Saturday, February 5, 2011

The "two spaces" "controversy," and other notes on manuscript format

I was going to comment on this on my Live Journal instead of here, but it occurred to me that it might be edifying to writers who write for M-Brane SF. First, read this article by Farhad Manjoo on Slate about why one should never, ever EVAR! use two spaces after a period (or "full stop," as folks in some of the other Englishes prefer to call it). While the information in it is largely correct and even mildly interesting, it does make me wonder exactly why this is such a big damned deal, for Manjoo's essay on this topic is not by any stretch the first screed on two-spacing I have seen in the last year or two. It pops up all the time. Editors and writers rant about it on Twitter. Embarrassed, degraded two-spacers apologize for it and try to change their silly old ways. And it seems that when this topic arises, it is not sufficient to just point out that it's an outmoded typing convention that held sway during the manual typewriter era, and that it's preferable to not do it anymore. No: the people who still do it are not merely stuck in an old habit or ignorant of the new correct convention, they are actually frakking jackasses, they are destroying the world of typography, and they may as well stick their heads in their ovens in a state of abject shame.

Let me tell you something: Every single month when I format M-Brane SF, after I have all the edited story docs compiled into a single file, I do a two-second find/replace operation telling the word processor to find double spaces after "full stops" (jeebus, I can't get used to that term) and to replace them with single spaces. And each time, I get a report from the word processor that says something like "Word has finished searching and made 876 replacements." That's a lot replacements in the 20 or 30 thousand words of text that usually comprise an issue of M-Brane SF. The 876 number is just an example, but it is always in the hundreds. Which means that many, if not most, of the manuscripts that were the source documents for an M-Brane issue were originally typed by those bloody, scurrilous two-spacers. I do not look back to figure out who the offenders were. I do not care, because it took me two seconds to fix all of them. I, like most publishers, have a typographic house "style" which I apply to all text that I publish, but I do not expect my writers to somehow know all the details of this and send me manuscripts complying with it. Just as I do not care if they two-space, I do not flip my lid when they use double hyphens instead of dashes. I just fix it it another quick find/replace maneuver. I don't even fret about how nearly everyone uses paragraph tab indents that are way too deep, a wholly unsightly full half-inch. I just fix it. It's part of my job.

[An aside: It strikes me as funny that there are probably more than a few of my colleagues who bristle at the two-spacers but who still ask to see manuscripts in 12pt Courier. Talk about out-dated: this is the very font that caused the whole two-space-after-the-full-stop problem in the first place! Really, y'all, the whole "standard manuscript format" convention, while it has its advantages as an industry standard, is wholly based on outmoded typewriter-era stuff. Why double-space the lines? It sure as hell does not make it easy to read on screen. It's so someone can go at a paper copy of it with a pencil and write notes to the typographer on it. Here, there is never a paper copy of anything except when someone buys one of our finished print books.]

If I were going to be a serious pain in the ass about this kind of stuff, here are a few things that I'd like to see no more of in submissions to my magazine:

1) Use of sans serif fonts such as Helvetica, etc. Look at a "real" book (ie. a print or even most electronic ones produced by a major publisher) or a professionally-produced print magazine, or even one of the more nicely designed webzines, such as Rudy Rucker's Flurb (deliberate that the example of Flurb to which I linked is Adam Callaway's story; I really enjoyed it). You will find almost nowhere long-form stuff printed in sans serif fonts (except in small press books, more on that in a second). Since M-Brane is presented primarily as a PDF, and since its content gets printed in book form in the Quarterlies, I eschew sans serif fonts for body text. Because it makes it look like it's supposed to be something brief on a computer screen. These fonts are favored for online uses because they tend to be readily readable at even very small sizes (such as in those tiny little notes on Facebook and Twitter where they tell you where and when an update originated), and they are fine for short blocks of text. For long stuff, or anything printed, they are kind of unsightly. (By the way, I had a short story published last year in a print book which used throughout a sans serif font (and way-too-deep paragraph indents). This is common micro-press error, and it makes me wonder why, even if you are an amateur (like me), you can't just look at what someone pro has done again and again and make it more like that).

2) Formatting a manuscript in "web" style, with no paragraph indents and double spaces between paragraphs (like the way this blog post looks). Again, this is a convention for online stuff, and I don't object to those applications of it. But my magazine and my books do not look like this, and never will. It's ugly in print. Look at a "real" book. It's not formatted like that. But since so many of my fellow publishers actually want to see submissions formatted in this style because it probably makes it easier for them to transfer them to their websites, I just live with it. This is one thing, however, that is not always just a two-second fix for me. It varies depending on how much embedded bugginess is in the writer's source file, and sometime I have fought with it a bit.

3) Emphasis indicated by underlining or, gods forbid, bold text. This is an also an outmoded typewriter convention, because generally one could not change font style on a typewriter. When I was a high school journalism kid in the just-barely-pre-computer days, we indicated font style for the typographer (who worked on a fancy electronic Xerox MemoryWriter) with underlines and squiggly underlines, etc., on paper manuscripts. But those days are long gone. Like most people, I print emphasized words and things like internal monologue in italics, and it would make my life a lot easier if they were that way in the first place when I get to the point of preparing a story for publication. I'm not in the typing biz, yo. When your story is accepted, it is literally the document that you sent me, with edits and format changes, that is used to create the final printed version, and the fewer old typewritery traits it bears, the better. But again, I know that for some reason many of my colleagues want emphasis to be indicated by underlining. In my humble opinion, they are acting like the two-space-after-a-period crowd and they need to enter fully the post-typewriter age.

But none of these biases will, by themselves, deny a submitter a fair reading and possible publication. These problems are too pervasive to contain now anyway. I am used to it all, and I accept that it is my job to make M-Brane's text look the way I want it to look (classy).

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karen wester newton said...

The voice of reason! I work for a publisher and our typesetting software is set to compress all multiple word spaces into one.

Some people need to chill.

Ed Robertson said...

Good thing Chris is reasonable. Everything I've submitted to him has been in two-spaced Helvetica. (Sans serif fonts make edits/revision much easier for me. Maybe the fact my manuscript doesn't look like a book frees me to blow it up when necessary.)

I'm happy to be educated that standards have changed since they taught us the two-space thing in school, but it's hard to give that Slate article much gravity when it reads like paid trolling.

Christopher Fletcher said...

Indeed, Karen. Some people need to chill.

Ed, your stuff is generally so good that I know that I will probably not reject it after one or two pages, so before I even start reading it, I convert it into a style easier on my eyes ;)

Rick Novy said...

I learned to type in 1978. Two spaces after a period is so ingrained I don't think about it. If I have to think about putting only one space after the period, I can't write because I'm not thinking about story. The writer's job is to write, the editor's job is to edit.

Christopher Fletcher said...

Agreed, Rick. I think I started being a typer in 1983, on a manual which I always for some reason liked better than the electric that I got in 1988. But I was never instructed in how to type, never took the class in school or had anyone tell me how to do it. But I knew the two-space rule anyway and always used it. But I somehow quit doing that without being told. I don't really care about it much at all because the presence of that second space is not that noticeable in print in proportional fonts anyway. But I have adapted to the over-the-top insistence that all two-spacing MUST DIE with my find/replace routine when I edit M-Brane.

Brandon Bell said...

What Rick said! I actually did taking typing in school (because I thought it would be a good way to meet chicks and an easy A... ah, I was half right) and I am a two-spacer all the way. And I underline for emphasis. All this is what I think of as 'standard manuscript format', however outmoded some of it may be. On the good side, I've realized the wisdom of writing everything in txt instead of a particular word processor format, so if I do have to put a story into some picky modification of standard, it's the same amount of work.

What _can_ be irksome (and that's my shorthand to myself when writing in txt that I want to underline a word, lol) is having to create two, three, four different versions of a story to meet convoluted standards for various markets.

If someone has put their work into something that seems like a reasonable interpretation of 'standard format'... I'm happy over at FU. :)


Seth Marlin said...

So I've been a two-spacer more or less my entire life. In recent years, moved more toward fonts like Courier and Georgia; realized my work looked jacked up and couldn't figure out why. Then someone brought this whole deal to my attention, and things changed. Looks so much better now.

That said, I do agree with your position here. Edit > Find > Replace is my friend, and frankly I'd have never thought to seek out individual spaces with that function, so you just wound up as my new hero, Chris. Mazel tov.



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