Agents & Editors Recommend

A dependable source of professional and creative advice, this weekly series features anecdotes, insights, tips, recommended reading and viewing for writers, and more from leading agents and editors.

Julia Kardon of HG Literary


Whether you write fiction or nonfiction, you are writing into a market that has been built on top of a canon created primarily by cisgender, heterosexual white men. It can be challenging to rid oneself of perceived obligation to the white gaze, yet I find that many writers, especially (but not only) those from marginalized communities, find themselves freed when they refuse to capitulate to that pressure. The publishing industry can be shortsighted in its vision of what kind of books will be best-sellers.

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Lee Oglesby of Milkweed Editions


I’m not very interested in being a stickler for rules of grammar or style. Grammarians in publishing often wield dictionaries and style guides to rigorously uphold a fairly arbitrary set of rules that distinguish acceptable writing from writing that needs to be “corrected.” There’s more than a little hint of classism and racism in these editing practices. 

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Adam Eaglin of the Cheney Agency


There is a book that was recommended to me by Elyse Cheney, the founder of my literary agency, that I’ve now found myself frequently recommending to both writers and younger colleagues alike—Follow the Story: How to Write Successful Nonfiction (Simon & Schuster, 1998) by James B. Stewart. Stewart’s reputation as a writer and journalist precedes him, but there is a very basic and core insight from the book that I return to again and again when I’m discussing prospective project ideas with writers.

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Peter Blackstock of Grove Atlantic


“Show, don’t tell” is the writing mantra I think I’d most like to dismantle. It implies a reader is familiar with what is shown, that fiction should allow readers to call on personal experiences to self-identify with a character, rather than encourage them to learn about a truly different reality. I think of a realtor showing an apartment—sweeping you from beautifully staged room to room, but without giving you any understanding of or belief in the lives of the people who call that apartment home.

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Danielle Bukowski of Sterling Lord Literistic


There are a lot of literary agents out there today; many have offered excellent advice within these pages! But a plethora of choices can be overwhelming: To which agents should you submit and, if you’re lucky enough to get multiple offers, which agent should you pick? My advice, when you’re submitting and once you receive a representation offer (or several), is to trust your gut. This is ideally a long-term professional relationship. There are many ways of being a successful literary agent. But what do you, specifically, as a writer, want out of that relationship?

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Lauren Rosemary Hook of the Feminist Press


I consider myself incredibly lucky to work at a publishing house like the Feminist Press, a nonprofit founded in 1970 to advance feminist voices from around the world. Everything we do is based on our mission, including our acquisitions, and so I don’t have to justify my editorial choices based on the bottom line. Instead, I think about how a book fits into our mission to create a world where everyone sees themselves in a book, and I discuss the project with the whole team. Over the years, I’ve taken on many authors who experienced their fair share of rejection and unsolicited advice.

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Michelle Tessler of Tessler Literary Agency


Writing and revising by pen and keyboard are givens, but reading your work aloud while revising is equally valuable. Readers will likely find your writing inviting if it sounds good. Reading aloud enables you to hear if the dialogue between your characters has punch and personality, and to suss out awkward sentences that don’t flow. It will give you a sense of how fluid your storytelling is, and perhaps give you insight into whether you’re doing a good job modulating plot, scene-setting, dialogue, and character development.

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Liza St. James of NOON and Transit Books


I’m a fan of dictionaries and especially thesauruses (thesauri, if you like): bilingual and multilingual, scientific and technical, colloquial and slang. I also love glossaries, encyclopedias, maps, almanacs, guidebooks, cookbooks—reference texts of all kinds. Calling on different lexicons can contribute to a desired texture. A specific referent or precise detail can lend authority. Changing one word in a sentence can alter not only the meaning of the sentence but the feeling of the sentence, the tone and the rhythm of the sentence—and in turn, those around it.

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Kent Wolf of Neon Literary


My number-one go-to rule for aspiring fiction writers is the following: A great writer is first and foremost a great reader. If you’re serious about your craft, you’re immersing yourself in the prose of fellow writers. At a conference a couple of years ago, I asked a would-be novelist to name a few of her favorite novels. Her response: “OH, I DON’T LIKE TO READ FICTION.” Don’t be that person.

Kent Wolf of Neon Literary

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Jess Zimmerman of Electric Literature


When I was teaching freshman writing to undergrads, our curriculum was based on classical rhetoric. All the grad students joked about how we never wanted to hear about the stases or “ethos, pathos, logos” ever again—one of my colleagues dressed up as the rhetoric textbook for Halloween because she couldn’t think of anything scarier. But we also immediately found ourselves incorporating the concepts we were teaching into our own writing and finding, quite against our wills, that it became so much better.

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