When Formatting Attacks…

“Your cover letter is beautifully written, but it needs some different formatting – the punctuation marks come out as strange characters!”

This frightening message came to me in an email from a family friend. She had graciously allowed me to send her a copy of my cover letter, so she could give me feedback before I sent it on to a publisher. I thought she might make a few tweaks here and there – change a few sentences around, nothing major. I never expected her to tell me that my cover letter looked like alien symbols and gibberish!

Soon after this exchange, I came across an article detailing what happens to the formatting of a Microsoft Word document when you Copy and Paste it into the little “Compose” box of your email. To sum it up: bad things. VERY VERY Bad Things can happen when you C&P from Word into any web browser.

Luckily, I had sent this most recent cover letter to a friend first. But I’d already sent more than a dozen email cover letters in the past, without any idea that even though they looked perfectly normal on my screen, they looked dramatically different to the person receiving them.

And all this time, I thought I was doing a good thing by composing them in Word. I didn’t want to just dash off some sloppy cover letter right in my email. I wanted to pre-write the letter, perfect it, and print it off so others could read it and edit it for me, even if the letter was only five measly sentences.

(Side note: Just to be clear, sending an attachment in MS Word is totally fine. If you’re sending a story or even a cover letter as a .DOC or .DOCX attachment, it should look exactly as it’s supposed to, as long as that’s the format requested by the publisher. The problem only occurs when Copying and Pasting something from MS Word into the body of your email, be it a letter or even a whole story (yes, some publishers want your whole story in the body of the email).)

The solution:

There are several simple things you can do to make darn sure the content in the body of your email looks exactly as you intended. The easiest way is just to directly write your message in the “Compose” box of your email. This is the method I now use for very short cover letters and other succinct messages. For longer content, however, this would not be practical. (Who wants to re-type their whole 6,000-word zombie pirate adventure?) In the case of longer material, I would recommend Copying and Pasting from Word into Notepad, and then from Notepad into your email. (You will have to go through and redo all the italics, bolds, etc. in your email if you choose this method, because that formatting will be lost in Notepad.) The final safeguard: send the email to yourself or a friend before sending it to a publisher. You want to start off that writer-publisher relationship on the right foot – not the ugly alien foot with sixteen blue toes!

Last note: I wrote this post with full knowledge that most people are already completely aware of this issue. In fact, most people reading this post probably think I’m an idiot for not being aware of it. Nonetheless, for that one person who might not know, for that one poor soul who’s about to unwittingly send out an important query letter filled with wing-dings and squiggly lines, I decided to put this out there.

Hope it helps!

Keep writing and submitting!

-Gretchen

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