New Manuscript Formatting Guideline

One of the great things about attending writers conferences—or any conference in your given industry—is the ability to meet with experts who know more than you and learn from them. At this year’s Florida Christian Writers Conference, I enrolled in a four-day fiction workshop taught by Ramona Richards of Abingdon Press.

remington typewriter

Photo by Kia Abell •

One of the first things we worked on were our first pages. One attendee had a first page that started halfway down the paper, so her “first page” contained only about one hundred words or so. If you’ve followed this site for a while, you know I’ve advised starting one-third of the way down the page. That’s because the Writer’s Digest publication Formatting & Submitting Your Manuscript contains that age-old advice.

But that age-old advice dates from a time when editors received submissions on paper. The extra space on the first page of each chapter gave the editor more room for notes. Now that, in Ramona’s words “everyone is working digitally,” there is no need for that. She advises discontinuing the practice. The Chicago Manual of Style is silent on this issue. I have therefore revised my manuscript formatting guide in accordance with Ramona’s advice, because I believe it is sound.

First-paragraphs—indent or not?

One question I often hear is whether to remove the indent from the first paragraph of each chapter. This is purely a style preference. Many print editions are designed this way. But in manuscript format, it honestly doesn’t matter. Chicago is silent on the issue. The examples in Formatting & Submitting Your Manuscript show these paragraphs with the same indent as the rest of the text.

So you may indent the first paragraph or a chapter, or not, whichever you prefer. The presence or absence of that indent is unlikely to make or break an editor’s decision for or against your manuscript.

One of the things Ramona told us was that there is no true “industry standard” manuscript format. There are, however, some guidelines that many editors find useful, and that’s what I’ve included in my manuscript formatting guide, “What your typing teacher didn’t tell you about manuscript formatting.”

Note, however, that any agent or editor you are submitting to may have specific manuscript submission requirements. Follow these to the letter, even if they are different from mine, or Writer’s Digest’s, or Chicago’s. You must provide what your prospect asks for.

What’s Not Helpful in a Critique

Last time I wrote briefly about how to give and take critique. To go a little deeper, we have to understand that the role of critique partner is different from the role of editor.

A developmental editor often will help a writer shape the theme or concept of a manuscript. As a critique partner, your job is to help your critique partner realize the vision they have for their book; trying to convince them to change that vision is not helpful. However, if a critique partner asks for help in shaping their theme or vision, you can chime in.


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A substantive editor helps writers by re-writing clunky passages. In a critique, you want to keep rewrites to a minimum. Why? Because the way we get to be better writers is by writing. If you do the rewrite for your critique partner, you’re the one getting practice writing instead of them. Usually all you need to do is flag a sentence as “awkward” or “unclear” and leave the rewrite to the writer.

For example: “I’ve drawn a bracket in the margin around this passage because it struck me as _____ (awkward, unclear, implausible). You might want to consider rewriting it to _____ (smooth, clarify, plausify).”

The biggest risk in re-writing someone else’s sentences is overpowering their voice. Often in novice manuscripts we find the voice is a little off—reaching beyond itself for a high, lofty feel the author can’t sustain. This usually comes across as inconsistent, stilted, full of purple prose, or even unnatural. Your job as a critique partner is not rewriting to “improve” the voice. That’s only allowed in the news business. If you do that, you’re just imposing your voice over the writer’s. Your job as a critique partner is to help your partner find their voice. For example: “Your voice is a little flat; work on bringing more of your own personality in.”

Remember that word choices are part of voice. When you change words just because you don’t like them or don’t know them, you are changing the voice. The only time it’s appropriate to change a word is when you believe the writer has used the wrong one.

For example: “I’m not familiar with this word. Is it something this character would really have in his vocabulary?” Or, “You put ‘ameliorate,’ which means to make better, but the context seems to imply it’s getting worse. Did you mean ‘exacerbate?’”

What is helpful in a critique

  • Make sure the main characters are empathetic and not Too Stupid To Live.
  • Flag infodumps, especially if they are full of backstory.
  • If multiple viewpoints are used, check that transitions are clear. If you ever feel you don’t know which character holds the viewpoint in any given scene, say so.
  • Before flagging head-hopping or authorial intrusion, determine whether the author intended to write in omniscient POV. Only flag these—plus thinker tags and other artifacts of omniscient POV—as errors if Deep POV was intended.
  • If the narrator voice is too generic, say so. In Deep POV, the narrative voice should reflect the education, culture, and personality of the character.
  • Mark missed opportunities to add sensory detail.
  • Flag scenes that lack tension or fail to move the plot forward.
  • Flashbacks are not an error, but call them out if they seem unnecessary.
  • Point out errors or inconsistencies in historical or scientific details.
  • If you’re working on a ms that’s final or near final, correct punctuation, usage, grammar, and spelling errors if you notice them, but don’t knock yourself out unless you’ve specifically been asked to proofread.


How to give and take critique

The second item on my list of The Three Best Things You Can Do for Your Writing Career was “Join a Writers Group.” Not all writers groups offer critiques, but even those that don’t usually provide a forum where, once you get to know people, you can invite some of them to be your critique partners.

Once you have critique partners or join a critique group, how do you give and receive criticism? As you might guess, I have a whole seminar on this topic, which I’ll be teaching this weekend at the Florida Christian Writers Conference. But for those not able to be there, here’s a summary.

How to take a critique

Ask for what you need. If you’re on the first draft, you might say “I have concerns about the plausibility of the plot.” If you’re on your almost final draft, you might say “I just need proofreading before I submit this.”

Don’t try to defend your manuscript. Keep your mind open and consider every suggestion at least briefly; there may be a useful nugget in it. In fact, in many critique groups, including Word Weavers, the practice is to not allow the writer to speak at all while their pages are being critiqued, unless the critiquer needs an answer to a direct question.

neil-gaiman-quote-wrong-rightYou’re under no obligation to take every suggestion. In fact, doing so can cause paralysis, especially since some of them may contradict one another! You also don’t have to explain to anyone why you declined their advice. Just smile and nod and say thank you and do what’s best for your story.

Remember that critiques—if given properly—are of the pages and not of you personally. Try to detach yourself from the work and not take the critique personally.

How to give a critique

Bookend your critique with positives. Start by pointing out what you like overall. Give positive reinforcement by pointing out things that are done well. This is not only for ego-boosting purposes. If writers are not aware of what they’ve done well, they may throw out the good with the bad in rewrites.

Tackle big issues first. If there are plot holes big enough to fly a double-decker bus through, there’s no point moving commas around, because the scene will probably get rewritten. Focus on issues that are most important to the story or that you are most knowledgeable about.

End with something positive, especially if you are eager to keep reading, because that’s the best compliment!

Say it nicely

Tactful phrasing often makes the difference between a harsh critique and a helpful one. Sometimes we have to be hard, but we don’t have to be mean. Remember that the goal of a critique is to build up, not tear down. Here are some useful ways of expressing criticism:

“I recommend…”
“This is just a suggestion…”
“Think about…”
“Try this…”
“I’ve heard it’s better to…”
“What would happen if instead of ___, you tried ___?”
“It might be a good idea to…”
Put it in the form of a question, e.g., “Did you mean to do that?”

In business we’re often told, not to identify a problem unless we have the solution. Critiquing is different. It’s OK and even preferable to identify the problem, even if you don’t know the solution. If you do know the solution, describe it, but leave execution to the author; don’t do the work for them unless they ask you to.

For example: “The structure feels a little weak. You might want to think about how to better organize the story to maximize the tension. For example, you could take some of the stuff from the denouement and move it earlier.” You don’t want to do the work for them because then you deprive them the opportunity of practicing their craft.

Next time we’ll look at what is and isn’t helpful in a critique.

The Three Best Things You Can Do for Your Writing Career

You know I’m not usually one for these “Number of Things” articles, but this is something I repeat so often—because I really believe it—that I figured it was an appropriate follow-up to the Elements of Fiction series.

You’ll find plenty of advice about how to improve your writing craft. Read widely, write a lot…that sort of thing. All true, of course.

But this list is about how you can develop your writing career.

1. Attend conferences

I don’t just say this because the Florida Christian Writers Conference starts in a few days. I say it because, in my experience, conferences have led to all the best developments in my career. In fact, this is probably true regardless of what career you’re pursuing.

writers conference

Penny Sansevieri teaching at the Florida Writers Association fall conference in 2014. Photo by Karen Lieb.

A lot goes on at conferences. You’ll attend workshops that will help develop your craft. So that’s like a two-for-one. But you’ll also develop relationships with others in the business—agents, editors, other writers—who can help you on your journey.

Through people I met at conferences, I’ve made some of the greatest strides in my career, not only as a writer but as an editor.

For a list of writers conferences, see the Shaw Guides website, which lists a wide variety of them.

2. Join a writers group

Writers are a special breed, and normal people don’t get us. We need to be around other writers partly to be reassured that we’re not entirely crazy (only a little), and to get useful feedback on our writing.

All the praises of your family and co-workers won’t mean as much to you as one keen insight from a smart critique partner. I belong to a couple of critique groups. The first one, Word Weavers, I found through — you see this coming, right? — a conference. I met another local writer and she invited me. My other critique group I found through American Christian Fiction Writers.

To find a writers group near you, do a web search for “writers group” or “writers association” in your city, if you live in a mid- to large-size city, or your state if not. You can also try looking for groups by genre.

3. Get a professional opinion

Critique partners are awesome, and if you’re very fortunate, you’ll be able to find some who are professionals, and you’ll be able to get that professional opinion essentially free. A professional can see things in your manuscript others can’t and can offer advice that’s likely to be more beneficial.

I really do take my own medicine here: No one can edit their own work, so I asked an editor friend to review the first scene of my fantasy novel. Lots of people had told me it needed to be stronger, but I couldn’t see how to do it myself. She quickly responded with a classic piece of advice: “You do have a great opening; it’s just now where you think it is.” Argh! I made one of the classic blunders…getting involved in a land war in Asia. No, that wasn’t it. I started the story too late. Too much conversation between the characters before getting to the point. I couldn’t see it. My critique partners didn’t see it. A professional opinion was needed to identify the real problem and the right place to start the story.

Often you can also get a professional review of at least part of your manuscript for a nominal fee at a conference. If you go this route, vet the professional you’re getting the opinion from. You want someone who’s an experienced writer, editor, or agent and preferably someone who works in your genre. The only time I got a professional critique that was not worth the fee, the reviewer was an academic, not a novelist. I have a great deal of respect for teachers, but the requirements of academia differ from those of the market.

Hands-on workshops are another great way to get a professional opinion at a reasonable price. Again, these are often offered as part of a conference.

One of the best things I ever did for my career was hiring a writing coach. It not only helped me get my fantasy novel into saleable condition, it opened my eyes to a possible new career. That was quite a few years ago, and now I try to do for others what my writing coach did for me. And it probably won’t surprise you to learn that the person who referred me to my writing coach was an instructor I met at a writers conference.

A professional opinion can let you know whether you’re ready to pursue a career, or whether you should focus on craft. If the former is the case, a professional can also refer you to the resources you’ll need to take the next career step.

In writing, career and craft are closely linked, so all of these practices will improve your craft as you pursue your career.

Q&A: When to hire an editor

Q: I took your Elements of Fiction seminar and read the blog posts and I’ve gone through the checklist. Now what? How do I know when to hire an editor or writing coach?

question answer

Illustration © JJAVA •


A: When you feel stuck, or when you’re ready to go.

If you’ve worked through the checklist and you still feel stuck on your manuscript, not knowing what to do next, that’s a good time to bring in a writing coach. You may just need to talk things though so you can get advice about what the next step is. Continue reading

Elements of Fiction handout

I had a great group at the Mandel Public Library of West Palm Beach today for the Edit Like A Pro: Elements of Fiction workshop. I brought 20 handouts and ran out, so I guess I had about 30 eager writers there. So for those who didn’t get a handout, here’s a copy:

Elements of Fiction handout

Regular readers will recognize that the Elements of Fiction checklist is the foundation of this handout. I am working on an e-book version of the Elements of Fiction series, so I’ll make you the same offer I made the folks in the seminar. If you’d like to be a beta reader* for that book when it’s ready, please e-mail me, and I’ll add you to the list. I hope to have it ready for you to preview by the beginning of summer.

* At another event last month, someone asked what exactly a beta reader is. To be a beta reader just means you read the book as any other reader would and then offer feedback.

Know when to stop editing

We’ve made our way through the whole Elements of Fiction Editing Checklist. Now there are two vastly different errors writers can fall into.

The first is thinking you’re done. If you are working on your first—or even second or third—novel, one or even two passes through your manuscript will not be enough. Let the book lay fallow for a couple of weeks or even a month, while you start writing something new. Then give it another read-through. Look at each category of the checklist and ask whether you’ve really done each element as well as you possibly can. Then make another pass.

The second error is making an infinite number of editing passes, so your manuscript is never finished. The pursuit of perfection is unending. At some point, to borrow an expression from Seth Godin, you just have to decide it’s good enough to ship. Usually that’s the point at which you’re just making things different instead of better. Continue reading