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.
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.
If you can’t pitch your book in thirty seconds, you’re probably not ready to send it to agents or publishers. And before you say, “But that’s your job”—you’re right! Our job is to convince other people to read your work, and we’ll probably come up with our own pitch down the line. But if you can’t distill the what and why of your book into a few punchy sentences, it usually means that your book is still gestating. It means that the foundational narrative has not yet emerged.
Sometimes the only words I feel I can trust are nouns. I’m not sure this is a recommendation for writers, but it is a thought that has occurred to me when describing books.
“Write every day” can be a good motivator, but it doesn’t work for everyone. In some cases, it can even be counterproductive if it prioritizes word count at the expense of creating fully realized worlds.
I also believe writing is a craft that goes beyond simply putting pen to paper (or fingers to keypad). Some of the most talented writers I know spend months thinking about their story elements outside of the physical act of writing. This might take the form of outlining or research, but a lot of the time it looks much closer to daydreaming.
Like many people, I first dove into reading as a way to escape. Later, though, I found that I confronted myself in everything I read—my fears, inclinations, and sympathies were reflected and challenged in the books I chose. What I want from reading, whether fiction or nonfiction, is to have my mind changed and my perspective expanded. And so I love a distinctive point of view, something solid to engage with, an outlook that feels honed, developed, and self-aware.
If you’re a writer, I recommend reading a lot. I might not recommend reading this article, but I do recommend reading literally anything else. I recommend reading books especially, though I also recommend reading journalism, short stories, and really long essays. As a literary agent, I often recommend my own clients’ work and the work I use as reference points to develop my own taste.
When it comes to pitching essays to publications, your proposal needs to have an idea and an anchor. What am I trying to assert and how am I going to assert it? The “what” is the idea. It’s an abstraction. You need to ground it with an anchor. An anchor is the actual story. It’s the vehicle. It’s the “how.” Most pitches fail because writers only expound on the idea but not the anecdote that readers will need to guide them through the piece, so make sure you have both components. And most of all, don’t take it personal. All you need is one editor to say yes.
You’re ready to submit your manuscript to agents and excitedly or nervously working on your pitch. The Author Bio is looming large and you’re trying to figure how to funnel your entire essence, your whole life, into one paragraph that will prompt the agent to say, Yes, this author is solid! For so many of us, writing about ourselves is a painful process because we are self-conscious about trying to find that fine line between not wanting to sound pompous or downright dull. If you’re stuck crafting the bio, my advice is to find that place within you when you’re most relaxed—say, after
The persistent image of the isolated writer—the cable-knit-sweater-wearing genius who takes a deep breath and aims a thundering blast of prose directly at the cosmos—isn’t a very useful one, especially not for the writer trying to work out the business of publishing his or her work, and driven to reading the advice of a cranky editor on a website. It takes the combined efforts of a generous group of people to nurture and circulate the literary talents of a writer, and I’d like to speak about this group:
I don’t know where I’d be without my writers group. We’ve been meeting every week—to critique each other’s work, give advice and pep talks, and troubleshoot this fickle industry—for almost three years now. We’ve helped each other through manuscript revisions, agent searches, submission blues, prepublication anxiety, and the publicity whirlwind.