Writing Glossary

Like every field, writing has its own vocabulary. To double the challenge, we have to manage both the lingo of the craft and the jargon of publishing. Here's a breakdown of terms we think every writer (from aspiring newbie to experienced pro) should understand clearly.

Have we left something out? Let us know at fromthewriteangle@gmail.com.

Buzzwords of the Biz

Advance Review Copy. These are hard copies of books that are sent out by the publisher before the release, generally for the purpose of getting reviews in time for the release date.

This is the "up-front" money publishers pay to their authors. It's often broken up into installments (i.e., part upon signing the contract, part upon publication, etc.). It is not dependent on how many copies sell.

Big 6 publishers
Go into a bookstore and pick up a book. Chances are, it was published by one of the Big 6, though you might not know it if you don't recognize the imprint (see below). So, who are the Big 6?

  • Hachette Book Group
  • HarperCollins
  • MacMillan Publishers Ltd
  • Penguin Group
  • Random House
  • Simon and Schuster

Not the same as genre—there are genres within a category. Category is most frequently used to describe the age group of the target audience. For example, young adult is a category. Thriller is a genre. (See below for a breakdown of categories as well as genres.)

This is the professional nit-picker. When you're at the copy-editing phase, edits will be in terms of grammar, spelling, punctuation, etc. Contrast to editor, below.

cover conference
A meeting that takes place within the publishing house to plan the title and cover design for a book. Authors are not present at these meetings, but their editor may ask for input and ideas from the author beforehand. The art and marketing departments will run the show—this is what they do—and the editor will be present. In some cases, other editors, large buyers, and/or the publisher may be present as well.

cover letter
These are becoming more rare in the days of electronic communication, but are still requested for snail-mail submissions ("Here is the requested manuscript") or short story submissions.

e-book formats
There are two main file types for commercial e-books. One is the ePub format, which is used by e-readers such as the Barnes & Noble Nook, the iPad, and Sony's line of e-readers. The other is a proprietary format used by Amazon's Kindle, based on the MobiPocket format.

e-publishing or e-pub
This refers to publishing as an e-book to be read on a computer, tablet, dedicated e-reader, or phone app. There are many DIY options for authors, as well as some small publishers specializing in e-pub only.

There are two main categories for e-readers: dedicated and app-based. A dedicated e-reader such as the Kindle, Nook, or Sony readers is designed with reading e-books as its primary purpose. Tablets such as the iPad, as well as other devices such as iPhones, Blackberries, and computers are more multifunctional and have a variety of e-reading apps to choose from.

Calculations may vary, but an advance is earned-out when enough copies of the book have sold to cover it. After this point, royalties on further sales will be paid.

A broad term, but used here in contrast to a copy-editor (see above). The editor assigned to your work at a publishing house may or may not be the one who initially read, loved, and bought your manuscript. Regardless, the feedback you will get from this editor will generally be in terms of overall story, clarity, pace, consistency, etc. They may note a few copy-editing nits, but it is not their primary focus.

An exclusive is when you give an agent or editor a limited amount of time during which they are the only one reviewing your manuscript.

Just what it sounds like—the full manuscript. If an agent or editor asks for one, do not start biting your nails after they've had it for three days. It could take a few months.

Galleys are a proof copy which may be bound or unbound, and may or may not have a full color cover. They are used at the proofreading/copy-editing stage to catch any mistakes and make any final changes.

Not the same as category. Genre refers to specific types of fiction, such as horror, science-fiction, or romance. (See below for a breakdown of various genres.)

Definitions don't always agree, but in general, a high-concept story is one that the general public can easily identify with and/or the premise can be easily boiled down to a single sentence.

Definitions vary somewhat, but in general, a hook is a component of a query letter that sums up the novel's conflict in one sentence. In some online contests asking for a logline, up to one hundred words may be permitted for setting up the premise and central conflict of the story.

Think of it as a publisher-within-a-publisher. Imprints are more specialized departments within a larger publishing corporation. One may focus on children's literature, while another specializes in adult romance.

We're not sure there's a consensus on just what "indie publishing" means. Some view it as anything that's done outside of the Big 6 publishers, including self-publishing. Others view it as working with small and mid-size publishers.

ms or mss

marketing department
(Contrast to publicity department, below.) Simple rule-of-thumb: If it costs money, marketing handles it. For example, print or online ads, or special placement within brick-and-mortar bookstores.

multiple submissions
This is mostly seen in submission guidelines for short story markets. A note for "no multiple submissions" means you should not submit a second (or third, or fourth) story to them until they have made a decision regarding the first.

This is generally the first three chapters or the first fifty pages.

Essentially, a sales pitch for your story. There's the "elevator" pitch (and assume you're on an average ride in an elevator, not going down to a secret government bunker 2000 feet underground—brevity is key). There are also pitch sessions at conferences and pitch contests online. In general, a pitch answers the question, "What's your book about?" and makes the listener want to know more.

Print On Demand. This means a book is not printed until it is ordered. Several companies offer POD services, and such books can be ordered through online stores such as Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

In nonfiction, a proposal for a project is often sent to agents or editors before a manuscript is complete—or even before it's begun. A proposal may or may not be accompanied by sample chapters. Always check submission guidelines.

publicity department
(Contrast to marketing department, above.) Simple rule-of-thumb: If it doesn't cost money, the publicity department handles it. For example, reviews are handled by this department since they don't cost money (aside from the cost of creating the galleys or ARCs for review).

This is the bait for hooking an agent or editor. A query is a business letter that concisely shows what your story's about and entices the recipient to ask for more. Find out more about queries here.

Got a lawyer handy? There are several types of rights to consider in any publishing deal, including (but not limited to) print, foreign, digital, film, and audio.

This is the money publishers pay their authors based on a percentage of sales. The precise method of calculation varies. If there was an advance, royalties are only paid after the book earns-out its advance (see above).

Self-Addressed Stamped Envelope. Yes, some people still use snail-mail.

self-publishing or self-pub
These days, there are many ways to self-publish, from e-publishing only to POD (Print On Demand) to paying out-of-pocket for a limited print run. With self-publishing, the author is responsible for either doing everything, or paying to get it done.

This refers to the percentage of units shipped that are actually sold, and it's a number those guys in marketing will be very interested in.

simultaneous submission
Submitting the same piece of work to more than one place at a time. Some agents, publishers, and short story markets have a no simultaneous submissions policy.

small press
At the other end of the spectrum from the Big 6, but not the same as self-publishing. Small presses are usually more specialized or niche and often don't offer advances, but they provide editorial services without cost to the author. Unlike vanity publishers, small presses are selective in what they take on.

standard manuscript format
One-inch margins, double-spaced, 12-point font (usually Times New Roman, though a few still like Courier). A header should be included with page numbers, the author's last name, and the title (or a few words of the title if it's long).

The story in a slightly larger nutshell than given in a query. Lengths vary from one page single-spaced to ten-to-fifteen pages double-spaced. Unlike a query, a synopsis should include the ending.

vanity publisher
Companies that may look like other traditional publishers on the surface, but charge authors large amounts of money to publish their book. They are generally not selective about what they will publish. Different from self-publishing in that authors do not retain control.


word count
Exactly what it sounds like—the length of the manuscript in words. An estimation technique of 250 words per page used to be common, but these days most agents and editors expect you to use the word count function of your word processor. Counts for novel-length works should be rounded to the nearest thousand.


Books for kids ranging from toddlers to not-quite-preteens. A number of publishers accept unagented submissions in this area. Subcategories include:
  • board books
  • picture books
  • chapter books

Middle Grade (MG)
Books for the preteen set. Protagonists usually range between 11-13 years old, and target readers are generally 8-12 years old.

Young Adult (YA)
Books for teenagers. Protagonists usually range between 15-18 years old, and target readers are within that range or a little younger. (Yes, there are YA books with 14-year-old MCs out there. Those are the exceptions, NOT the norm.) Content may be more "adult" in nature but should be handled appropriately.

New Adult
This category has not yet become standard in the industry, but there are occasional references to it. These books aim slightly older than YA with protagonists that are generally college-aged.


This list is not all-inclusive, as there are frequently further sub-genres, but it's a starting point for a basic overview.

Women's Fiction
General women's fiction is a large umbrella covering female-centric stories. Not as light as chick-lit, and while romance may be an element, it is not the central theme. Some may consider chick-lit, romance, and erotica to be sub-genres of women's fiction, but always do your homework on individual agents to understand the specific types of stories they're looking for.

Often described as light, fluffy, beach-reads. Also female-centric, but lighter and with more humor than general women's fiction.

The love story is central, and there must be an emotionally satisfying and optimistic ending. Romances are often paired with other genres such as suspense, historical, or paranormal.

Stories where the character's personal journey unfolds in a sexual context. The sex is essential to the story not just for the eroticism, but because that's where the emotion and character growth are shown. Romance, monogamy, and "happily ever after" are not a requirement of this genre as they are in Romance.

Science-Fiction (SF)
You know, like Star Trek. Okay, not necessarily. This genre has a huge number of sub-genres. Here are a few:

  • Hard SF: Very technical and deep on the science end of things
  • Soft SF: More philosophical, sociological, etc.
  • Space Opera: What it sounds like—spaceships, aliens, large-scale
  • Alternate History: Also what it sounds like—changing history as we know it, very "what if?"
  • Steampunk: Form of alternate history, generally 19th century when technology was steam-powered, but using more advanced technology than truly existed at the time
  • Dystopian: Setting is a bleak future world, often post-apocalyptic
  • Science-Fantasy: Fantasy elements are given a scientific or pseudo-scientific grounding

You know, like The Lord of the Rings. Okay, again, not necessarily. This genre also has a lot of sub-genres, including (but not limited to) these:

  • High/Epic Fantasy: "Classic" fantasy, usually medieval-like in setting, with focus on an entire race or society
  • Urban Fantasy: Fantasy elements such as magic appearing in an otherwise ordinary, modern world
  • Paranormal: Similar to urban fantasy, often including elements such as ghosts, vampires, werewolves, etc.
  • Science-Fantasy: Fantasy elements are given a scientific or pseudo-scientific grounding

These can be tricky to differentiate, and many novels may be a hybrid. One interpretation:

  • Thriller: Exciting and action-packed
  • Suspense: More tension and focus on threats of something happening
  • Mystery: Focus is more on figuring out who did/is doing something

The story should be creepy, possibly gory, and definitely frightening.

Historical Fiction
What it sounds like—the story takes place during a historical time period, such as ancient Egypt or Renaissance France. The time period should be more than 50 years ago, and the piece should not have been written during that time period. Writers must balance historical/factual accuracy with their fictional plot.

The Art & Craft of Writing

active voice
Generally a matter of sentence construction, where the subject of the sentence is the one acting, not being acted upon. Contrast to passive voice (see below). For example, "Calista picked up the pencil" is active, while "The glass was picked up by Robert" is passive.

The background of a character, things that happened before the beginning of the story. If important to the current story, these details should be skillfully woven in without giving the reader the feeling they've stopped in their tracks for a history lesson.

beta reader
Someone you use to "test drive" an early draft. May be a fellow writer (often crossing over into critique partner territory) or a knowledgeable reader of the genre. Should be someone who can be honest in their feedback, both positive and negative.

critique partner/group
People who exchange work (often in portions, but sometimes full manuscripts at once) for constructive criticism. More than beta readers, critique partners or groups will delve into the mechanics of why something may or may not work.

Sudden and/or frequent POV shifts (see POV, below). There are several ways of effectively managing a POV shift. "Head-hopping" usually means it's being done ineffectively, causing the reader confusion and/or whiplash.

Halting the momentum of a story to lay out a large chunk of information. If the information is critical to the story, it should be woven in as skillfully as possible. Acceptable techniques of relaying such information may vary by genre.

Main Character or protagonist.

Point-of-View. Generally speaking, it refers to whose eyes the reader sees the story through. More technically, it refers to the structure of the story and position of the narrator:

  • First Person: The POV character is directly telling the story him- or herself. Narration is in terms of "I" and "me," and will only include what the character sees and experiences. (There may be more than one POV character, usually separated by chapters.)
  • Second Person: The reader is the POV character, and narration is in terms of "you." Fairly rare outside of short fiction.
  • Third Person: The story is being told by an outside narrator in terms of "he" or "she." Narration may be either "close" or "omniscient."
  • Close POV: Within third person, the focus remains tight on a single POV character, similar to first person. Things that are not known to or experienced by that POV character can't be revealed unless there is a POV shift to another character (usually separated by chapters or scene breaks).
  • Omniscient POV: Within third person, the narrator knows all—what any given character is thinking, and what's happening in any location within the story.

passive voice
Contrast to active voice (see above). The subject of the sentence is what's being acted upon, rather than what's doing the acting. For example, "Mindy was sued by Pete" is passive, while "Sophie corrected R.C." is active. Note: the presence of a form of "to be" (such as "was") does NOT automatically mean something is passive.

When something is "shown" in the narrative, the reader essentially experiences it in real-time. This also refers to illustrating facets of a story (such as a character's selfishness) rather than simply declaring them and requiring the reader to take the writer's word for it. All stories will have a mix of showing and telling, so the writer must determine which is more effective for a particular aspect.

When something is "told" in the narrative, the reader must accept it on faith. It's the difference between a teacher being told a new student is a handful, and experiencing that student's behavior firsthand. All stories will have a mix of showing and telling, so the writer must determine which is more effective for a particular aspect.

This does not necessarily mean chopping word count, but that is a frequent side-effect. When a critique partner says something needs to be tightened, it's likely taking too long to say something. It may also mean a sentence or passage is too roundabout or confusing. The amount of "tightness" required may vary by genre and style, but confusion should always be avoided.

Simply put, voice is personality coming through in a narrative. It may be formal or informal, and style will vary, but it should always feel natural to the reader and remain consistent throughout the piece.