When I posted the contest, I asked for standard manuscript format. Only three writers were in the ball park and only one hit a home run. Now, for the purpose of my contest, I didn't take points away for this but it did come into consideration when I was deciding between first and second place. Anyway, since so many got it wrong, I thought I'd take some time on this in the critiques.
So why is standard manuscript format important?
Scenario 1: I didn't know.
This is Jim. He's living at his sister's house while he gets back on his feet. His aspirations are obtainable. He just wants to serve you fries and a hamburger. His sister tells him, "If you'd put your pants McDonald's will hire you."
He blinks at his sister and asks, "What are pants?"
"How the *&^%! do you not know what pants are!" His sister shouts.
A writer who doesn't know standard manuscript format is a like a guy in his mid 30's who has managed to get through life without knowing what a pair of pants are. The information is out there. A Google search for "short story manuscript format" will turn up lots of information. Now, some of the information is different, but it's better to show up for an interview in brown pants, than not pants at all.
Scenario 2. My writing will speak for itself.
This is Laura. She used to be the CEO of a fortune five hundred company. But hard times hit, and she burned through her golden parachute. The bank recently repossessed her Ferrari and now she needs a car. To get a car she needs a job. She just had an interview with Papa John's Pizza for district supervisor.
During the interview, the VP said, " So your resume` looks great. It's better than most. I'm just curios. Why didn't you wear pants? "
Laura shrugged. "I didn't feel I needed them. My work history will speak for itself."
Good writing does speak for itself, but let me ask, how easy do you think Laura will be to work with? Editors must balance the needs of the publication against the needs of the writer against the needs of the audience. When you ignore guidelines, you could send a message to the editor that you're hard to work with.
Scenario 3. I'm just following the crowd.
This is Kim. Everyone in her family agreed that dressing like a vampire for a role as a vampire was a great idea. With a little research, Kim would realized this was a bad idea. Instead, she walked out on stage and the director shouted "Next!"
"But I didn't audition."
"Did you read the ad?"
"Yes. It said street clothes but my mother said this was a great idea."
Because people close to Kim supported her idea, she decided to ignore the casting call. Submission guidelines can be confusing and there's a lot of misinformation floating around. But part of your job is figuring out what's correct. The best way to do that is by reading a lot of submission guidelines. If you read enough of them, you'll notice that 97% want standard format, you'll learn what that is, and also get an understanding of some special things you'll commonly be asked to do. Never put the advise of your, mother, your best friend or your writer's group above the publication. The people who pay you are the only ones you should listen to.
There are a thousand reasons why authors get this wrong but I don't need to write them all down to make my point. The condition of your manuscript sets the editors expectations and tells the editor a lot about who you are and how important this is to. And look, even I screw this up. I recently got rejected because a sent .doc instead of an .rtf =(