Thursday, February 27, 2014

Details Matter. Period.

Last week I wandered into an online discussion group, where I was intrigued by the question,

“I just found out that I’m supposed to use one space after a period instead of two. After typing one way for so many years, it seems silly to change. Do you think it’s important to follow this rule?”

A little background: The double-space convention was a product of the old days of manual typesetting (I will spare you the boring details). And with old-style typewriters that made all characters the same width, a double-space was deemed necessary to distinguish the end of a sentence. But now that almost all of us compose on computers that can make those adjustments automatically, the single-space is sufficient. Confused? Me too.
Me: “Um, yeah. The Chicago Manual of Style made this change close to twenty years ago, and almost all trade book publishers require their writers to follow it.”

She: “But I learned in high school typing class to use two spaces, and no one told me about the change. Would an agent or publisher really turn me down, just because I use a double-space?”

What do you think?

With that question, and with others to follow, she clearly missed the point. For several days, she continued to argue with everyone who tried to offer advice. She readily admitted that she didn’t have a writer’s group, or a mentor, or attend conferences, or own a library of writing reference books. So if she was so late to the party with the single-space thingy, there’s probably plenty more important things she doesn’t know. Not a good formula for success.

She was incredulous. Again and again she protested, refusing to believe that editors and agents might be so picky. “They should judge my work by the quality of my writing, not by such minor technical details!” She refused to admit that she has much to learn, or to recognize the dangers of willful ignorance.

But hold on for a moment. What exactly do you think constitutes “good writing?” And how will I recognize it when I see it?

We (most agents and acquisitions editors) review dozens of manuscripts each week. After all these years, our eyes have been trained to pick out what some would call the “minor technical details.” In just the first few seconds, without even trying, we can tell if you used the correct font, font size, paragraph indents, vertical spaces between lines and paragraphs, page margins, formatting, and numbers; header, footer, footnotes, and all the rest. (And yes, your spaces between sentences.) This will be our first impression of your work, and (forgive the cornball cliche) you'll never get another.  

We don’t just sign manuscripts, we sign people. We reflexively gauge your professionalism and presentation, before we care about your story. Good technical construction tells an agent that she won’t have to spend hours fixing your work, before sending it off to publishers. Good technical construction tells a publisher that he won’t have to spend thousands of payroll dollars fixing your work before it goes to print. And for those reasons, the technically compliant are the ones who get rewarded with reads, representation, and deals. Show me two equally good stories side by side, and I will choose the “compliant” one every time.

So do I agree with this new-ish protocol? Or do I like it? Honestly I have no opinion or preference here, and absolutely no interest in forming one. As a writer, I just want to know that my work is judged according the merits of my story, and not summarily dismissed because of the knucklehead stuff that's soooo easy to avoid. As an agent, I have that same expectation of my clients.

Surely, the publishing world has no want of writers. No shortage of stories. No paucity of poets. It’s a buyer’s market that breaks a thousand hearts with rejections before gladdening one with a contract offer. What we need, is for those ambitious authors to learn. To want to learn. To make a sober assessment of their place in the publishing world, which will neither reward their sloppiness nor allow them entry on their own terms.


  1. I was just having this conversation with my family the other day at dinner. They decided that since they aren't in the writing field, they'll stick with the two spaces.

  2. I'm editing novel #23...frequently wonder how many things I haven't gleaned from the CMOS yet. I love it when I find simple typos, like poteet instead of petite.

    I should cozy up with CMOS every night. Ahem.

  3. YIKES. I sent in an article today. Now that you mentioned it I forgot to auto-replace Two spaces for one space. Yep, I am old enough that was still normal when I learned to type too. But at least I will replace them before I mail it. . . . When I remember. Awfully good chance that article will get nixed.

  4. Your point, Steve, is that double spaces are signals to the editor of hundreds, maybe thousands, of other little details that the person got wrong. And since "he who is faithful in the little things will be faithful in the bigger things," editors are not surprised to find that such material that fails in details also fails in larger problems, such as wordiness, pointlessness, errors of fact, leaps in logic, and so on.