Friday, December 9, 2011

The Official Glossary of Writing Terms for Non-Writers

The holiday season is upon us, and I've been contemplating what to give my extended relatives, friends, and total strangers who scratch their heads each time I post a writing-related update on my social networks. And since I believe in giving thoughtful and useful gifts, I have compiled this list of writing terms and definitions to send to all, so you can stop asking me what I'm talking about. I also figured you writers out there might want to give this list to the non-writers in your life. It’s the perfect gift! You're welcome. Happy holidays, everyone!

NOTE: Please let me know if I’ve missed any writing term you need a definition for. I’ll be happy to add it to the list.


Agent: Someone who represents a writer and helps sell the writer’s work to publishing houses. Short for literary agent, though there are plenty of other kinds of agents out in the world, just not in the literary world. Writers, however, never use the complete term unless they have to. They assume you know they are talking about. Hence the need for this glossary of writing terms, I suppose.

Acquisition(s): Short for acquisition meeting. A meeting by those at publishing houses to decide whether or not they want to offer to purchase the right to print your book. The process ends in either a contract or a politely worded rejection. Often used is the phrase “going to acquisition” or “going to acquisitions.” The writer doesn’t actually go anywhere, just the manuscript does. Truth be told, if writers are going anywhere it is going crazy waiting for word on a manuscript going to an acquisition meeting.

Arc: Used when talking about different parts of a manuscript. Usually combined with the words “character” or “plot” or “lack of” to differentiate between the different aspects of the story. The character arc deals with how the character changes during the story. The plot arc obviously deals with plot. Often writers have to deal with the lack of a certain arc, too. Those are always fun to try and fix. (Not.) Not to be confused with an ark, which, in its most familiar term, is a really big boat.  Also not to be confused with ARC (note the capitalization).

ARC: Advance Reader Copy.  An early form of the book publishers send out to reviewers to drum up excitement for a title.  It usually is a paperback version of the real deal, but sometimes publishers will change the cover before they print the actual book.  Note that it's an advance copy, not an advanced version.  It's quite inferior, actually, to the printed book, but more coveted, oddly enough. Mainly because so few are printed.

Beta: See Crit.

Blurb: A short summary of what your book is about.  Must contain a hook, unless you aren't interested in anyone else reading your book.  In some circles, hook and blurb are used interchangeably.  I'm guessing that's because most of us writers aren't really clear on how they are different from each other. We've clumped them into one huge definition of "words that are awesomesauce about the book."

Book: Something you read. It may or may not have pictures, but it always has lots and lots and lots of words. Usually the term refers to a work in its final, published stage. Often used in conjunction with adjectives such as "good", "horrible", "boring", "awesome", "the best", and "gawdawful". Sometimes also used at the end of the phrases "I hate this" or "I love this". See also manuscript and WIP.

Books for Adults: These are books written with a grown-up audience in mind. Most of you would simply call these "books." Don't get them confused with "adult books", which have content so inappropriate for children and teens that they can only be and found at the "adult bookstore" in the seedy part of town.

Chapter Book: Books written for those who are learning to read and are ready for books with real chapters. Usually written for 6-9-year-olds, and most are written at about a second-grade reading level. Often the term refers to all books with chapters and includes middle-grade books as well, but we MG writers really wish you wouldn't do that anymore

Complete: What we call a finished manuscript, until another person tells us it needs to be revised or rewritten again, that is. You’d be surprised how often a complete manuscript reverts back to a WIP. It’s shocking, really.

Cover Letter: A short letter that accompanies a full manuscript.  Usually contains the pitch and any other information needed to remind the editor or agent that they actually wanted to read your story.  Not to be confused with a query letter, which contains the exact same information but is sent out on its own.

Crit: Short for critique. Other variations include critting (critiquing) and critters (critiquers, who are also called Betas, which is short for beta readers—though there may be some slight difference in who is a critter and who is a beta, but I doubt anyone really cares). In this case, betas and critters aren’t animals, but people who delight in ripping your manuscript to shreds. Hey, wait a minute....

Crossover: Books that appeal to teens and adults alike. Apparently there is an imaginary bridge between the children’s and the adult section of any bookstore or library. Most books can’t cross it, but these ones can. I’m not sure when this happens, though. Probably at night when all the booksellers and librarians go home, and the books are free to become alive and travel through the building at will. I wonder which books become the guardians of the bridge, though. The books with trolls on the cover? (Sorry, I couldn’t resist.)

Draft: A version of a manuscript. Also used as a verb, meaning to write a draft. Writers like to count the versions, or drafts, of their manuscripts. The most commonly used term is “first draft,” since every writer begins with one of those. First drafts, however, aren’t usually considered quality drafts. In fact, most are big piles of poo that need several revisions before they are considered polished.

Drawer Novel: A manuscript so badly written it shouldn't be allowed to see the light of day. Ever. Often this is also the first manuscript a writer attempts. It's not actually put in a drawer these days. See shelved for the reason why.

Dust Jacket: Also called a book jacket. A piece of printed paper that covers a hardcover book. Yes, just like a real jacket covers you. Since books don't have arms, though, dust jackets are held in place with flaps, which are folded under the front and back covers of the book.  On these flaps you'll usually find the flap copy and an author bio.

Editor: Someone who works for a publishing house and edits manuscripts acquired by the company. Sometimes these editors lose their jobs or quit and become “freelance editors” instead. Anyone can edit, but we don’t call them editors unless we have to pay them for their work. Yeah, I don’t get it either.

Flap Copy: Also called jacket copy. A short blurb found on the flap of the dust jacket of a book (or, in the case of paperbacks, printed on the back outside cover). Its purpose is to give you a hint of what the story is about and get you excited to read the whole book.  In other words, it contains a hook.

Full: Short for a full manuscript, often called "the full." Writers usually use it when telling other writers that they've received a request to send the entire manuscript to an editor or agent.  This has nothing whatsoever to do with being full.  Nor does it have anything to do with how many adjectives and adverbs we have stuffed into our manuscript.

Hook: A sentence (or more) that is so brilliant it hooks readers and makes them want to read on.  It's best to start any manuscript or query letter with one of these.  If you don't, the likelihood of anyone wanting to read on is...well, the odds aren't in your favor, let's just put it that way.  A hook can also come in the form of a catchy title, great flap jacket copy, or blurbs about the book.  No actual metal hooks are used.  Also used as a verb, meaning to catch someone's attention.  

Jacket Copy: See Flap Copy.

Kidlit: Short for children's literature. Catchy, huh!

Kidlitosphere: The kidlit world. Not a real world, but a virtual one. Though we are real people. We just meet and talk about kidlit online. Sometimes we meet in real life, too, but not all at once and in the same place. It would take a really big conference center to make that happen.

Manuscript: A bunch of words writers throw together on paper in an attempt to tell a good story. Though not always on real paper. See shelved for why. A manuscript is similar to a WIP and a book, but it should not be confused with either of these. A WIP denotes a manuscript that is currently being written/revised, whereas a manuscript may be in that stage or may be shelved or complete. Manuscripts turn into books once they are published, but sometimes unpublished manuscripts are called books, too, just to confuse the issue. Basically, we writers like using as many words as possible to describe the same thing. See also book and WIP.

MC: Main character. These are the fictional people we writers call our best friends. Often our MCs are more real to us than real people. They talk to us, keep us awake at night, make decisions that run contrary to our best laid plans, and generally cause all sorts of psychological problems because we won't admit they are taking over our minds. Which is a good thing, because if we did, then we’d all be committed. And then who would write all the stories, huh?

MG: Middle-grade (notice the hyphen--yes, it's supposed to be there). AKA books for young readers, books for 8-12-year-olds, sometimes called chapter books (though this can be confusing: see chapter books  above). These are the best books on the planet, in my humble opinion. Most likely, your favorite book as a child falls into this category. Note that middle-grade books are not written for kids in middle school, but are for upper elementary students instead. Oh, the irony.

Offer:  When an editor or agent offers a contract.  We like offers!  The more, the better.

On Submission: The term used to explain the process of getting an industry professional to read and offer a contract. Can be used for either attracting agents or selling a book to editors at publishing houses. There is some discussion about whether or not this should be separated into two distinct terms, using “on submission” only for those books in the hands of editors, and “querying” for those attempting to find an agent for their work. Either way, most writers will tell you it’s synonymous with H-E-double hockey sticks.

Pantser: Someone who believes in the old adage to "fly by the seat of your pants." AKA a writer who doesn't plan out stories in advance. Often they sit down and let the story come to them as they write. Some pantsers start with an idea, others begin with a character who wants to take them on a journey. Others have an opening scene and a climax in mind when they begin. They distrust all Plotters, and they are afraid of anything that sounds even remotely like the word "outline."

Partial: Short for partial manuscript.  Often used when editors and agents request to read only the first few chapters of a manuscript.  Writers call these partial requests.  We like these requests, but we like requests for fulls more.  Obviously.

PB: Picture book. Also, paperback. Good luck keeping those two straight when both are used in a conversation.

Pitch: A paragraph (or two) that tells others about your story.  It contains both a hook and a very short synopsis.  Its purpose is to get people excited to read your book.  It is only part of a cover letter or query, but it's the most important part.  Also, it is the part that gives writers the most grief, since we have to distill an entire novel down into a few sentences.  Not an easy task, by any stretch of the imagination.  The term is also used as a verb, meaning to tell others about your story and get them excited to read it.

Plotter: Someone who outlines or plots stories before attempting to write them. Plotters have various means of plotting. Some use an actual outline. Others use note cards or sticky notes. Some follow a basic story structure that has worked for them or others before. And some write detailed notes about everything that might possibly come up in the story and a few things that never will, like underwear preferences and the last time that obscure side character took a bath in the public fountain outside city hall. They think all Pantsers should be committed. Or taught how to write a proper outline, at least.

Polished: A manuscript that is ready to be read by industry professionals. A variation of this is polishing, which is the term used to explain the process of revising a manuscript until it is ready to be read by industry professionals. We writers like a good turn of phrase, and plenty of us like the idea of having a diamond in the rough, too.

Pre-Pubbed: See Pubbed.

Pub: Short for publisher. Not the place where you go to get a few drinks, though I suppose you could talk about both in the same sentence.

Pubbed: Short for published. Used when talking about people who have published something, a manuscript that is published, or the dream of getting published. A slight variation of this is “unpubbed”, which mean those people and manuscripts currently not published.  (Some more optimistic writers prefer the term "pre-pubbed.")  Writers often separate other writers into the pubbed/unpubbed categories. Oddly enough, they tend to group editors and agents into the same category as pubbed writers, even though the majority of them are actually unpubbed people. Go figure.

Query: Short for query letter. A short piece of correspondence used to catch editors’ or agents’ attention, so they’ll ask to see your manuscript. It has nothing whatsoever to do with asking questions, though I suppose a writer is theoretically asking for a chance to get published. The query may contain an actual question or two in the letter itself, though. It is recommended, however, that you don’t begin your query with a question, especially one that starts with “What if.…” I don’t really know why. I suspect it’s because too many people begin their query letters that way, and agents/editors hate seeing the same thing over and over and over and over and over again.

R: Short for rejection or rejection letter. Rejections are almost always in writing, and for the most part come in the form of a “form rejection,” a simple but polite letter or email sent to writers to let them know a publisher or agent is not interested in their work. Some writers are lucky enough to receive a “personalized rejection,” which, though it doesn’t sound like it, is a good thing. Trust me on this.

Request: When an editor or agent asks you to send either part or all of your novel.  Sometimes this is in response to your query, other times it's because you've met them at a conference and successfully pitched your manuscript to them.

Revision: A edited draft of a manuscript. Closely related is the word “revising” which is the act of changing a novel to make it better (hopefully). If you pay close attention, you’ll notice that a writer is usually drafting or revising. Sometimes both at the same time. And sometimes we are doing so because of a revision request, which is just what is sounds like.

Semi-Pantser: A newer term used by those who do some plotting before they get started but who still like the thrill of letting the story unfold as they write. Some plotters take offense to this terminology, instead preferring the term "semi-plotter." Tomatoes, tomatoes.

Shelved: The term used for a manuscript that has been put aside and is no longer being revised or sent on submission. It's not actually put on a shelf anymore, since 99% of all writers these days use computers. Unfortunately, the term "left to rot on my computer" never really caught on.

Slush pile: The term used to describe the piles, virtual or otherwise, of unsolicited queries or manuscripts sent to editors and agents. No one knows for sure where the phrase came from, but it doesn’t involve actual slush whatsoever. Real slush is that obnoxious pile of water, ice and dirt the snowplows leave on the side of the road after a winter storm, and no matter how hard we wish it would just go away it doesn’t, so we have to wade through it with a snow shovel until we clear it out and can get on with what we really want to do.

SQ: Status query. A short letter sent to agents/editors requesting information on the current status of a query or manuscript. Though worded as a statement, it is, in effect, a question about whether or not the editor/agent in question (no pun intended) has been able to wade through his/her slush pile to read the query letter or requested manuscript sent to him/her months and months and months previously.

SQOD: Status query of death.  So coined because most of the time a SQ prompts the editor/agent to send a rejection letter.  And as much as we writers pretend otherwise, rejection kills us.

Synopsis: A one-to-three-paged document (sometimes longer) that explains the main story line of a manuscript.  Editors and agents often ask to see this along with the first few chapters of a manuscript.  This is so they don't have to read the entire book to figure out if you have a plausible story line, and it's also because they secretly delight in torturing writers.  Everyone knows the fastest way to stress out a writer is to ask for a synopsis.

Unpubbed: see Pubbed.

WC: Word count. This is how many words we've written, or how many words ended up in our WIP/manuscript/book. It's also a hotly debated topic in the kidlit world, since there doesn't seem to be a definitive answer about basic word count guidelines for children's books. Some think it's a conspiracy to keep newer writers so busy researching word count guidelines that they don't get any real writing done and, therefore, those already established writers who’ve been given the secret formula can keep all the writing contracts for themselves.

WFH: Work for hire. You thought it might be a variation of WTF*, didn’t you. Well, it’s not. Some publishers hire writers to write a preconceived story idea created by the publisher, usually for a non-fiction series or a licensed character book tie-in, or for in-house fiction projects in some cases. Or something like that, anyway. That whole side of the industry is still a little WTF for me.

WIP: Work In Progress, also Works in Progress. Refers to the pages and pages of words we writers throw together in the hopes that some of them will jell into a real manuscript. They don't always, unfortunately. Denotes something we are writing at present, so is technically not a manuscript or a book. See the manuscript definition for more on this.  See also book.

YA: Young Adult. These are books for 12-18-year-olds. If you don't know about these books, you are most likely living under a rock. They are EVERYWHERE.

*Since I write for children, for me this means “What the fudge?” when I use it. Just wanted to make that clear. The rest of you are welcome to insert the more colorful meaning of this acronym if you’d prefer.


  1. Oh, My. You did the work for me. This list is marked for forwarding to laypeople...

    I'd add COVER LETTER- a short pitch that accompanies the full manuscript. For that matter, I'd add THE FULL also, as in "I've sent the full to them."

  2. Oh, good idea, Mirka! I'll add those two right away.

  3. Oh, what about ARC - Advance Reader Copy? Not to be confused with arc or ark. :D

  4. Yeah, I just realized I forgot ARC. I've added it now, but thanks for the reminder, J.M.!

  5. elissa, you seriously need to put this on your side bar that way readers have easy access to it. i'm not kidding when i say you answered everything that took me well over a year to research and learn (and am probably still learning!).

  6. Excellent! Other people don't always follow our lingo. But then I don't follow theirs either. Stat! Foshizzle.

  7. Synopses for a Pantser is sheer torture! (I know whereof I speak!)

    Love the list, Elissa!

  8. Amie--Hmmm, maybe I will! Thanks for the suggestion.

    Stephanie--Thanks. And, yeah, I have no idea what other lingo is out there.

    Julia--Yes, I hear you on the synopses. And glad you love the list! Thanks for stopping by!

  9. Terrific, Elissa. Not just for non-writers, but for newbies--including writers of "books for adults" who are trying their hand at kid lit. And reviews and small presses who still categorize everything from Captain Underpants to Breaking Dawn as "chapter books."

    One question. Would it be correct to expand the definition of "hook" just a bit? You can be hooked before you ever read a word--by the title, the cover, flap copy, a blurb, or the way reviewers, readers, and salespeople describe the story. I seem to hear "hook" being used in that sense a lot.

  10. Thanks, Susan.

    And sure. I'll be happy to amend the "hook" entry. I hinted at that, but I should explain in a bit more detail. Thanks for the suggestion!

  11. Sweet glossary - I want this as a booklet to hand out to friends and fam. :) Nicely done.

  12. Elissa, this list is great! thanks.

    lou buffkin

  13. LOL....this is so great. Love it. Great job Elissa!

  14. Joseph--feel free to copy and paste and make some hard copies to hand out. I may just have to look up what it will take to self-publish a few copies for my own family as well...

    Lou--Glad you like it! You're welcome.

    Erin--Thank you. I had to make sure we writers would find it entertaining too. Hope I pulled that off. ;)

  15. This is so terrific! I think I will need to link it on my website. =)

  16. Great glossary!

    HAPPY BIRTHDAY (Feb. 19), Elissa! (I remembered because of Aunt Paula and Copernicus.) :-)

    -- Barb (boreal_owl on LJ, Barb on Blogger)

  17. Tara, please do. I'd be honored!

    Barb, thank you! It was a quiet affair (I spent the day sick with a cold, and so did the rest of the family). But that was a good thing, actually, because it's nice to lounge every once in awhile. It's so nice of you to remember, though!