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To Courier or Not to Courier?

Some Thoughts on Manuscript Format


One of the most dreaded and most often repeated discussions on writing newsgroups and lists is the one that starts:

"Can't I use Arial or Trebuchet or Futura in my manuscript when I send it to an editor? Courier looks so boring and unprofessional!"

The short answer is:


But since this is usually is not persuasive enough for those who asked the question in the first place, here's the long answer:

Although the preference for Courier among editors stems from those days of yore when writers had to use typewriters, there are several practical reasons as well, the most important of which is that it is a monospaced font. That means that all the letters are the same width, which in turn means it's easier for typesetters to calculate how much space a story is going to fill up in a magazine. If you use 12 point Courier, double-spacing, and one inch margins all around, as every article and book dealing with manuscript format will tell you to do, you will have approximately 250 "words" (calculated as six characters) on each page, just like everyone else, and editors will know at a glance whether your story literally fits in this issue or the next.

Another reason I've heard that editors prefer Courier is because it's easier to edit. So the same reason many beginning writers don't like Courier -- because they think it looks like a draft -- is precisely one of the reasons editors value it. The manuscript looks like a manuscript, and mistakes are easier to catch.

I am not an editor, never have been an editor, and probably never will be an editor. But I have had to look at a lot of "manuscripts" (papers) in my day, and the analogy may perhaps make the importance of using Courier a bit more understandable. I taught English at several different universities, and I used to always spend a whole session each term telling my students what a page is supposed to look like, what a footnote is supposed to look like, and what a quotation is supposed to look like. I printed up and handed out excerpts from the MLA and Chicago Style manuals (both were acceptable). And every semester I recieved papers that had all of it wrong, even down to paragraph formatting.

So while on a purely theoretical level, it is only the content that counts, at the same time, things like manuscript format are usually standardized for a reason. Citations are standardized to allow the reader to find the information she wants quickly. Fiction submissions are standardized to allow editors to calculate space requirements quickly.

It's common courtesy to play by the rules. And as opposed to an editor, a professor is required to read the complete manuscript, no matter how irritated she is by the lack of respect the student shows her by ignoring everything in the guidelines she handed out. (There are a number of editors these days who will also accept Times New Roman, but before you send a manuscript, you might want to make sure your editor is one who does.) An editor who gets many manuscripts and has no obligation to read everything might just on a bad day decide he or she is uninterested in reading a manuscript in a patently incorrect format. It's not professional, it's a sign of a complete beginner, and if you don't wow the editor with a first sentence better than anything she's seen in a month, she's going to toss the 1.5- spaced Arial pretty fast, I bet.

For more details on how to format your story or novel, see Vonda McIntyre's, John Gregory Betancourt's or Chuck Rothman's articles on manuscript preparation.


Other pages of mine:

Villa Diodati Workshop | Clarion West 98 | Cutting Edges: Or, A Web of Women | Joe's Heartbeat in Budapest | The Aphra Behn Page | ECHO

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Ruth Nestvold, 2001.