What It Means to Show Rather Than Tell in Writing (and How to Do It)

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If writing advice had a Top 10 Hits list, “show, don’t tell” likely would rank #1 pretty dang easily. We’ve heard it a million times, we know we ought to do it, but what the bleeping hades does it MEAN?

From a technical standpoint, showing rather than telling in writing basically means you do anything and everything not to just lay out the facts. Your goal is to write something that will allow the reader to infer what is taking place or true, rather than to offer blunt narration.

Let’s look at some examples.

Example #1:

Bad: She kissed him squarely on the lips. But she was still angry. 

Good: Her lips found that beautiful meaty point of his, feeling the awkward moist warmth of his own. Her hands, however, stayed clenched. How could he possibly expect forgiveness after what he had done?

How do I know the kiss was square? Because the kiss is on the “meaty point”. I know how the kiss feels now, too. I never say I’m angry, yet clenched fists signal that all is not well.

Example #2:

Bad: Working with Janet taught me how to be brave.

Good: As I watched Janet take on impossible projects with warm coffee cup in hand, do cold call after cold call without missing a beat and laugh with investors as if millions of dollars weren’t on the line, my toes curled a little more with excitement every day. I stood taller. I talked more. And suddenly I wasn’t afraid.

Here, it’s not the activities Janet does that are particularly important. It’s the casual, calm and relaxed manner in which she does them. You get a physical response from the individual that confirms the transformation happening internally.

Now, one obvious difference between the bad and good points is that the bad points are much more succinct. This brevity has its place, and inference doesn’t have to take paragraphs, as Ernest Hemingway proves. But generally, showing means adding details so that the reader gets a mental picture, imagery around the point. So the basic rule is, paint a clear picture, but don’t make so many brush strokes that your arm gets tired.

Showing rather than telling through artful inference means that you have to pay close attention to all the learned interpersonal, social and cultural cues that run rampant, as well as your senses and feelings. You have to ask yourself what particular tones and physical gestures mean and understand that even little things–like pulling out a particular brand of mascara, for example–can have significance. And it’s important to truly know your audience well when you write, because the same cue might mean different things to different groups, which can influence how well they understand and connect to your message. Ideally, try to be as inclusive as you can, since that means more people will get the story. At the very least, consider the possible interpretations and take care to craft the “show” in a way that likely will give the least offense.

If you want to try your hand at showing rather than telling, start by rejecting your first, default option. Ask yourself

  • How can I describe the action rather than simply leaning on specific verbs?
  • What do I want the reader to know about the characters or plot from what I’m describing?
  • What biases are at the heart of the description, if any? Under what circumstances would those biases fall apart?

It’s also important to keep in mind that blunt, tell-it-like-it-is communication still works great for your outline. Summarize with no flash first and then go back to flesh out your work.

Showing rather than telling is the hallmark of good storytelling, whether you’re writing a novel or aiming to give an inspiring speech to this year’s graduates. If you want what you have to say to stand out, don’t let the technique go to waste.

10 Ways to Get New Writing Ideas

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If you’re mysteriously blessed with a mind that produces new writing ideas like new bunnies in a burrow, life probably is pretty good. If you’re like most authors, though, you likely need to find a little inspiration from time to time. That inspiration can come from dozens of places, including:

  • Magazine or website articles: What did the original author miss or not consider? How can you put your own spin on the title to make it fresh?
  • Social media posts: What’s your stance on what others said? Why? How can you present both sides of the argument to inform others? What backstory can you imagine that might have led to the post?
  • Everyday objects: What other uses could your items have in another time or world? This doesn’t have to change the basics of the item–the frying pans used as weapons in Tangled, for example, stayed frying pans. But what if they were alive or had dramatically different features? What would society look like without them, or what alternatives would we potentially create and why? Combining unlikely pairs also has good potential.
  • History: Can you tell an untold story no one has uncovered? What about taking a specific event or conflict and creating characters to contribute to it? (e.g., Beloved) How about warping elements of time and events that have happened? (For example, Outlander.) Don’t forget to use your own experience and memories here, too. These can make great memoirs, blogs and editorials. But you also can let yourself travel what-if paths, too, such as imagining what would have happened if you’d really kissed What’s-His-Face behind the bleachers.
  • Dreams: It’s OK if the dream doesn’t have a true plot and appears more like a blip of a scene to you. Think about the overall concept, the feeling the dream left you with. Then try to shape text around that.
  • Eavesdropping: No, I’m not telling you to invest in spy gear. You’re not trying to invade privacy here. Just take the conversation and flesh it out with backstory or explanations. For instance, if someone’s yapping on the phone in line next to you about needing to move, why are they leaving? What could they be getting into that they don’t anticipate? How can you imagine the person on the other end of the phone?
  • Nature: This is especially fun for myths and fairy tales. But the environment also can be ripe with options for children’s story’s or fables that teach, such as the ant’s industry. As with everyday items, try to imagine what else the elements could do, like the Ents from the Lord of the Rings or the mail owls from Harry Potter. 
  • Other books: You never want to copy what someone else has done so closely that others accuse you of not having your own style or voice. But when you find a text you like, ask yourself what it is about the book you’re drawn to. Maybe it’s the flavor of the time period or the feeling a specific character gives you. Ask yourself how you can capture or use that for yourself.
  • Art: You of course can try to imagine backstories for the images you find–medieval and renaissance art, in particular, can be great for creation, relationship or war stories. But you also can try to find specific elements in the art. For instance, perhaps you discover a portrait with the saddest eyes you’ve ever seen that feel just right for your main character, or maybe you can come up with a unique metaphor or analogy based on what the artist has done. Some art, like Munch’s The Scream, can invoke specific feelings you can run with. Abstract art is great for this.
  • Interviews and conversations: Talking to others can open your eyes to new perspectives and even provide the basis for characterizations. Pay attention not only to what they tell you, but elements like word choice and pace of speech.

And yes, you of course can dive into writing prompts for ideas, too. These have both pros and cons, as I explored in this previous blog. But these don’t work for everybody. If they’re not you’re cup of tea, don’t sweat it.

Great ideas can come from anywhere. The big key is to let go of biases that tell you “can’t”. The Tangled frying pans, for instance, require you to abandon the idea that you only can use the pans to cook. Constraints like this are built over a lifetime of experience, so they’re hard to abandon, but just let yourself free associate and see what happens. Prune out what you don’t like later, not as you go.


Beta Readers: What They Are and Why You Should Use Them

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Any time you want to make something better, getting some feedback is critical. Writing is no exception, which is where beta readers come in.

What’s a beta reader?

Beta readers are simply people who agree to read and “test” your draft before publication and tell you what they think. Sometimes, they can formalize their critique with written notes and comments. Other times, it’s all in conversation. Either way, beta readers offer your first clue about how you are truly coming off to your readers, what the strengths of the draft are and what areas you could tweak for improvement. And it’s not unusual for writers to send a draft to their beta readers multiple times.

Where can I find betas?

You can find beta readers in plenty of places, such as writer’s groups at your local library, hitting up your friends and family, or connecting with mentors in your professional network. There are also online communities on platforms like Facebook and Twitter. Freelance or agency editors also can beta read for you.

Do I have to pay my beta readers?

There’s some debate about whether to compensate beta readers. Some betas are willing to read for free, simply because they absolutely love good content and because they value making connections within the writing industry. But some people feel that, because beta readers truly do perform a service, you always should compensate them. Still others will find a middle ground, bartering services or beta reading for each other. The key is, you and your betas both should feel like the reading arrangement is fair before you start.

Will betas give me the same quality of service as an editor?

Don’t make the mistake of thinking that informal beta readers can’t do a terrific job compared to editors. Many informal betas are profoundly well read or have written themselves for years, and they have a real passion for helping others make the most of their ideas. They can let themselves be more concerned with the emotional impact of your writing and whether you’re letting readers have a good time. Even so, an editor might be able to spend more time on the draft one-on-one with you than an informal beta, and you might find that they can be more objective compared to readers you’re close to. Some writers like to go through beta reading to make sure the tone or flavor of the piece is on target, and then let the editor worry more about the technical side. That said, most editors still want to work on pieces that stir them and make them think, so there’s no hard and fast rule.

In any case, having multiple betas can be advantageous in that you’re going to get a larger number of viewpoints and suggestions. It’s a good idea to make sure that, even as you aim for your target reading group (e.g., middle-aged men who are married and like Game of Thrones), you have some diversity in your beta group so you can catch biases that could be logistically or culturally problematic. Jeanine Cummings’ American Dirt is a recent example of a book that could have benefited from a more diverse beta readership. It has been criticized not only for its depiction of Mexico and immigrants, but as an example of the limited paths to publication for people of color.

When should I connect with beta readers?

Beta readers can work with you at any point of the writing process–even a single paragraph can be enough for a quick critique. They often can help you make good decisions if you’re at a writing crossroads, and they can ask questions that spark new details or paths for the draft. If you’ve already got a complete draft, it’s easy to feel more invested, but it’s important not to get to attached to what you’ve written, and to take what the betas say into full consideration. You definitely should have done some degree of beta reading before you send a draft off in a query to an agent or publisher.

No matter what type of writing you’re doing, beta readers can be a secret weapon for polishing your concepts on the page. They also give you great practice in collaborating on a basic level. Even if you work only with a small, trusted handful, hand your manuscript off as often as you can.


Should You Specialize as a Writer?

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Finding writing work often is a challenging task. But as you’re looking for jobs, you’ll realize that you can either specialize in one area or take more of a jack-of-all trades approach. Is one any better than the other, and do you have to choose between them?

What makes specializing awesome

One big advantage of specialization in writing is that you acquire a ton of expertise on your key subject. That can make it a snap to go back to sources you already know well, or to write with the efficiency that comes from having information mentally on hand. If you can write more authoritatively and faster because you really know what you’re talking about, it’s often possible to finish more projects in the same amount of time. That can translate into more paychecks.

Additionally, as an expert writer in your area, you can gain a good reputation as someone who’s reporting or points of view are trustworthy. Clients might seek you out because of this, and it becomes more likely that people will share your work through social media, email or other platforms. This is incredibly important, because the less time you have to spend marketing yourself and looking for work, the more time you actually can spend doing real writing.

The advantages of spreading your writing wings

On the other hand, specializing of course means that you will be much more limited in your writing topics. And after writing about SEO, SpaceX or how best to plant tulips for the thousandth time, you might feel bored or caged in. Being open to a wide range of topics means that you’ll always be learning something new in a way that can keep your interest, creativity and motivation higher.

Going after a lot of different writing topics also means that you’ll have access to a larger publishing network. Instead of establishing relationships just with editors who publish about, say, cooking, you also could send queries and manuscripts to business, fitness, entertainment or all kinds of other editors. That larger network can be incredibly helpful if you happen to encounter a dry spell with some of your more regular clients or publishers, potentially giving you a way to work even in times of greater economic insecurity or heightened office politics.

Lastly, choosing to write about anything under the sun can challenge you to get comfortable with a broader range of formats, such as essay or listicle. You’ll also feel at ease with a variety of content lengths, tones and style guides. That can bring more flexibility into your writing so that you can find your real voice, even as you deliver what clients and editors ask for.

Personally, I’ve sort of straddled the middle ground here. At the moment, most of my paid work comes from writing business-related content, especially articles for blogs and other Internet pages. But I’ve also written on everything from fitness to dentistry, and I’ve worked with both secular and faith-based organizations. I enjoy being able to take both approaches, alternating based on my circumstances and feelings. You might be like me in that regard, and you don’t necessarily have to live entirely in one camp or the other forever. But otherwise, my take is, if you want to monetize knowledge you already have and you really enjoy routine, efficiency and deeper connection with editors, working in one area you’re passionate about might be a better fit for you. If you find that you get antsy without a chance to explore or feel like you need some variety to improve your skill as a writer, lean toward writing anything you can.


How Many Books Should You Be Reading a Year?

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In America’s culture of “more is probably better”, it’s no surprise that people tend to flaunt their consumed titles like badges of honor that offer implied evidence of competence, just like prestigious awards, titles or hours worked. In this context, if you really do want to know how you stack up, Pew Research says that Americans read an average of 12 books per year. The median is four books per year. But is there really a number of books you “should” or need to read to succeed?

For my part, I do believe that, no matter what you might do for a living, reading has the power to introduce you to all kinds of information and ways of thinking. And in that sense, the concept that lifelong learning through literature, articles or other documents improves with quantity makes sense. After all, you can’t learn something if you never expose yourself to it.

But the fallacy in this way of thinking is that it assumes that a person actually will apply what they have learned through the books. This is not necessarily true. Some people read and understand an enormous amount, yet they don’t act or make new decisions based on what they’ve acquired. In these situations, they arguably aren’t much better off than if they hadn’t read the texts at all, because the reading doesn’t yield change or growth. I much rather would read just a handful of carefully selected books that prove to be largely influential in what I do than spend weeks or months with what doesn’t inspire or direct me.

Additionally, it’s simply not true that everyone has the same amount of time or resources that allow them to read. Many people work multiple jobs to make ends meet, for instance, and don’t have as many free hours. Even if they do have a little time, those minutes might go to connecting with family instead, or they might be so tired that it’s hard to really mentally process what’s on the page. Other individuals might have time but lack the  quick, reliable access to as many physical or digital books, such as if they are in a rural or underprivileged community. So it’s unfair to compare reading levels when some people are in circumstances that naturally make reading more of a challenge.

Lastly, we’ve probably all been in the situation where a book isn’t quite as engaging as we’d hoped, or where it doesn’t give us the answers we’d anticipated. Continuing with these texts arguably is a bad idea, because it takes time from books that would engage and inform as you need them to. Strategically choosing to stop and move on to something better can be quite rational. Yet, there is a problem in that we don’t acknowledge time spent reading books we eventually drop, which skews the perception of how much we’re reading in total.

There’s a similar problem in book lengths. Although it’s true that most genres have a “typical” word count, the range for content is enormous. For example, most publishers consider novel length to be between 50,000 and 110,000 words, but the English Penguin Classics translation of Les Miserables, which is one of my favorite texts, weighs in with a whopping 364,000. So that book is like reading three, yet you only get one title to brag about on your “finished” list.

So when push comes to shove, the basic rule of thumb is just to read as much as you can given your situation at rate that allows you to make use of what you learn. There’s little value in tracking how much you read by title and comparing yourself.


Should Writers Use Writing Prompts?

In my daily Twitter scrolling a few days ago, I happened upon a May 11 post by essayist Paul Crenshaw (@PaulCrenstorm). In the post, Crenshaw asked,

“Am I the only writer who not only thinks writing prompts are not good, but that they’re actually harmful?”

After looking through the comments, it was clear to me that plenty of writers share Crenshaw’s view and have some legitimate concerns. For instance, writing prompts can create the following big problems:

  • Distraction from other writing projects that might be more important or have upcoming deadlines
  • Limiting the creative flow of the writer to a particular path or type of voice, preventing them from finding their own freedom of expression and style
  • Solidification of the bias that the writer is “amateur” or not a “real” writer because they “cannot” come up with their own ideas
  • Potential loss of quality because the writer is creating based on demand under a feeling of obligation, not because they truly are interested in or moved by a concept

But just as many writers shot back about the positives associated with writing prompts:

  • Getting the writer to consider other options for writing that might be outside their niche or comfort zone, thereby helping them be more creative overall
  • When well defined, can help writers avoid being daunted by the broadness of “write about anything” so that they actually focus, write and grow more confident
  • Can reveal subconscious connections or concepts the writer didn’t realize were lurking
  • Can allow the writer to take a mental break from larger project for a change of pace without abandoning the writing process or practice entirely

My view is that writers are highly individual. They need different tools, freedoms and constraints to be consistent, get into a state of creative flow and get better at their craft. Classifying the use of prompts as “good” or “bad” ignores the diversity within the writing community and distracts away from the most important issue–whether the writer is producing a final result that is authentic, fresh and of high quality. If a writer is getting to that point, then reader likely isn’t going to care where the idea came from, instead being more concerned with elements like feelings of empathy, realism or effective pacing.

That said, some prompts are a ton better than others. Good prompts have clear directions (e.g., specific steps, rhetorical mode, etc.) that you can’t misinterpret. They also have clear constraints–it’s how you navigate around those and get creative within limitations that helps you think more imaginatively. Be selective, and don’t settle for the first thing you find in your first five seconds of a Google search.

So if you use writing prompts, you’re right. And if you don’t, you’re right, too. Do what works for you and just write as much as you can, because regardless of where your inspiration comes from, it’s practice that moves a writer from meh to memorable.


Why You Need to Start a Creativity Journal (and How to Do It)

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Traditional journaling is a fantastic way to clear your head, get rid of stress and center yourself to stay productive. But if you really plan to make it to the top, you also should keep a separate creativity journal.

What is a creativity journal (and why should I start one)?

A creativity journal simply a journal intended specifically to keep track of and work through concepts. It’s designed to let you consider as many possibilities as you can in an organized, objective way. So while you might come up with some great products or other sellable results as you explore options, the real benefit of using a creativity journal is simply training yourself to look at problems or ideas under many lenses, and learning how to avoid automatically dismissing potential paths because of conscious or subconscious biases.

How do I put a creativity journal together?

There’s no real right or wrong when it comes to creativity journals–after all, you’re supposed to get creative! You can use a Google Doc, traditional journal or even a 3-ring binder or expandable file folder.

Some people truly love the convenience of a digital creativity journal, especially if they can use it in conjunction with other applications. But other people prefer the look and feel of a physical, hard copy option. Still other people use a mix, creating on paper and then uploading images or using digital journals designed to mimic the paper experience.

The most important thing is that the tool you choose to use is

  • easy to access at any time,
  • able to provide the level of security or shareability you want, and
  • intuitive and feels comfortable for you to use repeatedly for the long-haul.

What are the styles of journal available?

Creativity journals can mesh a huge range of activities and styles. For example, you can use your journal for general brainstorming, drawing, jotting down items you’d like to remember for later (including dreams), answering prompts, mind mapping, pulling together inspiring quotes or stories, and even scrapbooking. You might also want to consider an area of the journal for positive and relaxing activities that can get your mental juices flowing, such as coloring pages or puzzles you like.

When you’re thinking about which style(s) to use, consider the ways of communicating that feel especially easy to you. If you’re a very visual person, for example, it might be more useful for you to have an unlined journal that allows for sketching, color coding or other graphics. Be honest with yourself about how much you need on the page to remember your concepts, too. If you know you’ll forget details if you don’t bullet them all out, for example, give yourself the room to do it. At the same time, exploring different styles might improve your ability to think about or communicate your concepts in many different ways to others, which can be incredibly useful when you need to pitch to different audiences. Have fun challenging yourself a little, even as you acknowledge your natural modes of self-expression.

What should I consider when using my creativity journal?

Useful questions to ask yourself when working in a creativity journal include:

  • What would happen if I…?
  • What resources would I need to…?
  • What does this make me remember or think of?
  • How many ways could I…?
  • What do I feel when…?
  • What emotion am I wanting to convey?
  • What senses am I using to…?
  • What are the most important keys to keep in mind?
  • What details would others need to know to make sense of this?

When should I use my creativity journal?

Creativity journals really are anytime affairs, so long as you respect your own limits and are considerate to others. Pull them out any time something interesting pops into your head you’d like to explore, when you need inspiration, or after a long day of traditional work for a change of pace.

You can schedule a time to work in your creativity journal if you like. Some people enjoy this because then they know they’ll have some consistent down time where they can let their mind wander authentically without sacrificing other tasks. But because you never know when a good idea will come, taking a “whenever” approach can work well, too. The most important thing is not to pressure yourself, because worrying about production or quantity can create anxiety that actually cuts your creativity down. If you set aside 30 minutes to journal and nothing really comes during your session, that’s OK. You’ll probably have better luck next time. And by the same token, if you jot a ton down unexpectedly in 5 minutes and feel like you don’t need more time in the journal for that day, that’s OK, too. Quality always matters more than achieving a quantity or time quota.

If you are dealing with something particularly heavy, those issues can distract your brain and keep you from relaxing into a good state of creative flow. So if you find yourself “blocked”, don’t think you’re not creative enough to do a creativity journal well. Focus on sorting out those worrysome issues first, and then return to the journal.

Deciding on content

You can put anything you want in your creativity journal. The only rule is that you don’t limit the content by demanding immediate relevancy or follow through. Certain ideas might not be doable right now, for example, because we lack specific technologies. But that doesn’t mean the ideas are bad. See the journal as a depository for things you could solve or do, not that you have to do. You’ll likely come up with dozens more concepts than you could finish in a lifetime, so just hone in on projects that interest you the most, or that could have the biggest influence. Even if you don’t have time to explore the rest, someone else might later. And if you start working on something and later decide it’s not worth your time, don’t be afraid to let go and pivot to something new.

Why You Shouldn’t Care About Writing a Set Number of Words Per Day

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As a writer, I try hard to stay connected with other writers, especially on social media. And one thing that’s always puzzled me is how writers will tell others how many words they want to write that day, or how many they’ve written.

To be clear, having a goal for yourself in your writing isn’t a bad thing. And having a concept of a daily word count can help you with pacing your writing if you have to complete a project by a set date.

But I can’t help but feel like, more often than not, those word counts are merely an extension of a bigger social problem–that is, the idea that the more we do, the more value our work has, and by extension, the more value we have ourselves. After all, when writers post about meeting huge word counts, they usually get tons of “kudos” posts in response.

Alternately, people will lament that they can’t or didn’t reach that level for the day, too. Which reveals another issue–the tendency for writers to compare themselves to one another. If we aren’t matching what “the other guy/gal” puts on the page, we think, then somehow we aren’t “real” writers who are serious about the craft, or we haven’t made it in the industry. We’re somehow missing talent or ability or real voice, or perhaps our message is meaningless.

This is perhaps the most troublesome part of it for me, to see writers berate themselves at the end of the day, remark how they feel like somehow they’ve blown it or aren’t up to snuff if they didn’t make their quota, or act as if the day was “off” because word count was low. When you see yourself as having failed or missed the mark, it can create real anxiety and stress. And neuroscience tells us that stress isn’t a friend to your brain–it makes it harder to think and remember, which influences your decisions about your writing as well as your ability to do simple things like rationally decide whether a paragraph is suitable or not. Creativity also flows better when you are relaxed and can let your mind wander. So if you’re not hitting an arbitrary word count, it very well could be that you’re just putting too much pressure on yourself.

The way I see it, books, articles, blogs–no matter what you are writing, your message takes the space it takes. Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables is no less influential, for instance, than Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird or Ernest Hemingway’s The Snows of Kilimanjaro. And getting it right on the page takes the time it takes, too–books like Gone with the Wind and Lord of the Ring took well over a decade to put together, while works like A Study in Scarlet and Casino Royale took just a month or two. And while I won’t knock wildly prolific writers like Danielle Steele (she’s reportedly written 179 books to date), quantity is not at all what makes a work profound or meaningful. So why use word count as a metric for your success at all?

Then there’s the fact that overall, productivity tends to even out over time anyway, like a diet. Some days are feasts and words pour onto the pages. Others, you only nibble and maybe do a few paragraphs at best. But in the long run, you’re still taking in what you need, and the project eventually gets done. So the idea that you’re losing productivity on low-word days is a myth.

As a final point against writing word quotas, in my experience, the best writing happens when the narration seems so natural that the storyteller disappears, when you cannot sense them trying too hard and get distracted for it. And that only happens if you focus on the message instead of its length. If you work on a quota, if you try to force it, you’ll probably never have something that feels as natural and transparent as if you simply let the thoughts out as they come.

So just write. Maybe that’s one word. Maybe it’s a few thousand. It doesn’t matter. The story is what counts.


What I’ve Learned From One Year of Querying Literary Agents

Literary agents offer an incredible service to serious writers. Their whole job is to do all the footwork to find a publisher that’s willing to get your book out into the world. They get a percentage of what the book makes in return, but the arrangement is wonderful for writers because you get more time to do what you really love–write more stuff!

That said, I’m in the process of querying for my own agent. I’ve sent out dozens of messages over the past year in my search, and I consider myself a lot wiser for the wear. These are the biggest things I’ve learned.

1) Write your query as book copy and a humble-brag list.

Query letters start with first paragraph that hooks the agent in. If you just summarize your project, that’s not enough. The hook has to read like the back of a book jacket and leave the agent wondering what the resolution is going to be.

Once you’ve done that, you can summarize the book less dramatically in the next paragraph, which should offer details like genre and word count.

The letter should end with some accomplishments you’ve had with your writing. If you haven’t been published, then tell the agent relevant work you’ve done, such as the fact you served as a detective for a decade before writing your murder mystery. DON’T draw attention to your inexperience, brag about the quality of the book (that should speak for itself) or ask for exceptions to the agent’s guidelines/preferences.

2) Check the guidelines for both the agent and the literary agency.

Literary houses generally will give you general guidance for how to submit a query. These rules are pretty straightforward if the agency simply takes general queries and the agents decide whether to work with you as a group.

But sometimes, if the agency allows you to query individual agents directly, the agents can list personal preferences that aren’t the same as the preferences for the house. For example, an agent might want you to submit 50 pages of your work, while the house might specify just 25.

In my view, it’s always better to submit directly to the agent you like when possible, because then you can study their history and client list, tailor your query letter better and really make a case for why they’d enjoy working with you. But either way, don’t submit until you’re clear on what to send. When in doubt, ask.

3) Study the agent’s client/book list.

If you can submit directly to individual agents at a house, the house almost always tells you to check the agents’ profile pages for details. You can get good info there, such as specific email addresses (those might be on a separate contact page, too).

But don’t expect those pages to automatically reveal what the agent is looking for. They often read like a professional bio and crow about awards their clients have won (without naming the clients), skipping information about what they really prefer to represent. Your only hope in those cases is to inquire through the agency for details, or to check sites like LinkedIn, Manuscriptwishlist or the Association of Author’s Representatives.

The closer you can get to understanding the voices and plots the agent has worked with, the easier it will be for you to tell if the query is a good fit.

4) Understand the rules for follow up.

Some agencies (and individual agents) actively encourage you to followup if you haven’t heard from them by a specified time. Others specifically tell you they’re not going to answer you unless they’re interested, in which case a followup probably isn’t going to do much good. Still other houses tell you you can assume an agent isn’t interested by a set date, but that it’s perfectly fine to requery a different agent. And some houses will tell you that a rejection from one agent is a rejection from the whole house. So read the submission guidelines closely and followup (or not) like they tell you to.

5) Build a tracking system. 

QueryManager is a great site that lets you keep track of the agents you’ve submitted messages to. But if its not your cup of tea, then you still need to have a way to stay organized.

I personally use a basic spreadsheet, because it allows me to see a lot of information (e.g., address, query response time, what to submit, etc.) in one location and view. Then, when I send a query, I set a simple reminder in Google calendar on the date I should follow up or scrap the query as rejected.

6) Go for bulk.

This doesn’t mean throw everything you’ve got at the wall and see what sticks with your queries. Don’t waste your time querying any agent you find–focus on the ones that love your genre and type of work.

But the odds of finding an open agent and winning out over potentially hundreds of submissions are, realistically, low. (Sorry to burst your bubble, but it’s true.) So send out as many clean queries as you can to up your chances of success. I recommend working in batches. This way, you can use whatever feedback you get from one batch to improve the next. Just make sure that the agencies allow simultaneous submissions (most do), and specify that your query is simultaneous at the end of your cover letter.

7) Prep a ton of stuff. 

You will need a solid query letter and sample pages for your work, guaranteed. But depending on the agent you query and the type of work you’re submitting, you might also need a

  • complete proposal
  • market analysis
  • chapter summaries
  • short synopsis (around 3 pages tops)
  • long synopsis (around 10 pages)
  • cover page mockups
  • marketing plan
  • author biography
  • marketing copy (back of book cover blurb, one sentence hook, etc.)
  • sample chapters or pages in varying lengths (5, 10, 25 and 50 are most common)
  • polished manuscript

If it sounds like a lot of work, it is. But if you get all of this around from the beginning, it’s simply a matter of finding the right file to send based on the agent’s requirements, and you can send out a full set of queries quite quickly.

As you look at each of these pieces of advice, the biggest key is…


As agents love to tell you in their rejection letters, publishing and representation is incredibly subjective. If one agent rejects you, it doesn’t necessarily mean that your work isn’t good, or that it’s not ready to publish. It just means that that particular agent doesn’t feel like they can represent it well or has other interests. If you really believe in your work, be its best advocate right from the start and keep trying until you find the house or agent that’s perfect for you.

Why You Can’t Afford to Pay Your Workers a Crummy Wage

In my time as a freelancer, I’ve used a wide range of third party providers to connect with new clients. Some of those providers have led to reliable income and projects I’m proud to say I contributed to.

But over and over again, I see people who expect me and others to work for basically nothing. For example, check out this post today from UpWork (highlight mine):


I usually average about two hours for 800 words or so. Maybe that’s slow compared to others, but I also try to make the first draft as close to publication-ready as possible. So under this rate, I’d be making $4 an hour.

That won’t even buy my lunch.

It’s not even close to minimum wage.

But here’s the real problem, aside from livability. It’s demeaning. If I see that someone isn’t willing to pay a fair wage, it makes me assume that they don’t value me as an individual. And if I don’t feel like they value me, heck no, I’m not going to trust them. And guess what you need to grow a business. To get stability, retention, loyalty.


So if you don’t pay someone a good wage, regardless of your industry, you’re shooting your own business in the foot. The better way is to formulate a solid business plan and get the investors and loans you need to take care of your employees. If you have to bootstrap by cutting pay corners, I’d argue you’re not ready to be in business in the first place. Go back to the drawing board, prove you have a model others will put their money forward for, and THEN hire. Otherwise, the talented, creative people who could have made your company soar will be more than happy to set up shop with your competitors.