Manager Monday: Four Bad Habits You Learned in High School English Class (Acquisitions)

As co-manager of the Ooligan Press acquisitions department, I work on the frontline of the press, fielding new submissions from authors every day. This can be a fun and exciting job—I love the thrill of reading a great proposal and imagining we might someday publish that book—but it can also be frustrating to see writers insert simple formatting mistakes into their manuscript that degrade the quality of an otherwise interesting submission. I know the culprit of these mistakes, and we’ve all been there: high school English class.

The thing about high school English is it teaches you to write academic essays, not novels and short stories. Correct formatting for academic writing rarely overlaps with that for creative writing, and you can polish your manuscript significantly by correcting these four bad habits.

    1. Double spacing after sentences. This holdover from the days when papers were written on typewriters just won’t die. The monospace letters of typewriter fonts meant each typed character had the same amount of space around it, including the period. This made a single space after a period harder to detect, so a double space was used to clearly delineate the end of a sentence. Now papers and novels are written on computers with digital fonts that integrate variable spacing around each character to increase readability, rendering the double space obsolete. It’s not the end of the world if you use it, but you can save your editors some eye rolling and time by correcting this habit yourself.
    1. Avoiding contractions. I’ve never understood what about contractions makes them so inappropriate for academic writing, but those are the rules in that arena. In creative writing, however, contractions only help your readers—especially in dialogue. True Grit has already been written, and Charles Portis did a fine job of it, so please use contractions in at least 99 percent of situations in your manuscript.
    1. Long paragraphs. The standard rule in academic writing is paragraphs should be five to seven sentences long, but in a novel that can add up to practically a whole page. Keeping your narrative paragraphs to three or four sentences tops and breaking all dialogue out as a separate paragraph will keep your readers’ eyes moving quickly down the page.
  1. “One” as a pronoun. The avoidance of biased, informal language in academic writing requires the use of “one” as a pronoun instead of the perfectly adequate “you.” In creative writing, this sounds stodgy and aloof. There’s nothing wrong with the unaltered first-, second-, or third-person perspective in novels and short stories, so go nuts with using “I,” “you,” and “they”—your English teacher isn’t here.

None of these bad habits will doom an otherwise strong submission to Ooligan Press (or likely any other publisher), but recognizing the difference between academic writing and creative writing gives your style more authority and will save your editors some formatting headaches.

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