The Glossary of Jargon I Wish I'd Known Before I Started Querying

The Glossary of Jargon I Wish I'd Known Before I Started Querying

In my last article about querying mistakes, I chose to omit the mistake of not asking simple questions. When I first started researching literary agents, there were a lot of terms and phrases I did not recognize. And from my small worldview, no one was asking about them, so I didn’t either.

This was a bad assumption, of course. I just wasn’t part of those clarifying conversations. If I had taken the time to ask, or even search for the phrase “What does ARC mean?” on Google or Twitter, I would have found so many answers.

But the cool part is: the older I got, the fewer forks I gave. Especially once I was working as an editorial assistant and literary intern. At that point, the privilege of being behind the scenes made it a little easier to ask my mentors for clarifications.

The following are some of those terms and phrases that I wanted to know, pretended to know, or eventually figured out.

ARC (advanced reader copy): an uncorrected proof of a soon-to-be published book.

BCC (back cover copy): the compelling pitch previously printed on the back covers of books.

beta reader: a member of your target audience who may provide written or verbal feedback on my polished manuscript. For my middle grade horror, my pre-teen niece was one of my beta readers. This term is often used interchangeable with a CP, but they are very different, if you ask me.

bio (biography): a short paragraph about your profession and/or writing credits included towards the end of your query letter.

blurb: the chunk of your query letter that is meant to catch the agent’s attention. No spoilers. Similar to what I read on BCC or jacket copy.

client: the term used for a writer who signs with a literary agent.

comps (comparative titles): the books or other media used in your query to position your manuscript. This helps the agent understand what you believe your manuscript sounds, feels, or looks like regarding format, tone, themes, or voice.

CP (critique partner): a fellow writer with whom you swap early drafts or revisions of pages, chapters, or manuscripts. This partner may or may not have editorial experience. Because they are usually writers, CPs are often avid readers and may also fall into your beta reader category.

developmental editor: an editor who deals primarily with early-stage writing, including, but not limited, to brainstorming, zero drafts, plot-level revisions, tension, conflict, dialogue, and more. Not all developmental editors are proofreaders. I sure as h*ck am not.

draft: an early version of your manuscript or idea. Often confused with a revision, but to me, they are very different entities. Drafts feel more like the earliest stage of writing where I’m just trying to tell myself the story. It doesn’t become a revision until I have a full manuscript printed in front of me, regardless of how crappy it is.

editor: a majestic being from another dimension to whom I owe all of my gratitude as a dyslexic writer with ADHD. Editors encompass an entire world of word-fixing that baffles me. May include developmental editor and proofreader but not exclusively.

full: if an agent requests “the full” they want the full version of your completed and polished manuscript.

hook: this varies from agency to agency. For those I queried, this meant the teeniest sentence or paragraph in your query letter that should grab the agent and make them want to read the entire query.

jacket copy: similar to BCC, just printed on the inside of hardcover book jacket flaps.

literary agent: someone who represents your interests related to business in the publishing world. Not your boss, but your partner. Their job is to sell your book to publishers.

MS/MSS: an abbreviation for manuscript and manuscripts, respectively.

MSWL (manuscript wish list): a literal list of the types of books or genres an agent wishes to acquire. Some agents will use #MSWL on Twitter to update their preferences. Many are listed here.

offer (offer of rep, offer of representation): when an agent literally offers to become your literary agent and represent you and your work to publishers.

on sub (on submission): this happens specifically when an agent sends their client’s work to a publisher. This doesn’t happen until after you have accepted an offer, but you’ll start to hear it a lot.

partial: if an agent requests a “partial” they only want to see the first few chapters or so many words of your completed and polished manuscript.

pass: a rejection of your query, meaning the agent is not interested in seeing pages.

personalization: a brief but authentic explanation in your query telling the agent why you've chosen them. It could be as simple as “I saw in your MSWL that you’re looking for X and think you might be interested in this.” If there is no specific reason, omit. An agent can smell an insincere or smarmy personalization a mile away.

pitch contests: Twitter events conducted through hashtags and websites where unrepresented writers pitch their work for visibility. Not a guarantee of representation, just a foot in the door to be a solicited query instead of unsolicited. Recent contests include #DVpit, #PitDark, #SFFpit, etc.

platform: the intangible realm that contains any and all of your current and future audiences. May include your real-life or social media-based network of friends, family, colleagues, and enemies.

proofreader: a celestial being who is able to find the smallest typographical error in your writing. They read on a word-by-word level to spot grammar, spelling, and typographical mistakes before final publication. These are the real heroes of publishing because proofreading is breathtaking but thankless work.

proposal: generally comprised of several sections, a book proposal is typically written in lieu of a completed manuscript for nonfiction works. The sections may include the overview, target audience, marketing/publicity, platform, comparative titles, chapter summaries, author bio, and sample chapters.

query: the actual one-ish-page pitch you send to an agent in hopes of catching their attention. Most commonly sent via email or through Query Manager or a submission form on the agency’s website.

Query Manager: a digital platform commonly used by agencies to streamline the query submission process. You don’t even need to sign up for it. It’s just one specific interface on the agency’s website.

Query Shark: a no-nonsense blog run by a powerhouse of a literary agent that all querying writers can benefit from. Trust me. This blog gave me a huge leg up when teaching myself how to write a really good query.

Query Tracker: a free online community to track your querying progress. You can also read reviews of agents, check out response times, and even chat with other users. This is another amazing tool that I wish I’d utilized sooner. What it lacks in aesthetics, it makes up for in content and function.

query trenches: a phrase meaning you am in the middle of querying one or more literary agents. This can include preparing queries, waiting to hear back, waiting for a response on requested materials. Lots of waiting. TIP: Don’t stop. Start working on the next project or take up a new hobby because a watched inbox DOES NOTHING. Trust me. Waiting is a huge part of this process and the sooner you accept that, the easier this will be.

R&R (revise and resubmit): a term for when an agent ALMOST LOVES your manuscript and really wants it to work, but has a few ideas about how to tighten it. Should you choose to take their ideas, revise it accordingly—you're entered into an informal verbal contract with the agent that they will have the right of first refusal to look at those revised pages once you're done. THIS IS NO GUARANTEE OF AN OFFER OF REPRESENTATION. But it’s not a “no” yet! If the agent loves your changes, they may offer you representation. If they are still not interested, you can then choose to query with your revised (per that agent’s suggestions) version to other agencies. But you don’t have to if you don’t want to.

referral: a recommendation from a member of the publishing community to query a specific agent. If you get a referral from a friend who is the agent’s client, that agent will be on the lookout for a query from you. Or you may even just refer to our mutual contact’s name in the beginning of my query letter. This goes without saying but DO NOT LIE ABOUT HAVING A REFERRAL. The agenting world is a small one. If you're unsure if your friend is giving you a referral or just recommending an agent you’d like, ask them for clarification.

reject: thankfully a verb, not a noun. Another word for pass when the agent is just not that into your manuscript.

request: if I see on social media that a friend “got her first request!” it means that an agent has literally requested to see either a partial or full version of their manuscript or proposal.

revision: the act of making changes in your completed manuscript based on comments and feedback from CPs, (or beta readers if you're nearing the final version of a manuscript). Often confused (or interchangeable) with draft.

simultaneous submission: if you are sending a query for your manuscript to more than one agency at a time, state that in your query as “This is a simultaneous submission.” I typically only do this if/when the agent requests this information in their submission guidelines.

sloppy copy: an early brainstorm or draft of your story idea. See: zero draft.

slush pile: the proverbial waiting room where all queries go to get read. Agents’ slush piles may be dozens, hundreds, or, yes, even thousands of other unsolicited queries deep. Unsolicited queries are typically read in the order in which they are received.

solicited: an expected query. The agent may be on the lookout for it from pitch contests or a referral.

submission guidelines: the specific rules or preferences an agent or agency posts regarding how they want writers to submit queries. Read these carefully and often because they can change without notice. Some agents are more forgiving than others, but err on the side of caution and re-read them before querying!

synopsis: this document is a brief summary of my manuscript’s primary plot, any subplots, conclusion, and possibly a few descriptions of characters and/or themes. Spoilers are very OK and expected. This is not the time to be cute or coy. It’s a technical document used to give agents and publishers a bird’s-eye view of your entire book.

target audience: the ideal group of readers that you want to read and enjoy your future book.

unsolicited: this refers to when an agent has not specifically asked for your query. But you’ve done your research and know they are open to submissions.

WIP (work-in-progress): any manuscript or creative project that you are currently and actively working on. You may or may not have the intention of querying this WIP in the near future.

writing buddy: a fellow writer with whom you may chat, vent, compare, cry and/or celebrate with regarding our respective publishing journeys. These amazing people may also be a CP (or even a beta reader if and only if they happen to be a member of your target audience).

zero draft: the low-stakes, no-one-else-needs-to-see-it brainstorm or sloppy copy for a new idea. May include words, lists, character sketches, drawings, or bits of dialogue. May also include anything that gets the story idea out of your head and onto that page. This typically gets your creative juices flowing.

*Feature photo by Jessica Lewis (Pexels)

Erica Davis is a freelance writer and editor with a background in film, publishing, and education. Previous credits include Nerdist and The Midnight Society. She welcomes connections via Twitter.
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