Simon Says “Reformat…again!”

lovingly remember those childhood days playing Red Light, Green Light and Simon
Says.  Back then it was just
another way to pass time at the bus stop, or, for me, another opportunity to
display just how slow and uncoordinated I was.  Only when I became an adult did I realize these games
actually teach kids valuable skills: listening and following directions.  As a middle school teacher, I can
attest to how desperately our children need these skills.  As an adult, however, I can get a
little frustrated when I feel other adults are yelling “Simon says!”
just to test my resolve, and possibly my intelligence.  I am no longer a child.  I no longer need someone to explicitly
tell me things that to anyone with average intelligence would be considered
commonsense.  Apparently, though,
there are enough adults out there who do. 
At least, I’m giving the publishing world the benefit of the doubt, that
their sometimes condescending submission guidelines and ever-changing
formatting requirements, are truly from years of bad experiences and not just
an evil scheme to frustrate hopeful authors everywhere.

I prepared and sent out a new round of queries, hoping to find a publisher to
accept my book.  By the end of the
day I was bleary-eyed and a bit annoyed (until three nice people sent
personalized confirmations, and one requested a full manuscript!).  It wasn’t just that I had a killer
headache and had spent too many hours trying to find anyone on any writers’
websites who liked any publisher. (There are some really bitter writers in the
world trying to give postal workers a run for their money.)  The publishing websites themselves are
often maddening.  I teach writing
to seventh graders.  Even at
thirteen I expect my students to follow a particular formatting guideline.  I get that.  Having everything in the right place, in the right font,
hopefully not riddled with grammatical errors makes me happy, and it makes
reading others’ writing easier.  But I don’t
develop my own guidelines arbitrarily, nor do I make nasty sarcastic remarks
about the fact many of the essays I correct hardly resemble anything close to
the English language as it should be written.  Ok, I have on occasion, but I’m dealing with kids, most of
whom would rather live at home indefinitely than ever enter a profession that
involved writing, not adults who have completed entire novels.  Yet, reading some of these sites, a writer
might think these publishing companies and agents are addressing a classroom
full of ADHD teens.

I’m in the minority, but before I submitted anywhere, I spent time researching
standard manuscript format, which is different from synopsis format, which is
different from a teaser in a query, which is not the same as a cover
letter.  Yes, it is as confusing as
it sounds, at first.  Yes, it sucks
time like a thousand thirsty leeches. 
But, if it gets a writer published, it’s all worth it.  Right?  Well, I can’t yet answer that one, but I can tell you all
the time I spent learning the proper formats according to a few major websites
and books, which I was told were authorities on such things, was often a waste
of time.  It seems every publishing
company and small press (and many literary agents, as well) each has its own
preferences.  Unlike academic
writing, ninety percent of which uses one of two standard formats, MLA or APA,
the publishing world has no set standards.  Some like Times New Roman, others pooh, pooh it and prefer
Courier.  Some like chapter titles
centered, others don’t or don’t care. 
Some specify how many single spaces down from the top of the page they
should be, but no one wants single-spaced manuscripts, so that guideline
doesn’t even make sense.  Wait, one
e-publisher actually did want it single-spaced.  They must buy stock in Tylenol and Visine.  And don’t even get me started on word
count.  Who knew you needed a math
degree to be an author?  In this
day and age, can’t we trust the computer to be fairly accurate?  If any agent or publisher saw my math
grades, they’d let Word handle any computations–I make it a habit not to
question people as successful as Bill Gates.

seem like minute details, hardly worth griping over.  And they are, which is precisely the point.  The publishing world is probably too
large and too diverse to ever agree on a set format.  Perhaps, instead, they should let go of the little things and
trust that writers who are serious about their craft will have done their
homework and followed a format that is both readable and professional.  If a writer needs to be told not to
send a draft with coffee stains, not to include bribes disguised as odd gifts,
or not to write an email query with the same level of informality one would use
to text a friend, his work isn’t likely to get read no matter what size margins
it has.

            Like most writers, I hope, I
can handle some adversity, and I play well with others, following the rules as
asked.  To the many great companies out there whose instructions are clear, polite, and professional, you have my most sincere gratitude.  To those who like to have a little more fun with their prospective authors, all we’re asking is
that if we have to jump through a few hoops, please keep them still.  And just because a few of our predecessors may have gone hog wild and broken a few, please don’t light them afire
for the rest of us!


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