Will fancy formatting improve my chances of publication?

As an editor who sometimes works on manuscripts that are intended for traditional publishing, my role includes educating writers about the publishing industry. I am sometimes asked questions that reveal a lack of experience and knowledge about traditional publishing. 

This feels like old information to me—traps that no writer has any excuse to fall into. I have realised, though, that the same kinds of author mistakes are going to come up for every generation. 

There will always be people who fail to do their research before going off with some hare-brained idea for how to get noticed by a publisher, for example. I don't mean to be unkind, but no publisher will be moved by the efforts of an author to pretty up their manuscript and get it noticed.

If the words of your manuscript are not good enough to stand alone—without fancy fonts, formatting, backgrounds, colours, illustrations, bribes or gifts for the acquisitions editor—they are not worthy of a traditional publisher.

Here is part of an email I was sent recently by someone seeking a proofreader for part of their manuscript (as the entirety was, of course, perfect and didn't need a structural edit—cough—ahem—excuse me).

"... the text needs to be at publisher standard in terms of spelling, grammar, punctuation and historical accuracy - in a sense - because I plan on getting artistic with lighters, coffee, paper and scanners. So it needs to be perfect, anyway, how much am I looking at for the service?"

After viewing the said part of said manuscript, my response to the author was:

"It does need an edit, but I think a structural edit before line editing would be wise. Otherwise if there are structural problems you are paying for line editing of sections that might need to be moved, changed substantially or even deleted. I need to see the entire manuscript and know its entire length to quote this, but it's usually 1c per word.

"My advice to you would be to join your local writers' centre and ask if there are any speculative fiction writers groups. You can then bring your work along for critique and you might be able to do a swap with another writer.

"Publishers will not appreciate your artistic effort with coffee, paper and scanners. Do not do it. Any submission that is not done to their submission guidelines will go straight in the bin. They do not have time to look through ye olde world looking submissions. They only want to see plain white paper with plain fonts (eg. Times New Roman) double-spaced with big margins. Whatever their guidelines say. Coffee-staining the paper, while a creative idea, is not a new idea. And it is not going to get your manuscript considered by a publisher. Believe me.

"I wish you all the best."

I started writing long-length fiction when I was nine, so my mother encouraged me to attend events for young writers. I fondly recall the young writers' masterclasses at the Queensland Writers Centre, for example. I remain a member of QWC to this day.

I prefer to have well-informed authors than to take on work that is only going to lead to disappointment. That's why I often encourage writers to start with either a structural edit or a manuscript assessment.

And every author has something to learn from their peers, their editor and their local writers' centre.

Read more about Australian editor and author Amanda Greenslade, and the books she's worked on here.

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