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.

Stephen Motika of Nightboat Books


I am a restless reader and am always looking for new ways of being entangled in poetry, text, art. I’m interested in how people are engaged with poetry, both contemporary and historical, and the art of poetry—not only in poems and books, but also in advertising, film photography, social media, and found text. How do the visual elements of the page operate? How does the poem sound when read aloud? Am I able to trace the sonic and rhythmic qualities in the work?

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Eric Obenauf of Two Dollar Radio


Be a sponge and keep your antenna up, not just to books and literature but to other art forms and experiences. Many of the projects we’ve pursued at Two Dollar Radio have been more about community building than traditional publishing, and we find inspiration in varied sources, including films, record labels, roadside attractions, restaurants, and hikes. Don’t just stare at a computer screen, get out in the world and paw some actual books at your local bookstore. Read some of them.

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Tajja Isen of Catapult


Though I’m an editor who works primarily with personal essays, I’m most attracted to first-person writing that is not strictly “about” the self. So what, I wonder, when reading about even the most bizarre or unjust or relatable thing that happened to you—not because I’m callous, but because a story that ends with it happened to me is like deplaning when you’ve only taxied down the runway.

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Jade Wong-Baxter of the Frances Goldin Literary Agency


When I first entered publishing I was introduced to the concept of narrative momentum. This is often misinterpreted as pacing or rhythm, but it has more to do with the propulsive quality of a story—that spark and investment in voice, character, and plot—that makes a reader want to keep going. Your writing can be gorgeous on a line level, but the story also needs a pulse. I need to feel swept from one moment to the next with a sense of direction and an understanding of the stakes of the narrative.

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Zack Knoll of Abrams


On occasion I’ve found that writers worry over whether an editor will fundamentally reimagine their book. Sometimes this happens—and I think it should be made painfully, abundantly clear at the outset that this is the editor’s goal—but more often I see my job as something like being a tourist. You’ve created a world and plopped me into it. Let me tell you what I see. If there are aspects of the book that I miss during my walkabout, then I’ve already pointed out something isn’t landing the way you hoped it might. How do we reshape our path so that a reader doesn’t miss it? 

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John Parsley of Dutton


One of my biggest pet peeves is the pressure to classify a book as either literary or commercial. Is literary code for quality? Is commercial code for entertaining? Are they codes for highbrow or lowbrow, accessible or challenging, better or worse, fun or worthwhile, timeless or of-the-moment? In working with Jason Mott on his National Book Award–winning novel, Hell of a Book, it occurred to me almost immediately on submission that it was both literary and commercial. I think most books, indeed many of our most beloved books, are both.

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Mimi Wong of the Offing


During a particularly gloomy period in which I struggled to write creatively or even read for pleasure, I was heartened by an essay I edited about how writing fanfiction made one a better and happier writer. In “The Last Fanfiction I Ever Wrote,” Hannah Cohen suggests a value outside of striving for a prestigious literary career: “When I connected with other fanfiction writers, it wasn’t out of a coy expectation to network with people who would eventually publish me.

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Jenny Xu of Harper and Ecco


You don’t have to sign with the first agent who reaches out, or take the first offer that is sent to you—if one door opens, it means other doors are available. You don’t have to be a 30 Under 30. Find supports within or outside of the industry, like grants or fellowships, that can give you the opportunity to develop your project until it’s where you want it to be. Ask for the writing and revision time you need. Take the time to understand the traditions and conversations that you want to publish within or subvert. 

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Maddie Caldwell of Grand Central Publishing


I tend to like projects that are guided by an author’s curiosity and that share new ideas, philosophies, and experiences in order to create a better understanding of human nature. I was drawn into nonfiction editing for these reasons, but also because I like the idea of being part of the book-crafting process from the beginning. To have that sense of collaboration with an author, sometimes for years. To obsess over revisions together.

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Diane Goettel of Black Lawrence Press


How many times this week have you admonished yourself for not writing enough? We’ve all heard about the famous authors who wrote every day for hours on end, who stuck to rigid word-count or page-count quotas. Forget those authors. At least, forget their torturous processes. Go easy on yourself. Know that, as you live your life, you are constantly gathering material. That day you flopped on the couch to binge-watch some guilty pleasure and let dust gather in the corners of your living room while dishes languished in the sink?

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