Electronic Submissions – A Tangent

The blogosphere was buzzing over the weekend with discussion of electronic submission to magazines/anthologies, and whether or not it should be allowed. Jonathan Strahan alludes to it here, and Scalzi has a rant here.

I’m a bit of a social Darwinist on this. I think that if not accepting electronic submissions means that magazines miss out on good material then they will probably die off as a result, and serve them right. Conversely, if it doesn’t matter, they’ll do just fine. However, as someone who has always accepted electronic submissions, I’d like to vent a little about a pet hate of mine: Standard Manuscript Format.

To be fair to Bill, he does a great job at helping people who have to submit on paper, or to editors who will take your electronic submission and immediately print it out. That’s because Standard Manuscript Format is designed for being read (and marked up) on paper. It is not designed for use by people who read and edit on screen.

So if we are going to move to a world in which submissions are made electronically, can we please have a new manuscript format that is suitable for that purpose? I don’t have the time to come up with a standard myself, and in any case it ought to be a collaborative process, but it should probably include a few of the following:

  1. A sensible file format (probably RTF), not the latest attempt at proprietary standards creation by Microsoft or something that is only supported by an operating system to which the sender has a religious attachment.
  2. Minimal formatting – bold and italic are OK, but don’t use multiple fonts, varying type sizes and so on.
  3. That goes for layout as well. No paragraph indenting, use proper paragraph spacing; and there’s no need for double-spacing between lines. Using a larger font size throughout is better for readability than double-spacing.
  4. Ideally have the whole thing in one style so that the editor can just select the whole lot and change it to whatever she’s most comfortable with.
  5. Never, ever use capital letters for emphasis, book titles and the like.
  6. Don’t embed your text in an email (I know some people like this, but I keep worrying about loss of accented characters)
  7. And my pet hate – don’t use two spaces after periods. The days of typewriters and non-proportional fonts are long behind us.

Anyone have any other suggestions?

10 thoughts on “Electronic Submissions – A Tangent

  1. I really don’t understand why it’s such a problem to have two spaces. Doesn’t make it any harder for me to read. Also, probably because I cannot break myself of the habit no matter how hard I try 😉

    My only real point of exception is embedding your text in an email. The proper encoding will ensure you don’t lose any accented characters (and I think most email programs are configured to handle this right). At Escape Pod, the guidelines were set for body of an email before I started, but I’ve previously accepted them only as attachments (doc or rtf) at the Fortean Bureau. There are pluses to both sides, I think.

    Leaving the bulk of the styling up to the editor seems like an especially good idea to me. Electronically, we can easily change it to suit our tastes. Knowing that stories go out to multiple markets, we should make what we request as simple to put together as possible. No sense in requiring extra work just to send us a story. I can make a macro to put it into standard manuscript format if that’s what I like to read in (oddly enough, it is).

  2. I completely agree with you on the need for updated formatting standards! I disagree with you a bit on what they should be: yes to RTF, yes to no headache-inducing mix-and-match font selection. Do styles work with RTF? One option would be to create a stylesheet for submitters to use. Non-proprietary might be challenging, but is essential.

    I do like paragraph indenting, and all-caps for certain purposes (not emphasis). There’s something to be said for not accepting unsolicited attachments, though also something to be said for having good antivirus. Email embedding can do odd things to all your formatting, not just accented characters, especially if the recipient has text-only email.

    As for #7… oh, yes! I have a secretary at work who carefully goes thru all our reports and official correspondence and puts in the extra space despite much pleading and explanation and correction. She is the one who puts things in the Official Government Computer System, and will make those changes without giving the author final review. Argh.

  3. Not sure what you mean by “use proper paragraph spacing”… because if you look in any paperback or hardback work of fiction you’ll see that paragraphs are signalled with indents not with blank lines.

    It’s only on-line that blank lines have become used for paragraphing… and that’s probably because the TAB key is normally used to move focus on-screen. Besides, if it’s an electronically-submitted ms for a print mag, you don’t want the editor to go through and remove all those blank lines and insert tabs….

  4. Two quick points.

    1. The whole point should be that the submission format minimizes work for the editor, so if the final document is going to require X then your submission format should require X. This may make it hard to define a common standard, but lets not have any more “your ideas are all wrong because my requirement is an exception” comments, please.

    2. Ideally we should minimize the amount of technical knowledge required by the writers. It is all very well to say that if you are sufficiently technically savvy you can avoid problems, but most writers are not that technically savvy.

  5. Electronic submissions absolutely should be an option. While I have immense respect for the traditions of publishing, the slushpiles that any editor gets buried under, and know how difficult it is to change one’s ritual, every publication should seriously consider an electronic submission option. For no more reason than modern society needs to reduce the resource drain on the environment. Too much paper is being used worldwide, and simply need not be.

    It’s more difficult to read on-screen, I agree. The electronic magazine I’ve been editing for 10 years now receives more submissions per day than it ever before. But I cannot bring myself to print them out.

    And… Typographically, indents are a historically more-recent alternative to paragraph spacing. Similarly, no spacing is needed between headers/subheads and a paragraph, because the contrast signals a difference. First paragraphs need not be indented (because there is always a title, header, subhead, white space or symbol break between.)

  6. I’m with you on the gripe about double spacing after a period: an artifact of the days of manual typewriters that makes absolutely no sense in this day and age. Two spaces after each period makes a submission unreadable to me. I actually have to find/replace any double-spaced punctuations for the entire affected ms. before I can read it.

    This is very much an editor taste thing, but as Abyss & Apex only accepts electronic submissions, it’s not a huge problem. I can work with the file. FWIW we accept Word and rtf, and will accept flash fiction in the body of the email.

  7. As Jeremy Tolbert pointed out, most of these can be changed with a macro. Essentially, open the file in your favorite word-processor-with-macros, select the menu item some kind macro-creating word processing guru created for you, and presto! Fonts and paragraphs formatted to your personal taste, doubled spaces gone.

    Technology can be sooooo cool.

    I used to work in technical publishing, and many orgs use macros. It took a while in the early days to get some of the bugs out, but by now, they’ve got it down to a science. (Example bug–put a 0 before a decimal in a number. Except they forgot to check whether another number was already there, so 2.5 became 20.5–not only in data numbers but in section numbers. Ah, the memories of being on the bleeding edge…)

  8. I would like to force everybody to use my styles for headings, scene breaks, etc. to simplify reformatting or later typesetting. But it’s still an uphill struggle just getting people not to center with the space bar.

    Attachments are no guarantee that accented letters will work cross-platform or even cross-word-processor-version. I always assume that I have to check everything that’s not ASCII by hand.

    Paper submission pet peeve: Folks who use double-spaced twelve-point Times New Roman on US Letter or A4. It seems to have become the official alternative MS format, and its main “virtue,” as far as I can see, is that it makes it impossible to take in more than a word at a time. Believe me, writers: for many of you, your best hope is that the editor will speed-read your MS rather than try to crawl bleeding across the broken ground of each rhythmless sentence.

  9. Mostly, I am going “rah rah go Cheryl!” over this.

    Except, you cannot hope to win over the paragraph indenting issue. Any standard manuscript format will have to embrace contemporary fiction-publishing standards, as most submitted or wannabe-submitted manuscripts are fiction; and the world is very full of people (myself included) crying “Have you never read a novel? Paragraphs are separated by indents, not by spaces! The space-separator performs a separate function, to indicate passage of time or change of viewpoint!”

  10. Two spaces–just another thing for the designer/typesetter to have to remember to take out. Yeah, it’s annoying.

    As for the rest–when we read for anthos, we don’t care about any of the other particulars so long as it’s on normal sized pages. And we actually prefer a nice font rather than Courier. Doesn’t influence us as to whether the story’s good or not. And Courier and normal manuscript format guidelines are hold-overs from dead tree days anyway. We can always reformat in 2 secs if a story’s holding our interest enough anyway.

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