Several years ago, a student writer asked for my opinion on why her poem had been rejected. I hesitated. Poetry is not my area of expertise. I rarely read the stuff. But being her writing instructor, I relented. She handed me a purple page (literally, printed on purple paper) with the poem formatted down the center and in a nearly unreadable font. I asked her if this was how her submitted copy looked. I guess she picked up on the shock in my voice because she gave a meek, "Well...probably."
Tip: a simple formatting mistake can kill a submission before it's even read.
To be honest, I don't remember what my student's poem was about, only that she hadn't followed basic formatting guidelines. She wasn't the first or the last to take such creative measures, some in an attempt to impress, some to conserve paper. Because I set a 10-page limit on what a student may turn in per week, some will choose a tiny font size, hoping to squeeze 15 pages of text onto those 10 pages. I used to let it slide. At least they're writing, I told myself. Then I realized that many of these people were serious about selling their work and I wasn't doing them any favors by allowing their unprofessionalism (nor did my tired eyes appreciate it!).
Agent, author, speaker Noah Lukeman, President of Lukeman Literary Management Ltd., gives this advice in his best-seller The First Five Pages: A Writer's Guide to Staying out of the Rejection Pile (Simon & Schuster, 1999): "Don't let something as petty as formatting prevent you from being taken seriously. Agents and editors don't view someone who shies from the standards as unique or unusual, they view him as a nuisance, insensitive to their wishes. Your creativity should be expressed through your writing, not your font."
More recommended titles by Noah Lukeman:
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The Plot Thickens: Eight Ways to Bring Fiction to Life
How to Land (and Keep) a Literary Agent
A Dash of Style: The Art and Mastery of Punctuation