How (and why) to hand in a “clean manuscript”

Photo: Airborne84

There are two ways you can hand off your manuscript to the publisher: in a tidy and well-organized way, or in a screaming, error-filled rush.

Not surprisingly, you should try for the former.

What it means to hand in a clean manuscript

When I handed over my latest book to the publisher, he called it a “clean manuscript.” I felt like I’d gotten a gold star in my first-grade classroom. But this isn’t about getting a pat on the head — it’s about making sure the people working on your book can do a high-quality job without the glitches that tend to introduce errors.

Here’s what it means to hand in a clean manuscript:

  • The text is in a single Microsoft Word file. (Word is still publishers’ preference for working with text.)
  • The manuscript is complete. It includes not just chapters but any other text material, such as prefaces, introductions, forewords, acknowledgments, “About the author,” and sidebars.
  • There are no missing bits: places where the text says “Quote to come,” “Will figure this out later,” or other placeholders for work you put off and forgot about.
  • All the body text is in the same font and type size, preferably something easy to read, like Times New Roman.
  • The formatting is clear and consistent. That means you’ve used Microsoft Word styles to indicate chapter titles, section headings, subheadings, bullets, numbered lists, block quotes, figure captions, and any other structural elements. It also means:
    • There is only one space, not two, after periods and other sentence-ending punctuation. (Yes, this is easy to fix globally, but fixing it can introduce other errors.)
    • There are no blank lines after paragraphs. Space out your paragraphs by adding space after the “Normal” style.
    • There are no tabs at the start of paragraphs or anywhere else in the manuscript. The publisher’s page layout software won’t translate tabs in a way that’s consistent.
    • There are no hard line breaks or page breaks (the publisher won’t know what you’re trying to do with those).
    • You use italics, not bold or underline, to indicate emphasis.
    • There are no hypertext links in the text.
  • All your footnotes or endnotes are in the text in the proper places and in the proper format.
  • You’ve included a note to explain any special formatting, like recurring, unusual design elements.
  • You’ve delivered any graphics on files separately from the text file. Unless you and the publisher have agreed that the publisher will render the graphics, you’ve arranged for them to be created by a graphic designer in a consistent format. It’s best to deliver a list of graphics along with the graphics files so it’s easy to keep track of them. Graphics files should be
    • Black-and-white, assuming the book is printed in one color.
    • In the highest possible resolution.
    • In EPS, JPG, PNG, or TIFF format.
    • Named consistently with the figure numbers in the text, so it’s clear what graphics go where.
    • Optionally, also pasted into the manuscript in the appropriate spot, but “FPO” (for position only) — that is, the publisher will use the separate files, not the pasted graphics, in the actual page layout.
  • Tables are in the manuscript as text, rather than delivered as graphics files.
  • In any case where you use copyrighted material from other sources (graphics or extended blocks of text, for example), you’ve obtained permission to use the copyrighted material from the copyright holder.
  • You’ve verified all facts and quotations. Where you agreed to do so, you’ve checked that material with original sources to make sure you haven’t misrepresented people’s words.

Why a clean manuscript matters

Your manuscript isn’t just your book’s text. It’s a way of communicating your intentions to page layout professionals. If you are clear and consistent, the page layout is far more likely to reflect those intentions for headings, graphics, and other layout elements. This means you can spend your time getting the pages perfect, rather than having imprecise conversations — often moderated by a production person and an editor — whining about why it doesn’t look the way you expected.

The time to deal with all the persnickety little details like permissions and footnotes is before you hand in the manuscript. Anything you leave until afterwards is going to disrupt the flow of the production group. Anything you don’t get right before you hand in the manuscript won’t get properly copy edited and therefore, might introduce errors that slip through and get published. Such problems can also cause delays and make you miss your publication date — and the publisher is within their rights to charge you for problems you cause that generate extra work on their end.

Consider the fact that you need to do this all this work one way or another, from footnotes to graphics to permissions. You can do it before you hand in the manuscript, in which case it won’t gum up the process. Or you can wait and attempt to do the same work later, and run the risk of introducing errors and delays during the production process as you finish things in a panic.

The key to turning in a clean manuscript is preparation

When there are problems with a manuscript, the usual conversation goes like this:

Author: I didn’t know I had to do that stuff.

Publisher: Well, we can’t go forward until you do. So take care of it, right now, or we’ll miss the schedule.

Since you’ve read this far, you officially have no excuse. Now that you know everything you need to do, you can plan for it. Which, as it turns out, is far more efficient anyway.

Here’s what that means:

  • Get used to formatting your text like a real author while you’re writing it (one space after a period, heads styled with heading styles, and so on), so you don’t have to fix it later.
  • If anyone needs to approve your text — like your boss — get them to read it at least three weeks before it’s due to the publisher.
  • Verify all facts at two weeks before the manuscript due date. If you delegate this task to others, allow four or five weeks.
  • Check all quotes with subjects two to three weeks before the manuscript due date. People sometimes need a week or two to review material before they can get back to you.
  • Set aside time in the last two to three weeks to verify all footnotes.
  • Don’t leave graphics to the last minute; consider where and how you will get a high-resolution version of each one, and keep final versions in a folder where you can easily get at them or share them.

Simply put: plan ahead for all these manuscript requirements, and you’ll be fine. Ignore them, and you’ll be panicked — and your book will suffer the consequences.

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