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Ask the Book Doctor

By Bobbie Christmas

Ask the Book Doctor: About Contractions, Conferences and Formatting Manuscripts

Q: What is the practice for using words like don't, can't or hadn't in anything that isn't dialogue?

A: The question applies to contractions in narrative, and conventional wisdom says that formal writing should not use contractions in narrative, only in dialogue or quotations. If, however, a novel is written as if a character is narrating the story, the narrative would also be the monologue of the narrator, so unless the narrator speaks like a professor, the work would not be formal. See "Catcher in the Rye" for an example of narration by a character.

If you think fiction is the only type of book that can be either formal or informal, think again. Nonfiction varies as well. If you want to maintain a breezy, casual style in your books, essays, articles, columns or other nonfiction material, don't hesitate to use contractions. I use contractions in my books and columns because I don't want to sound staid, which I'm not. I want writers to know I'm one of them.

If, however, you are writing academic textbooks, business reports, journalistic articles and other prose that leans toward the formal, do not use contractions.

To clarify, for fiction, unless your main character is narrating the story, do not use contractions in the narrative, because you run the risk of author intrusion. In nonfiction, unless you want to be informal, do not use contractions in the narrative.

Q: Do you think it's worth $375 to attend the (name deleted) conference?

A: When I was younger, I learned something new at every conference I attended. Although I now could give most of the presentations wherever I speak, I often slip into other classrooms to hear other presenters, and almost every time, I learn something new or am reminded of something I had forgotten.

Many conferences also offer the opportunity to meet with agents, and that face-to-face meeting and manuscript evaluation could jumpstart your career. Quite a few agent-writer connections are made at conferences.

If you hope to make money at writing, you will have to invest in yourself. Your computer is not the only investment you will have to make. If a conference offers speakers and subjects that speak to your areas of interest or weakness, invest in your education. Go to conferences, mingle, enjoy, learn and be inspired.

Q: You said that submissions to a publisher should be in loose sheets, not bound, with the pages numbered and with an ID. Please let me see how I should format the ID.

A: Your name, the manuscript title, and the page number all go into the header of the document. Nothing should go in the footer. In the header, type your last name, the title (or a main part of the title) and the page number. Many publishers prefer for the page number to be on the far right and the other information on the far left. Note that your word processor will automatically number the pages if you press the # key while in the menu for the header. The ID (or header) will look something like this when finished:

Jones/Staying Fat 47

Q: My manuscript is spaced at 1.5, rather than double-spaced. I went to a seminar where someone said it was okay. Is it?

A: I strongly disagree. I do not know of any editor, agent, publisher, or publication that solicits book-length manuscripts that are not double-spaced. In my editing practice I don't accept manuscripts that aren't double spaced, because I need room to work on the page and because I standardized my rates based on standard manuscript format.

I can think of only two exceptions to the double-spacing rule.

  1. If you submit work electronically, the publisher can reformat it if necessary.
  2. If you submit a nonfiction book proposal instead of a completed manuscript, the proposal, but not the sample chapters, can be 1.5-spaced, if you want.

Q: My manuscript is not in Courier, which you say is the standard font for manuscripts. I don't think I can change my long manuscript to Courier 12 point without a lot of difficulty. What should I do?

A: It's amazingly easy to change the font type and size in almost any word-processing program, and because Courier 12-point type is the one most publishers and agents prefer, it's good to get into the habit of using it. To change the font in most programs, first highlight the entire document by using Control + A. Next go to the menu and pull down Format, then Font, then Courier and 12.

Some publishers accept fonts other than Courier, but because all accept Courier, I like to get clients accustomed to using it. Very few publishers accept fonts in any size smaller than 12, though, no matter what the font.

If you plan to self publish, all this formatting of the manuscript is a moot point. After you have finished the edits, you can design the book any way you want. If you hope to sell the book to a publisher, though, the publisher designs the final book, so get in the habit of using the font and size the majority of publishers prefer. Courier is a big, clean font that is easy to see and easier to edit, and it is the one I prefer when I work on manuscripts.

—Book Doctor Bobbie Christmas will answer your questions, too. Get direct answers by sending your questions to Bobbie's Web site with even more questions and answers is



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