Your Manuscript Format Reveals Your Mindset

As a writer, what matters more than talent, even more than hard work, is your mindset. (You need all three; in order of importance it goes mindset, hard work, talent.)

Professionals can smell amateurs coming at them from a hundred miles away. Let’s look closely, very closely, at the simplest example of how this plays out: confusion regarding manuscript formatting.

You can listen to to podcast here, or read my essay on the topic below. (To listen to the podcast interview with GMB Chomichuk that I reference, click here.)

I ran across this comment on a post the other day and I think it is worth examining in great detail, because I see variations of it throughout the Internet and even hear versions of it in person. Let’s look at the comment/question:

“It seems that publishers are more concerned with throwing out submissions than they are with reading them. How many great,successful novels have been refused on numerous occasions. Why are they called professionals when so many are incapable of doing the job? How is a newbie supposed to chose the correct format of a novel manuscript when so many people who are published authors, contradict each other. From correct type font to positioning of details on title page one can find different suggestions. Above all we are exhorted not to look like amateurs. What a joke that is.”

— “oldmarathonrunner”

Many authors and publishing professional dismiss this kind of bitter comment as the mark of an amateur whose question is not worth a real response. 

In one sense, they are right: this author, named only “oldmarathonrunner,” is obviously going to fail as a writer because he (anonymous, but I will bet “he”) does not have the attitude necessary to succeed as a writer. 

He is too fixated on the results of his labours and not the process. Anyone who would post something like this has the wrong fixations and will fail — at best  he will see some temporary success, but does not display the temperament needed for the long term — unless of course he does change his attitude. I don’t know if you can teach an oldmarathonrunner new tricks, but if he’s reading this then I suppose his comments will tell the tale.

In another sense, they are wrong: the question itself, unmoored from the context of its asking, is worth answering. Because he does have a real point. 

If you said these words to a publishing professional, they would roll their eyes and get the hell out of there because the question reveals that the asker cannot handle its answer. But these questions are real questions! And they are worth answering. 

Let’s re-examine each part of the question, and answer it in turn.

“It seems that publishers are more concerned with throwing out submissions than they are with reading them.”

This is absolutely true.

However, it is for one very simple, very good reason. Publishers receive an incredible amount of submissions, and almost every submission a publisher receives is unpublishable. 

Completely and utterly unpublishable. 

Sometimes, authors know how bad their submissions are and even say so in their cover letters. I once received a cover letter that began, “Probably you won’t want to publish this, because it is really terribly written, but here you go anyway.” I’m not joking. That was the actual opening sentence of the cover letter. 

The submission was handwritten (while high — the author also noted that in the cover letter) in nearly illegible scrawl on a crumpled piece of lined paper torn from a notebook. It was called “The Hounds of Hell.” I still remember the first two lines: “The Hounds of Hell are on my trail / They are hunting me and chasing me beyond the vale.” 

If a publisher receives 1000 submissions (and they do — certainly every year, often every month, sometimes every week, depending on their size) then the editor’s first job, for practical reasons, is to eliminate at least 900 of them. As fast as possible. There is simply no way to manage the material without first eliminating most of it. 

If these submissions can be throw away unread, all the better. The sad truth, that most authors refuse to face, is this: a good editor — let me repeat, a GOOD editor, not a bad one, a GOOD one — can tell within one page, often one paragraph, sometimes one sentence, whether or not the submission is worth reading. And will stop reading if it is not. 

A bad editor will give everyone a chance and read through to the end. And get nothing done. And hopefully be fired, because they are incompetent. The good editor eliminates almost everything as fast as possible and then spends time only with the good, publishable, possibly worthwhile-to-read work. 

Then rejects most of that.

“How many great,successful novels have been refused on numerous occasions. Why are they called professionals when so many are incapable of doing the job?”

This is a question I hear a lot. The answer depends on how you define “numerous occasions” and also how you define “the job.” Most would-be authors misunderstand both things.

Due to how the editorial process works, almost every manuscript, whether it is good or not good, will be refused publication on numerous occasions. So in one sense the answer is “almost every great and successful novel was refused on numerous occasions” but there is a mistake lurking here: the mistake of thinking it is in any way significant or remarkable whether or not a manuscript was rejected on numerous occasions. 

Much of the time, rejections occur because the author made a mistake in submitting. When I ran dANDelion, a literary journal that published 2–3 issues per year, I regularly reviewed submissions of weekly columns. Regardless of quality, they were rejected, for obvious reasons. Did that rejection indicate anything about the quality of the writing? Of course not.

Good work is rejected for a million GOOD reasons. Once, the editor of a magazine contacted me to say she was a big fan of my work and begged me to submit something to her magazine. I did. She then sent me a form rejection. Handwritten across it was a note apologizing and explaining that she loved the story utterly and completely but everyone else at the magazine hated it and voted her down.

At a large publisher, a brilliant manuscript might be selected for publication by an editor but vetoed by the marketing department, especially if it is original or unique enough that they cannot find useful comparable titles to judge its possible marketability. There are millions of good reasons good work is rejected. It is NORMAL.

 So, numerous rejections indicates nothing about the quality of a manuscript — NOR about the quality of the rejecting editor’s judgement. Numerous rejections is in no way unusual or remarkable. So, yes, almost every great and successful novel has met with numerous rejections.

The REAL question this writer should be asking it this: How many great, brilliant, eventually successful novels were rejected an incredibly large number of times by a host of editors and publishers, each overlooking its brilliance?

The answer is very few. 

This almost never happens. When it does, you hear about it forever, to be sure. You hear about it happening because it happens so little that it is newsworthy

It reminds me of something that Robert McKee writes in his book Story

Despite a half-billion dollars and the exhaustive efforts of development personnel, Hollywood cannot find better material than it produces. The hard-to-believe truth is that what we see on the screen each year is a reasonable reflection of the best writing of the last few years. 

Many screenwriters, however, cannot face this downtown fact and live in the exurbs of illusions, convinced that Hollywood is blind to their talent. With rare exceptions, unrecognized genius is a myth. First-rate screenplays are at least optioned if not made. 

— Robert McKee, Story: Style, Structure, Substance, and the Principles of Screenwriting

McKee is correct and what he says applies to publishing as well. What is actually more common than a great book being rejected is a not-great book (that should be rejected) being accepted and published. If you don’t believe me, go to a bookstore.

Why are editors called professionals even when they reject brilliant work? This complaint is of a piece with the earlier complaint about editorial incompetence. Let me offer a very short, very simple answer to this question by asking another question.

What is more likely, in the scenario that you are facing constant rejections: that hundreds of editors are incompetent, or that you are incompetent? 

In truth, this is an either-or fallacy: incompetence should not be assumed on either side, since there are many good reasons to reject good work. But let’s say we know for a fact that incompetence is a factor. I ask again: Who is most likely to be incompetent in this scenario? 

You know the answer. 

“How is a newbie supposed to chose the correct format of a novel manuscript when so many people who are published authors, contradict each other. From correct type font to positioning of details on title page one can find different suggestions.”

The answer is quite simple. Like everything else in life, you stop listening to idiots chattering about nonsense they don’t understand. Instead you just go buy a book.

I recommend this book: Formatting & Submitting Your Manuscript, 3rd edition, by Chuck Sambuchino and the Editors of Writer’s Digest Books.

Hilariously, this is the exact book being discussed in the post above the comment/question. This is why I say this writer will never succeed. The actual, practical answer to his question is directly above his comment. 

His question has literally, in front of his face, already been answered by an industry professional — before he even asked it. But he cannot see that fact. He is looking at the answer but cannot see it. He will never last.

It’s like if I walked up to you and said, “Oh hey, hi, I’m a professional food reviewer and just in case you’re wondering, there are amazing burgers right there across the street at Burger Factory, that place with massive neon signs advertising the best burgers of all time” and you replied with “How is anyone supposed to know where to get good burgers in this city? It’s a conspiracy to hide the good burger places from the little guys!” 

Right then, I would know that no one could help you and you would never realize your dream of finally eating a good burger, because you don’t know how to listen and you’re just fixated on your paranoid delusions, for whatever reason.

The more complex answer is this: fundamentally, there is no such thing as standard manuscript format, because every publisher is its own entity, and they do not collude (despite the delusions of would-be authors).

Even publishers owned by the same conglomerate often don’t communicate around these issues — there have been many weird examples in history of different branches of a company bidding against one another and driving up the price of their desired manuscript.

At the same time, there are a series of conventions that have developed and that editors recognize. If you know what you are doing, then you could use your own format, which suits you, without worrying about how well it conforms to the “industry standard” (which does not truly exist). You will know what to do and what not to do, what is important and what is not important.

If you do NOT know what you are doing … then just buy this book and do what it says! This is not the only way to format manuscripts, but it is a good way, and it will be recognized as a professional way. 

What do most writers do instead? They format things randomly however they feel like they should. 

To someone who DOES know what they are doing, it is immediately, IMMEDIATELY apparent that these writers DO NOT know what they are doing.

If you don’t know what you are doing, just buy a book and trust the expert. Your only other options are to become an expert yourself, or to do everything wrong without realizing it.

Our culture is diseased by a skepticism of experts. While you should be healthily skeptical of experts at times, in most cases you should not. And you should always just pay attention first. You can ask other experts and do your own research and make your own informed choices — after you develop your own expertise. But why bother?

This is the crux — you should trust experts until you become an expert yourself. Even if the expert is wrong, mostly they are “more right” than the non-expert. When confronted with a problem, you have to ask yourself: Do I want to become an expert in solving this problem, or just trust an expert’s already-existing solution? 

If you’ve been diagnosed with cancer, then I recommend you become an expert in cancer treatments so that you can talk to your doctors intelligently and assess what they say and make your own informed decisions, even if you end up going against these experts. 

When we’re talking manuscript format, to me it is a big, Who cares? Just buy a book for twenty or thirty bucks, do what it says without questioning, and move on with life. 

Look, I learned how to do it, I sunk the time in, I became an expert. I regret it. I totally wasted my time becoming an expert in the subject. I should have just bought the book that I eventually bought anyway.

“Above all we are exhorted not to look like amateurs. What a joke that is.”

Here’s the real joke:

You can look like an amateur all you want. It won’t matter to your career. In fact, many professional authors put a lot of time and energy into looking like amateurs, trying to convince you to believe in their raw talent. 

This is their career move. They want you to think they are geniuses. 

They try to make you feel like they don’t really know what they are doing — they just have a gift! They are stumbling along and accidentally happen upon success. They are the chosen ones. They have been touched by God.

You can look like an amateur all you want. What you can’t do is BE an amateur. 

Those authors who are just magically inspired and randomly turn out works of brilliance? Those non-professional artistes? They have bank accounts. They have agents. They have publishers. They have schedules. They act like amateurs, because they like the act. They are actually professionals.

I am not a genius. I was not touched by the divine. I just put in work. I’m not interested in misleading people about writing, because I think these myths about writing do everyone a disservice. 

I prefer to be a professional and also act like one. As Hamlet says, “I know not seems.” You can do whatever you want, but if you want to publish like a professional then you need to become a professional, whatever attitude you choose to adopt publicly. 

Becoming a professional does not mean making a bunch of money or selling a lot of copies or having some other reward bestowed upon you by the public or a publisher. It means an attitude adjustment. Professionalism is a mindset. 

The real answers to oldmarathonrunner’s question can be found in two places. 

The first is Steven Pressfield’s book Turning Pro

The second is, yes, in Formatting & Submitting Your Manuscript by Chuck Sambuchino et al.

For less than fifty bucks, there you have it: all of the actual, real, practical, priceless answers to becoming a professional, published author (assuming you are capable, currently, of producing publishable work) that you could ever need. 

Less than fifty dollars, and your entire writing world opens. If you are able to read and listen. 

Most people are not. They might order the books, might read them, might then hold them in their hands — hold the actual, physical answers in their hands — and wonder where the answers to their questions could be. Where could they be found? 

Their problem is not that the writing world is confusing. Their problem is that they do not know how to pay attention. They want excuses, not help.

I know this sounds harsh, but sometimes people need tough love. I hope it helps oldmarathonrunner, and I hope that it helps you, whoever you are, reading this. 

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