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Thursday, December 02, 2010

So, you want to be a professional

I’ve been told there are only seven basic plots. What amazes me, are the variations on those plots that writers come up with—the twists and leaps they make within those seven structures.

As part of my job, I am the first reader in the Christian Writers Guild’s
Operation First Novel contest. The winner has his or her manuscript published by Tyndale House and receives $20,000. This year we received 140 entries. One conclusion is unmistakable—those who entered (all are Guild students or members) are creative people.

But what was also clear is that some of those professing to pursue professional writing are doing no such thing. Instead, they’re shooting themselves in the foot with unprofessional presentation.

What I found in our novel entries were typos on the first page—often within the first three paragraphs. Or, if not a typo, some kind of inappropriate formatting:

  • A nonstandard typeface (use only Times New Roman or Courier, 12 pt)

  • 1.5-line spacing rather than 2-line spacing

  • Full justification instead of ragged right

  • Margins set at something other than 1.25” all around.

All easily correctable.

The competition is stiff out there

Editors and agents have mounds of submissions on their desks to plow through. Why give them reasons to set yours aside—reasons that have nothing to do with the quality of your story or the strength of your writing?

Our goal at the Guild is to train writers to develop their skills to the professional level editors expect. If you’re serious, you’ll take steps to ensure an editor won’t put your manuscript down.

  1. Join (or form) a critique group.

  2. Purchase, read, and use any of a number of excellent books on standard manuscript formatting.

  3. Proofread your work. Better yet, form a partnership with a writer friend and proof each other’s work. Then proof again—and again.

  4. Take classes. You can do this through writer’s conferences, online courses, or through a local university.

  5. Join a professional writer’s organization.

If you do these things, your take on one of the seven basic plots could end up published—rather than tossed in File 13.

For more on this topic, Les Stobbe, a longtime industry stalwart, recently shared from his perspective as one receiving those unprofessional book proposals. (Read his thoughts here.)


  1. Having been a first reader for 2-3 different contests, I have been amazed at how often and how consistently people make these basic errors.

    I got a manuscript once that didn't follow ANY of the contest submission guidelines--nevertheless they submitted it anyway.

    Popular contests receive hundreds of entries and the people who volunteer their time to read these entries DO get tired--especially toward the end when the last minute glut of entries come in. So careless manuscripts do not do entrants any favors.

    Get the simple stuff right, so that your reader can concentrate on your STORY, not be distracted by the terrible presentation.

  2. Absolutely, BK. Thanks for stopping by--and keep those manuscripts clean!

  3. Because several reputable writers are now encouraging 1-inch margins, I'd like to humbly ask that the Christian Writers Guild say 1.5-inch margins all around instead of "standard formatting" in the Operation First Novel rules.

    Standards change—such as the number of spaces after a period—and we writers need specifics more than "standards."

    Thank you for your post!

  4. *1.25-inch margins*

  5. Anonymous: This is a safe place. There are no names attached to the entries we receive for Operation First Novel, so no risk. In my best Glinda the Good Witch voice (admittedly, not a good imitation): "Come out, come out wherever you are..."

    Seriously, the question you raise is a good one. We are revising the rules some for the 2011 contest (to make them as clear as possible) and we'll consider being more specific on that point. We do adjust our "standards" language when appropriate, i.e., two spaces after a period vs. one.

    As you suggest, some standards do change--and for good reason. We look at what the major players in the industry are doing and align what we teach with that.

    The important thing is follow the standards, check your spelling and grammar, and write decent hooks! That's more than half the battle.

    Thanks for sharing.

  6. I have never heard of 1.25" margins. Every contest or publisher formatting guideline list has asked for 1" margins. Is 1.25" new? I hate to think a quarter inch would disqualify.

  7. I don't know if it's new, but I do know that a quarter inch does not disqualify in our contest. Especially since we did not state an exact margin expectation (other than standard formatting). We do state font and font size and line spacing. We had entries that didn't include a synopsis, for goodness' sake!

    But let's not lose sight of the main point of the post: Take care of these formatting, spelling, and grammar issues and remove those considerations from the reasons why an editor could reject your piece.

    With the pile of manuscripts on any given editor's desk (inbox), why give them a reason to reject? Paying attention to those details shows that you're a professional--and that can't be overrated.

    Yes, those expectations can change from publishing house to publishing house and contest to contest, but getting it right (however the house/contest wants it) shows you're paying attention.

    And that is always a good thing.

  8. I belong to a writers group and several national writers organizations. Have always heard the margins should be 1" all around and one space after the period (end of a sentence).

    "Standards" need to be standard. Having them change from one group to another when a writer is trying to submit a novel takes time for formatting which can really screw up a manuscript.

    Glenna Fairbanks

  9. People should always check on submission guidelines before sending something and adhere to them. If this contest requires 1.5 spacing and 1.5 in margins that is what should be submitted. However in answer to the question as to whether it is the new industry standard, it is not. I submit manuscripts on a daily basis. Industry standard is double space and one inch margins.

    Like I say, we should always check submission guidelines before sending anything to anyone.

    Terry Burns
    Hartline Literary Agency

  10. Michael, I love ya crit partner and good friend, but I beg to differ with you about 1.25 margins being standard. The only place I know them to be standard is on Microsoft Word as the default margin. I have never heard of any guidelines that ask for that margin. They all ask for 1 inch margins and double-spaced, except for the synop which can be single spaced.

    You've cause quite a stir today.

  11. Well Michael, I have to agree with Pam and Terry (and will 'see' you in crit group!) Present industry standards are 1-inch all around. We love ya buddy, but you've created quite a fire-storm today!

    I've got a fire extinguisher I can let ya borrow :-)

  12. Well, folks, thanks for the grand welcome to the world of blogging for Novel Journey! I love the interaction, though. Keep it coming.

    I think Terry makes the point for me (which point I apparently didn't make very well) that you have to pay attention to the submission requirements for whatever contest, publisher, etc., you're submitting to.

    Thanks Terry for the assist.

  13. What ever happened to the concept, "Story is king?" Of course, we should do our best to present a solid good impression by following publishers' guidelines before submitting, or according to our agents' requests, but have we become so McDonald's-arches crazy, we impact the quality of our writing for the sake of a simple formatting miscue? I'd hate to think a masterpiece got thrown in the dump because of a misplaced comma. We can't possibly catch everything, even with crit group and professional help. Color me angst.

  14. Hi Linda!

    I can't speak for other contests or any publishers, but no entries were disqualified in our contest for the errors I cited.

    However, the impression the authors left because of their lack of care in preparing their entry clearly got my notice. Fortunately, as the first reader, I do NOT see names with any contest entry. None of our judges do, in any round.

    However, if some of these entries were submitted as is to publishing houses, the errors in them could be fatal.

    I should also say the majority of our entrants submitted their manuscripts in appropriate format.


  15. This is a great blog. I'd like to read older posts and read some of the winners of your monthly contest. But I can't find a link to the archives. Is it somewhere on the first page and I'm just not seeing it?


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