Tuesday, May 08, 2012

Following the Rules

At the beginning of a writing career, you spend a great deal of your time learning the rules and then following them. This week, I am going to list some of the most important rules that generally MUST be followed.

Grammar and Punctuation

Without proper grammar and punctuation, your work will look like it's written by a third grader. None of us want to be compared to a third grader.

Buy yourself a copy of "The Elements of Style" by Strunk and White and also a copy of "Eats, Shoots, and Leaves" by Truss. Place these two bibles next to where you write and use them. Often. As a matter of fact, internalize them. I mean it.

You will look like a framer-who-forgot-her-hammer if your writing is full of grammar and punctuation errors. If you want to be taken seriously, then act like a pro and follow the rules of grammar and punctuation.

(I actually break a couple of punctuation rules below...see if you can find them and post them in the comments section)

In my February 14th post on Market Listings I discussed the importance of following Standard Manuscript Format (SMF).

Why use SMF?

To look professional.

If you don't use SMF, you look like you don't know what you're doing. Many editors will delete/toss your manuscript unread if it doesn't follow SMF and their guidelines. None of us want our babies tossed in the bin, so following these rules simply makes good sense.

What is SMF?

Generally, for pretty much every submission under the sun, the basics of SMF below must, must, MUST be followed.

- one inch margins: top, bottom, left, and right
- left justified text
- 12 point-sized, readable font (used to be Courier, but the new norm is becoming Times New Roman)
- double spaced
- printed on one side only
- your contact information in the top left: name, address, phone, email, website
- the number of words in the top right (rounded up to the nearest hundred for a short story)
- the title of the story halfway down the page, centred
- your byline one double-space line below the title (the name you want the story published under)
- each paragraph begins with a half-inch right indent (or tab)
- page header in the upper right corner of every page except for the first page, in the format:
last name / one important word from the title / page number
- scene breaks indicated by centring one "#" character on its own line
- italics shown with underlining
- emdashes shown with two dashes "--" and no space on either side

Market-Specific Guidelines

After the basics, most markets will make available their specific guidelines (GLs) for submitting a story to them. For instance, some markets will insist on Times New Roman. Some markets will ask for an EXACT word count instead of rounded to the nearest hundred. Some markets will ask for the indent to be made using indents and not tabs, or not to have indents at all.

In a short story, text is emphasized using italics for (a) a word that really stands out to emphasize sarcasm or inflection or (b) dialogue that is an internal thought to the Point of View (POV) character, or (c) long sections of different timelines (like flashbacks) or lengthy quotes. As is listed in the SMF rules, italics are shown using underlining. If you must submit your document via "text only" you can show underlining with the _underlinecharacterbeforeandafter_ instead. Some markets will ask for italics to be in italics, not underlined so make sure you check the GLs before you submit.

Some markets prefer "blind" submissions, so they may ask that you do NOT include your name in the header, only the story title and page number. Some markets want no header at all, so check GLs.

Many markets will ask that straight quotes be used rather than "smart quotes" which slant to the right to open a quote and slant to the left to close a quote. These characters can become formatting nightmares from platform to platform. Also be aware that in North America, "Quotes are double," while in the UK and Australia, 'Quotes are single.' Know your market, and submit according to their standard.

Which brings up the notion of Spelling. Since I'm Canadian, I do tend to put "u" where my US friends think it doesn't belong, not to mention spelling the word as "centre" rather than "center." (You'll notice I did so a couple of times above.) Check GLs carefully, as many markets will list which spelling they prefer. Personally, I always change the spelling for the country where I'm sending the story. This means I might have several copies of my story on my hard drive, named as "Story X cdn sp" or "Story Y us sp" so that once the story comes back, I can tell which spelling it is saved as before I send the story out again. Being very Canadian, (I am, really, I kid you not) I tend to be very diligent about spelling, since I believe, at my Canadian core, that it's the polite thing to do to send a story in the home country's spelling format.

With your manuscript in "rule-following" shape, you will be ready to submit it out into the world.

Do it now:
(1) Buy the two books I recommended above, and put them where you write.
(2) Read the webpage on SMF.
(3) Do a spell check on the story your about to send out. Then read it over, out loud, to make sure you didn't miss any words. (Like "your" in the above sentence, that should've been "you're" but is still spelled correctly so spell checking software won't find the mistake.)

And you thought I couldn't spell...didn't you? Bazinga!

Remember that some rules (NOT the ones outlined in this post) can be broken. Watch for next week's tip on Breaking the Rules.

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