Writing as a hobby and writing to be published—whether that is by yourself or through a publisher—can be separated by one task that the hobbyist can disregard completely: paying attention to formatting details. These are the little things that separate writing for yourself and writing for others to read. As someone who writes to be published, this is the final step before I send my work anywhere, but I try to integrate it into my writing process throughout.
When you write for your own amusement, it will not matter to you that a comma is not where it should be or an apostrophe is out of place (unless you are some kind of grammar-obsessive, of course). Editors, publishers, agents, proof-readers, even the end reader, all expect a certain standard when it comes to these little details, however. Despite often not realising it, readers are used to a set of rules when it comes to the written word. Subconsciously they know what should and shouldn’t be, which is why there are so many comments about Cormac McCarthy’s lack of speech marks (and most other types of punctuation) in the reviews of his novels. Professionals who work in the publishing industry consciously look for these things, so are even more alert to difference. Whilst they will understand—and potentially even praise—brave and deliberate choices like McCarthy’s purposeful ignoring of quotation marks, they will not tolerate what will be deemed as sloppy grammar and a lack of attention to detail.
If you are planning on or even considering submitting your writing to any kind of publication—whether that’s a print magazine, an online publisher, an agent, an indie press, a journal, a self-publishing platform, or anything between or around or even in the same neighbourhood—or you are planning on self-publishing it (even if that is just on your own website or blog) you need to make sure your formatting is correct.
There are basic rules that need to be followed when it comes to writing. You may have capitalised the start of sentences and understand what a semi-colon is, but most of the common mistakes I see when reading the work of others are more subtle than those. Their mistakes often occur around speech.
“I see the problem” she said.
Do you see it? There should be a comma in there, before the dialogue tag, like this:
“I see the problem,” she said.
As insignificant as that comma appears, it still needs to be in the right place at the right time. Once you might get away with, as any editor or proof-reader worth their salt will spot it. Twice, perhaps. But if you have made that mistake on every line of dialogue, your submitted manuscript will very quickly be making its way to the bin and a pre-formatted rejection response will be on its way to you.
The other issue with speech is more obvious, and that is the right things in the wrong order.
“They are the usual suspects”, I replied.
The comma is there this time, but not where it should be. It might as well be in the middle of a word, for all the good it’s doing hanging off the end of that line of dialogue. It needs to be inside the quotation, like this:
“They are the usual suspects,” I replied.
Whether you force yourself to put the right punctuation in as you write, or you go back through and correct it all at the end, make sure you double-check once you are finished to be certain it is all perfect.
The next problem is a lot harder to see without a trained eye, but if you know what to look for you will spot it.
There was something very wrong.
Whilst that line may appear acceptable at first, especially in print, here is how it appears when you show the nonprinting characters:
Displayed like this it is incredibly obvious that the double-space between something and very should not be there.
Finding errors like this can be tricky with the naked eye, but there is a handy tool in most word processors to help. Firstly, spelling and grammar checks should highlight double-spaces and other punctuation errors, allowing you to fix them. Then, there is a button that looks like this: ¶
Click it and all the non-printing characters appear, allowing you to see the typeset. Old printing presses would be set by hand, with each letter of a word pushed into the row and then the space after. These days digital printing and modern technology have made that job redundant, save for a handful of niche presses that continue the tradition, but the principle still remains: the typeset must be correct as it is the template that will be used.
I would highly recommend asking someone to proofread your writing. Whether you bring your work to a writers’ group, or you share it with a friend or relative, or ask a fellow writer to help, get someone to check it for you. People are generally decent; they like to help, and most will do if you ask them nicely. Once you have had it proofed, and you have gone through it again, and you are absolutely sure it is without error, then you have reached the point where you should start submitting it to publications, magazines, websites, and so on. It might be the last step, but many pieces fall first from lack of attention to detail. Don’t miss out on an opportunity because you didn’t bother to check.