space cadets return

Greetings, O Queen of Snarkdom,

It looks like you’ve started something.

On the heels of the COM, Anne Mini over at “Author! Author!” has been presenting a very helpful overview on how to write a well-formed query letter. Her tips have been helpful, and have led me a fifth or sixth meaningful revision of my query and hook, but one bit of advice left me puzzled. Under the heading of “standard mistakes that send agents screaming into the night,” she says:

“I’ve literally never seen this advice given elsewhere, but it is a fact: to people in the publishing industry (and the magazine industry as well, I’m told), business format – be it in a letter or a manuscript – looks illiterate. And that’s the last thing you want to convey to someone you expect to take your writing seriously.

“Indent EVERY paragraph the regulation five spaces. (Yes, in your manuscript, too. If you don’t know why this is an automatic rejection offense, please see the FORMATTING MANUSCRIPTS category at right.) Single-space the letter, and have the date and the signature halfway across the page.”

I’m puzzled: business format looks illiterate? I know that you’ve said time and again, “Formatting doesn’t matter: it’s the writing,” but are you alone in this opinion? Is there a secret cabal of indentation-loving, business-letter-shredding agents in New York just waiting to be addressed chummily by a new author? Is a 5-space indent the secret handshake that will usher me into the inner sanctum so that my work can be judged on its merit?

I don’t want to obsess over minutiae, which is what this feels like. On the other hand, I don’t want to pull the agent-querying equivalent of walking around Times Square with a tour map and an “I Heart NY” shirt on. So what’s the verdict? Is this a great insider tip, or could you and your fellow agents care less about they way I format my paragraphs?

Well, I think this is crazy. I don't care about much except the very very basic things: use a font I can read, double space your pages, and don't print on both sides. I don't care if you print on the diagonal (sure, I notice, but who cares?).

I'm MUCH more concerned with your spelling and syntax than your spacing.

I'm MUCH more interested in what you have to say than your indents.

Writers obsess about things that would be amusing if they weren't so crazy.

And just as a rule of thumb, don't believe anyone who says "agents do this, or editors do that" unless they are actually yanno editors and agents. Writers who tell you how to get published are usually telling you how THEY got published and one size does not fit all.


McKoala said...

I've just found Anne Mini too and I can't believe the level of detail that she goes into. It's stressful just reading her blog. My furry brain can't cope.

Becca said...

Several of the agents I have queried have specified on their websites that queries must be formatted as a business letter. Anne Mini's main point seems to be "Follow the instructions."

So do. Find out what the agent you are querying wants, and do that. Duh.

Don said...

It kind of looks like Anne Mini is a bit confused about this. It's not quite at the level of thinking that you should double-space your letter, but I've never heard this said of query letters ever. And I'm with Miss Snark, you care what editors and agents say more than what authors say (which is why the only two writing books i've ever read have been written by an editor and an agent. Hell, just the window on the slush pile that the CoM or occasional slush posts elsewhere represent is a view that no writer can ever give because we just don't see all the stuff that other people do.

Anonymous said...

I just read a few pages of her advice on querying, and there were a few places where it didn't seem like her advice was quite on the mark.

Oh, well. She's published; I'm not. And there's quite a bit in there that is useful to think about, regardless.

Just Me said...

"Writers obsess about things that would be amusing if they weren't so crazy.

And just as a rule of thumb, don't believe anyone who says 'agents do this, or editors do that' unless they are actually yanno editors and agents. Writers who tell you how to get published are usually telling you how THEY got published and one size does not fit all."

Oh gawd, Miss Snarkissima. You are - as usual - spot on. Write on, lovely lady!

Anonymous said...

Sounds like one of those "this works for me" kind of "rules" that I've seen other authors come up with. An author knows what worked for him or her, and may over-generalize that set of "rules" to the point of believing that they are hard-and-fast industry rules.

Besides, the advice I've heard more universally is that a submission to a publishing house is a business proposition. Of course you want to appear professional.

Christopher M. Park said...

Writers who tell you how to get published are usually telling you how THEY got published and one size does not fit all.

That's definitely true. My favorite author is Orson Scott Card, and he is very knowledgeable about a lot of things, and certainly very smart. However, if you look on his website, his advice on how to get an agent is (I'm paraphrasing) "don't bother until you have an offer on your book from the editor. Then quickly send a note to a number of agents informing them of your decision."

Strangely, that's not even how he got published. I mean, he had connections from publishing short stories with Ben Bova.

Anyway, my point is not to smash Card (far from it), but just to note that he, like many published authors, seems a little disconnected from some of the current realities of getting published if you haven't been already.

I trust an author's pov when it comes to anything writing related, but I trust the agents and editors when it comes to publishing. That's why we all love Miss Snark!


My blog on writing

Stacia said...

I don't know the lady or her advice, so I'm not saying anything against her, but I question the idea that standard business format "looks illiterate" to anyone. Even if people in publishing don't use the format (which is a surprise to me), surely they're aware it exists?

Anonymous said...

There's a reason people who write are sometimes considered bonkers...

Anonymous said...

Sooo many different kinds of business letters, sooooo little time to learn them all.

Back in the day, I learned two formats. Both were single spaced, double space between paragraphs. One had the sender's info on the right margin, the addressee's information and salutation on the left margin, the paragraphs indented a half-inch, and the signature in the middle

The other had sender's info, addressee's info, salutation, paragraphs (no indents), and signature all on the left margin.

I'm sure there are other types. I personally use the second in all my business, including agent submissions. For me, it's one less thing I have to think about. That's a good thing these days.

But anyone who claims there is "one true way" to do something--they send up huge red flags for me, and I actually trust their information less. Now if they say there's "one true way--for me", I'm far more inclined to listen.

Anonymous said...

This sounds as if it came from The Stepford Wives' handbook.

Anonymous said...

Yeah, that's a bit odd. I use business style in letters, and so do most of the other editors I work with.

I wouldn't really like to see a manuscript longer than a picture book in business format, but as long as it's readable it doesn't really matter. If I like it, once I decide to acquire it and I get the electronic copy, I'm just going to put it the way I want it anyway. No manuscript comes in perfectly formatted.

Bernita said...

Business form is "illiterate"?

Anonymous said...

Bernita the beautiful summed it up for me:

Business form is "illiterate"? WTF?

B.E. Sanderson said...

That is about the weirdest writing advice I've heard yet. Surely she can't really mean business format = can't read. I thought writers were supposed to be careful about word usage. Maybe she meant 'gauche' or 'uninformed'. I'd even buy 'inept'.

Thanks for the heads-up, MS. You've alerted me and others to another site we should avoid. =oD

Zany Mom said...

It's been over two years since I first queried and I'm amazed at the changes since then (e-queries, e-submissions, etc) and that more agents are more visible on the web than they used to be (at least back then when I was searching and googling and coming up empty). Blogs?? Don't remember reading any.

Times change. Must keep up!

Anonymous said...

Huh? I was an editor for six years, and I've written a book published by Random House. My impression is just the opposite -- that indented paragraphs and (especially) two spaces after a period drive people crazy.

Tina said...

If anyone -sender or receiver- is obsessing over indent spacing in a perfectly legible submission package, they have totally lost the plot.

This is A. Mini myopia problem.

tt_rage said...

Read enough books and websites on the subject and you are bound to encounter conflicting advice on how to query. However, the one thing they all seem to agree on is that agents and authors all look for something that makes it easy to dismiss a submission, and that's what drives writers towards paranoid obsessive compulsion. The kind-but-vague rejection letters that get sent out is like dropping jet fuel on the burning oil refinery. The agent/editor might have rejected it because of the writing, but MAYBE they rejected it because I put four spaces in my paragraph indent instead of five, or because I used Courier instead of Times New Roman.

We're all trying to find the way to beat the system, to get the recipient to judge the work on it's merits rather than whether we wrote the number as 42 instead of forty-two.

I firmly believe - well, I have to believe - that there's an editor out there who will see past the double-spaced query letter and the underlined/italicised emphases and say "I need some pap to plug this hole in my release schedule. This one'll do."

Anonymous said...

But... but... but... it IS a business letter! Why would people be offended by getting a business letter in business format? My head hurts!