years, deals with the most common problems she has encountered in the manuscripts which cross her desk.

In the seventh and final article Maureen deals with presentation - typefaces, layouts, page numbers, putting your material into one document and spell-checkers.

So far, in these columns, I’ve been talking about the nuts and bolts of writing, and about the ways in which people come unstuck in terms of content. This time, I want to talk about the ways writers can make life easier for editors and readers like me.

Considering the reams of advice that exist about how to lay out a manuscript I find it truly staggering that many writers still seem to have no clue about how to do it. Not even in an age of word processing when all they have to do is set up a template once and then use it every time they start a new piece of work.

Let’s start with the basics, which so far as I am concerned, hold good whether you’re submitting a piece of work on paper or electronically, not least because, sooner or later, someone is going to print out your document. Frequently, that someone is me because I don’t always read manuscripts at my desk and I don’t always want to be carrying a laptop around with me.

Typefaces and layouts

So, you need to provide good-sized margins, double-spacing, Times New Roman or Courier, and not at a microscopic point size. This applies as much for on-screen reading as for reading on paper. Why? Because editors and readers are human rather than automata, and we do not have bionic eyes. We read a lot every day. Well-spaced text in a typeface and point size that are easy on the eye make all the difference between a pleasant day’s work and hours of agony.

Space is also useful for editors and copy-editors who need to write comments and make corrections on the manuscript. I cannot tell you the joy I have experienced in the past when trying to write in corrections on single-spaced manuscripts, and I’m sure the type-setter must have been ecstatic at having to read my crabbed handwriting.

Times New Roman and Courier are extremely boring, ordinary typefaces, and many writers feel that they must spice up their texts by using something a little more exotic. It’s a rare word processing program that isn’t stuffed to the gills with exciting typefaces that spread out in all directions, and people just love to play. Either that, or they think it will help their manuscripts to stand out from the crowd. Resist the temptation, please. people will remember your manuscript, but not for the reasons you suppose.

I admit I’m a bit of a typeface junkie myself: I have about 600 different typefaces tucked away in my PC, and I love to look at the different letter styles, but I return to the same old four or five sensible typefaces for writing articles and reports, because they’re easy to read, and we are in this business to communicate.

Most of the fancy typefaces people use are intended to be used for headings rather than body text. As a result they simply aren’t legible when used for big chunks of text. My heart sinks when I open a file and find a writer has used an exciting ‘handwriting’ typeface that is completely unreadable. I had one recently that absolutely resisted my attempts to read it, even after I’d enlarged it to the point where the text would have been ideal for a large-print book for the partially-sighted.

For that matter, try to avoid putting the text into different colours, using background ‘mood’ illustrations, ‘watermarks’, etc. Just because your word processing program lets you do these things doesn’t mean you should. And inserting hyperlinks that will not work when the manuscript is printed out – a clue; it’s on paper – has got to be one of the most futile activities on earth. None of it impresses the reader; it certainly doesn’t impress the copy-editor when she’s asked to do an online edit and has to devote most of her time to figuring out what on earth the author did to achieve that effect. I once opened a document to discover that I couldn’t display the text properly.

Most of all, it’s not going to impress the publisher. Publishers employ people to design books, make decisions about the choice of typeface and so on; the author may have some input along the way but the author’s primary job is to produce the words, not to show that he or she knows how to produce dazzling print effects, or even camera-ready copy.

Page numbers

However, there is one thing above all that inexperienced authors do which drives me absolutely mad – they don’t include page numbers in their manuscript. No, really, I can bore for Britain about the subject of missing page numbers. I have lost count of the number of times I have been reduced to incoherent spluttering rage when I’ve printed out a manuscript, only to discover that the author has missed them off.

Does it matter? Absolutely. Supposing I drop the manuscript, or the wind catches the pile on my desk, or as has been known to happen, the cat decides to take up paper-surfing; how am I going to get them back into the right order easily? Exactly. In fairness, I know people so often forget to insert them … as I write this, a bar at the bottom of the screen tells me which page of the document I’m working on. However, it doesn’t magically transfer itself to the printed page, so I need to make sure it’s there in the template so that when I print out the document – hey presto! – it appears like magic.

The set-up doesn’t have to be fancy: I tend to use something like MSpeller/page number, because that tells the reader where in the document he or she is, and which document the page belongs to, assuming the reader has a desk full of papers and an extremely active cat. Really, it doesn’t have to be fancy. I’ve seen manuscripts that have elaborate running headers and footers with the book’s title, the author’s name, the page number, the copyright statement. Most of this page furniture is simply not necessary. If you’ve submitted two different documents, then yes, it may make sense to include a title, so the two sets of pages don’t get muddled, but I think most people do it because they think it looks professional.

In fact, I think it smacks of amateurism, especially the inclusion of a copyright notice. Trust me, publishers have a very thorough understanding of copyright, and I can’t think of a single case in which it has been demonstrably proved that a publisher has stolen a writer’s idea. Indeed, if they were going to, I don’t think putting © on every page would stop them. It would be better to devote a little more energy to placing a cover sheet at the front of the manuscript, which includes title of book, author’s name, author’s contact details, and yes, if you must, a copyright note. It’s amazing, really, how many people forget to include that in an electronic submission.

In one document

What else would make my life happier? Submitting a novel as one document rather than as a series of chapter documents is good, especially if I am going to be copy-editing the document, as the first thing I have to do is to insert each chapter into a master document so I can do global edits to the whole text. It’s the electronic equivalent of stapling each chapter, something else that is intensely irritating to a reader (along with placing your manuscript in a ring binder or using some other form of fastening).


However, after page numbering, my other top bugbear is the misuse of spell-checkers. Spell checkers check spellings; they don’t tell you if you’ve used the right word, and they don’t tell you if you’ve used it in the right way. A writer should never rely entirely on a spell-checker, because I can promise that it will get you into trouble. 

Here’s an example from a novel I once edited. Character X is sleeping on a palette on the floor. The spell-checker happily passed that because ‘palette’ is spelled correctly. However, the author had used the wrong word. He wanted to refer to a makeshift bed – a pallet. A palette is what an artist uses for colour (while a palate is part of the mouth). All three words sound alike (they’re called homonyms) but mean wildly different things. A spell-checker will not spot that. It is really important to check through your manuscript yourself after using the spell-checker.

I have seen countless manuscripts littered with homonyms and other egregious errors generated by spell checkers; I find it rather depressing, not to mention distracting. Writers work with language, and I want to believe that they care about words, their meanings and use. Too often these days, it’s clear that while people know what words mean and what they sound like, they don’t have a clue about how they’re spelled, which suggests in turn that writers aren’t reading other people’s writing as much as they ought to.

While acknowledging that some people, dyslexics for example, genuinely have problems with writing, and that no one is perfect (I can’t proofread or make a judgement on my own writing unless I put it away for a while) in many instances it seems to be more a matter of carelessness.

Most dyslexics of my acquaintance have developed very strong support networks to help them overcome their difficulties with spelling and writing generally.

Despite the popular image of the writer as solitary, working away in a garret, most writers of my acquaintance likewise have some sort of support network of beta readers, who provide close readings of their work for content, style and spelling. A truly professional writer will recognise his or her weaknesses and try to counteract them by asking for help and input from others. Professional writers don’t simply rely on the spell checker, and nor should anyone else!

An Editor's Advice 1 on Dialogue
An Editor's Advice 2 on doing further drafts
An Editor's Advice 3 on genre writing
An Editor's Advice 4 on planning
An Editor's Advice 5 on points of view
An Editor's Advice 6 on autobiography and travel
An Editor's Advice 7 on manuscript presentation

See also Maureen's many reviews of writing books in our Resources section.

Maureen Kincaid Speller is a reviewer, writer, editor and former librarian.

© Maureen Kincaid Speller 2007