All writers have a single mantra burned into their minds from an early age - never submit something that isn't in proper, or standard, format. What many beginning writers, and even established writers, find is that there is no cut and dried definition of "proper" and "standard". Scriptwriters have it much easier than prose writers when it comes to this whole issue of standard format. Formatting runs one page of script equals about one minute of screen time, so the writer works on page counts. Scriptwriters also have the cool software programs like Movie Magic 2000 and Final Draft that do all the margins and indentions automatically. Prose writers have no such luck.
Prose writers, both fiction and non-fiction, have many books and programs out there telling them how to put together plot, characters, and query letters. These are all fine tools, but they often leave the basic formatting of a manuscript for the writer to work out for themselves.
There are a few very basic standards that everyone agrees on. One would be using clean, 8.5 inch by 11 inch white paper and clear black ink. Another would be to only print on one side of the piece of paper and to double space your text. Leaving the last generally accept rule being don't right justify your manuscript, leave that side of the page ragged. But as general consensus goes, that's pretty much it.
According to various websites and sources, margins can vary from one inch to 1.5 inches all around your manuscript. That's a lot of wiggle room for a new writer who's trying to make everything perfect. The purpose for one inch or greater margins is to give the editor or publisher room to make notes on the manuscript, the same as with the double spacing. It also makes it easier for the editor or publisher to read - something all writers strive for.
The next big debate is, believe it or not, on fonts. Most word processing programs default to Times New Roman these days. That is a nice basic font that many publishers use to print books in, however, it's not the font to use in submission. Almost all sources say - though some are allowing for Times New Roman - to use one of the Courier fonts. Why? Because Courier is a "fixed width" font - meaning everything is the same size. Times New Roman and other such fonts are "proportional" - meaning each letter doesn't take up the same amount of space. Why is this important? Proportional fonts skew the word count of the submission. Which brings up the most debated point in "standard" manuscript formatting - the word count.
With the proliferation of word processing programs, word counts have become both easier and more difficult when it comes to manuscript submissions. For the first time in publishing history, a writer can easily see exactly how many words are in the manuscript. However, problems occur in the standardized definition of a "word" and how to calculate one.
Computers use complex algorithms to compute the number of "words" which is usually defined as a set of characters surrounded by a space. The problem arises that there isn't a standard algorithm for all word processing programs. A word count in Word many times does not match up with a Word Perfect count or any other word processor count. In many cases, writers are encouraged to only use their computer word counts for daily production statistics.
And though a "word" being a set of characters surrounded by a space seems an obvious enough definition, which is not the case in publication or in pre-computer typing classes. The industry definition of a word has been generally accepted as every five spaces, whether it is a character or blank space. In recent years, however, many have revised that statistic at six spaces equally one "word". And to keep a writer from going through their manuscripts counting every space, an estimation formula was devised that is still in use today.
A typical 8.5 inch by 11 inch page contains twenty-five lines of typing when using double spacing and a 12 point font. The 12 point font provides ten characters per inch, which when divided by the accepted line length of 60 characters or six inches, gives the reason for a six character "word". This is all to say that with an average ten word line, a page is estimated to have 250 words - if your margins are set at one inch. If your margins are set at 1.25 inches, then you have an estimated 225 words on a page. 1.5 inch margins end up equaling 200 words a page.
This seems quick and easy, don't worry, it's not. This estimation method generally inflates a word count, because it assumes publishers are looking at the amount of space the manuscript will take up and counts blank space from short lines of dialog or paragraphs. Nor is this the only method of estimation for your word count.
There are almost as many methods as there are writers writing about them. Some go from the simple, such as counting two or three average pages of the manuscript and estimating the number of words on a page and then multiplying by the number of pages in the manuscript. Others are more complicated versions of the above estimation method, which has the writer coming up with number of words per page using the above method, then multiplying by the number of pages and then adding in any fractional pages.
These will give the writer something close to a good estimation, and still there's more. After the writer comes up with an estimated word count, that number is still rounded up to the nearest hundred. This is enough to make any new writer throw up their hands in disgust.
Word counts are obviously important, or the debate would be so heated. Why? Because, especially in short story and article work, a writer is paid by the word. A conscientious writer wants to be paid for all the words they have written, and depending on which formula is used that word count can either be close to twenty percent higher than the actual word count. This dilemma can either be seen as padding the word count to get more money out of the publisher or as cheating the writer out of precious words.
So what is a writer to do? Many believe the publishers will calculate their own word counts and pay accordingly and are generally looking for a base line for looking at the story, so many take their word processing count and round to the nearest hundred. The best advice, though, is before submitting to any publication, study the guidelines or ask. If the relationship is there, ask the publisher how they want the words counted. Some publishers seem to be going toward an actual word count, and any day now, a definition for "proper" and "standard" may come down through the industry. Until then, relax, pick the best formula for the situation, and continue with the more important job of writing.
Rhonda Eudaly lives in Fort Worth, Texas where she's worked in offices, banking, radio, live sound production, education, and has even dug ditches to support her writing habit and her cat, Dixon. She has a wide and varied publication history.