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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.