Sometimes I feel like I’m being picky, petty even, when I ask an author or a client to change the formatting on her manuscript. Believe it or not, there’s a method to my madness and it’s not just because I read all day or I like things a certain way.
Back in my early publishing days it was required that authors submit a double-spaced manuscript. The reason? Edits were done on the manuscript itself which meant the copyeditor took a pen and wrote changes on the actual pages. You needed the extra spacing to make notes without mucking up the words above the sentence you were fixing. It wasn’t just because double-spacing was easier to read, although there was that too.
These days, when getting a manuscript from a client I still prefer double-spacing. Now, luckily, I don’t use a pen for my edits, but I do use track changes and the more room on the page for margin comments or red-lining the better. Also, it’s easier on the eyes, especially when you’re reading off a computer screen for hours at a time.
When requesting a proposal or manuscript on submission I state explicitly that I want to see it in Microsoft Word. I do most of my reading on my Kindle and while other formats work, I know for a fact that Word works (PDFs do not). Rich text files would work too, but there are times when I might want to read on my computer and the feel of the Rich Text file isn’t the same for me. I also know agents who will make notes in the submission as their reading. They don’t always send these along to the author, but it helps in evaluating the manuscript later. It also helps later if they sign the author and need to do revisions. Half the work is already complete.
The biggest thing though, the reason formatting is so important, is because it impacts how we read things. And this is key, especially if you’re trying to get an agent or editor to evaluate your work for representation.
If your work comes to me garbled in any way (missing paragraph breaks, breaking every few lines, locked formatting so adjustments can’t be made to size, etc) it messes with the flow of my reading. Paragraphs, sentences, commas, capital letters and all the nitty-gritty of grammar are there for a reason. They are there to help our brains process the cadence of the writing. Without them I find myself drifting away from the manuscript or I find it hard to follow what’s happening.
It’s very rare that I find formatting problems in material. Very rare. I don’t want authors going into a panic right now that the material an agent has is all messed up. If everything looks good on your screen it will look the same on mine. The problem usually occurs for authors using outdated word processing software (wordperfect anyone?) or who try to quickly change formats on something without checking on the outcome. That being said, if you don’t have paragraphs you need to add them. Now!