Updated July 2023
There are weird words in every industry, and the literary world is no exception. We’ve listed some of the stranger-sounding industry-specific jargon common to writers, editors, and literary agents in the publishing industry that may need some clarification. These word definitions for the book biz will help you get by at writing conferences and groups!
Anaphora. Too many sentences in a row that begin the same way. Sometimes this is deliberate and effective. Sometimes this is sloppy. Sometimes it is simply irritating.
Avant-garde. Usually associated with artwork, this term can also be applied to literature that is considered new or experimental. If your work has been labeled avant-garde, you can be proud of your innovation. Much better than “same ol’, same ol’.”
Backstory. The history of your characters before the book’s present action.
Blurb. This sounds like a bodily function, but, in actuality, it refers to the synopsis on the back cover of the book. Its function is to “hook” the reader like a fish. Learn How To Write A Killer Book Blurb. NOTE: “Blurb” can also refer to a cover quote given from one author to another for promotion and support.
Dead metaphor. This is a poor little metaphor that is no longer relevant (“long in the tooth”) and has been overused.
Head-hopping. Jumping from one person’s thoughts to another’s or switching back and forth between points of view. This is just another way to give your audience a headache.
Hook. Whether it’s the first line of a query, a novel, or part of the blurb, a hook is designed to capture the reader’s attention. We know that readers aren’t fish. But it paints a cool mental picture.
Novella. Sounds like something vaguely racy. In actuality it is a short novel (approximately half the size). Learn the difference between a novella and a short story.
Round file. A nice word for trash can. A not-so-nice place for your manuscript to end up.
Slush pile. If you live in northern climes, the slush pile usually refers to the pile of slushy snow that threatens to grab your tires or fill up your boots. In writer’s lingo the slush pile is where the hundreds upon hundreds of unsolicited or misdirected manuscripts go—usually a dusty pile in the corner of an editor’s office.
Widows and orphans. A “widow” is the last line of the paragraph floating alone and lonely at the top of the next page. An “orphan” is the first line of a paragraph that languishes at the bottom of the page, all alone.
YA. Young adult. Or “Yikes! Anaphora!”
Feedback from critiques, editors, and agents can also contain some confusing notations we should clarify. Your MS is voicey and organic but switches POV indiscriminately. What the heck? Translation: Your manuscript has a strong, well-defined voice and rings true and authentic, but your point of view switches back and forth. Comments like “Boring and too long” or “I hated this” are fairly self-explanatory. Others are not quite as clear.
No legs. Can your idea or novel stand on its own in the big, scary market? If not, your work may suffer from “no legs.” (You see the metaphor.)
Organic. No, not vegetables. This is writing that is authentic, uncontrived. If your character is organic, it means he comes across as real, not as an artificial, unrealistic protagonist with zero faults and great big muscles.
Quiet. This work has been labeled as more literary than commercial and, therefore, harder to sell.
Stale. Again, a food reference. If your story has been labeled stale, it’s time to take a “fresh” approach.
Tight. Good job! You’ve eliminated all the unnecessary filler and made it nice and concise and really tried to be spare with your words and things like that, which makes your writing not too padded and fluffy, and you have taken out all the nonessentials.
At Writer’s Relief, we’ve been helping creative writers navigate the publishing industry since 1994. We can help you submit your writing to literary agents or editors. We welcome your questions!