Monday, October 06, 2008

Basic Definitions for Writers

I'm teaching a workshop tonight for UNC here in Greensboro, NC, about the basics of the business of writing. It's not a 'how-to' class about writing, it's about what to expect from the publishing industry and how to go about approaching editors and publishers. One of the things I put together is a handout of basic definitions, and it occurred to me that this might be helpful info for more than just the 25 people who signed up to take the class. So here is some of the basic terminology that you will encounter in the publishing world and what it means. If anyone has any questions, can think of any important terms I may have left out, or anything else, please post a comment and let me know. (It's a pretty long list, broken up into sections covering the following areas: General, Non-Fiction, and Contracts.)

Definitions Every Writer Should Know


BYLINE – Indicates who the author is. May sometimes include promotional material on the author. Example: Edmund R. Schubert is a freelance writer and editor. Information about his novel, Dreaming Creek, can be found at his website:

COOL DOWN – Setting aside your writing for anywhere from a few hours to a few months (for book projects) to allow you to return to it with a fresh eye for polishing and revision.

COVER LETTER – A cover letter is a brief letter of introduction that accompanies any submitted work. In many cases these are optional; in all cases they should be brief.

CRITIQUE GROUP – A group to read, edit, and offer advice and evaluation of your work. VERY IMPORTANT for writers to have people they can trust to offer honest feedback on their work. Can be an organized group that meets at a regular, set time, or a loose group of friends who read each others’ works as needed.

ESSAY: An essay represents the personal view/opinion of the writer.

FREELANCE WRITER / EDITOR – A freelancer works on various projects by contract, and is not the employee of any single magazine or publisher. However, freelancers often do maintain long-term relationships with editors and/or publishers.

IDEA FILE – A folder where you collect articles, columns, essays, phrases, words, reports, or anything else that catches your eye. When you’re searching for ideas on what to write about, go to your Idea Folder for inspiration. A must have for writers!

GENRE – The category a story, article, or script falls into. Examples: thriller, horror, science-fiction, romance. Non-fiction genres for magazine articles include self-help, how-to, opinion pieces, essays, inspirational, question and answer, interview, fillers, etc.

HOOK – The opening of your article or story is usually referred to as your “hook;” it is how you grab a reader’s attention. In a short story it is usually your first paragraph or two; in a magazine article it can be a little as your first sentence or even your title. In a novel it can be as much as you entire first chapter.

MARKET GUIDE – Includes submittal information on how to query magazines, editors, and publishers. Writer’s Market by Writer’s Digest books is probably the best known market guide.

MULTIPLE SUBMISSIONS – Sending more than one piece of work at a time, i.e., mailing an editor 3 different query ideas all at once. NOT A GOOD IDEA.

NICHE – Defining a specialty area to write for. For example, parenting, cooking, technology, etc.

OUTLINE / SYNOPSIS – A detailed description of a book (fiction or non-fiction) that you have written/are proposing to write. These can vary in length from one page to fifty pages, depending on the requirements of the publisher.

PIECE – Casual/industry term used almost interchangeably with “article.” Refers to a “piece” of work you’re submitting. (See “Work” under CONTRACTS.)

QUERY / QUERY LETTER – In fiction, a query letter can either be a letter checking on the status of a previously submitted piece, or an inquiry as to a publisher’s interest in seeing a particular piece. In the case of the latter (gauging interest), this is done almost exclusively with novels, not with short fiction.

RESPONSE TIME – Term usually found in writer’s guideline indicating how long an author should expect to wait before hearing a response from the editor/publisher who is assessing their work. Do not query editor/publisher until after this time is has elapsed.

SASE – Self Addressed Stamped Envelope (your new best friend).

SELF-PUBLISHED – This means exactly what it sounds like: you published it yourself. On the one hand, it means that you incurred all the costs and risks associated with publishing a work (usually a book). On the other hand it also means that you did all the work and are entitled to 100% of the profits. Opinions vary on the pros and cons of self-publishing.

SIMULTANEOUS SUBMISSION – Piece (query letter, article, short story, or novel) sent to more than one market at a time. VERY GOOD IDEA to simultaneously submit if allowed; VERY BAD IDEA if not. Check writer’s guidelines (usually posted on the publisher’s website) to see if allowed.

SMALL-PRESS PUBLISHER – This term generally applies to any of the smaller publishers working outside of New York City. They can vary considerably in their size and their ability to distribute/promote your work.

SUBMISSIONS GUIDELINES – A set of guidelines or rules the publisher wants all writers to follow concerning, when, where, and how to submit work for publication. It covers everything from subject matter to font size and margins. Guidelines are readily available on the publisher’s website and should be strictly adhered to.

WRITER’S BLOCK – Times when you feel uninspired or unable to write. Some writers believe writer’s block to be a real obstacle while others consider it little more than an excuse to be lazy.

VANITY PRESS – Term used to describe any of the companies that you can pay to publish your book. Similar to self-publishing, but usually of a lower quality. This is generally considered to be the bottom-rung of the publishing food chain.

VOICE - The distinctive manner in which you choose and arrange words, phrases, ideas, and sentences on the page. Your writer’s “voice” reflects your personal take on a subject. Well-developed writer’s voices are often immediately recognizable on the page.

WRITER’S GUIDELINES – Specific details set out by a magazine on what type articles they’re seeking, length of articles, how to submit, who to contact, etc.


ARTICLE – A piece of non-fiction writing published in a periodical (as opposed to a non-fiction book).

CLIP / CLIPPING – A sample of a writer’s work, preferably a published article. It is cut from a newspaper or magazine, photocopied (high quality, but doesn’t have to be color) and sent to a magazine editor. A clip should represent your best work and/or work that is in a similar vein to work you are proposing to write for an editor.

Example: If a pet writer queried Dog World about an article on the best way to train puppies, they would send clips where they’ve written breed profiles to show they have experience writing about dogs. Editors would be less impressed with clips on career strategies, no mater how well-written.

EDITORIAL CALENDAR – Often found on a magazine’s website (usually in the advertisers section), it outlines themes for upcoming issues. This can help you know exactly what kind of article to pitch.

QUERY / QUERY LETTER – A letter written to a magazine editor or non-fiction book publisher where the author outlines their idea for an article or book. The majority of magazine articles and non-fiction books are written AFTER the idea has been approved by an editor.

SIDE BAR – Short side-article or list that enhances the main article. Editors love these!

SPECULATION (ON SPEC) – An editor may want to see your work before agreeing to accept it so they’ll ask you to write the article and submit it “on spec.” The editor is under no obligation to pay for or accept the piece. However, offering to submit a piece “on spec” may help beginning writers who don’t have clips to offer.

**Think of it less as “selling” your work and more as “licensing” your work.

ADVANCE / ADVANCE AGAINST ROYALTIES – This is money paid to you by the publisher for a book (fiction or non-fiction) before the book is published. You will not be paid any more money until the book sells enough copies to earn this amount back for the publisher. Some publishers (usually smaller ones) do not pay an advance; they simply start paying royalties right away.

AGENT / LITERARY AGENT – This is a essentially a professional negotiator who will represent your book when it is time to get/sign a contract. A good agent will protect the interests of you, their client, and only get paid when you get a contract from a publisher. If anyone claiming to be a literary agent offers you representation but asks you for money up front (anything from a signing fee to ‘administrative fees’), they are probably a scam artist.

ALL RIGHTS – Avoid this clause. This means you are selling every right you have to your work and so, in effect, it is no longer yours. You forfeit the right to ever use the work again and you are not entitled to additional payment if the magazine goes on to use your article again in any way.

ELECTRONIC RIGHTS – Becoming more common. Some print magazines will offer an extra fee to publish your work on their website (as they should!), though most will state in their contract that they’re buying unlimited electronic rights. You usually have to fight on this one if you don’t want to give it away.

FIRST RIGHTS- Rights that the writer offers a magazine/web site to publish an article for the FIRST time, i.e., the work cannot have appeared anywhere else (including blogs) before appearing in the magazine you’ve offered first rights to.

FIRST NORTH AMERICAN SERIAL RIGHTS (FNASR) – The magazine/publisher has the right to be the first one in North America to publish the piece. FNASR and All Rights are the two most-commonly found rights asked for in contracts. (Sometimes also called FNSR.)

KILL FEE – Usually 20-30% of the agreed upon fee, this is the amount you’ll be paid if the magazine accepts your piece but then decides not to use it. Not all magazines offer kill fees.

NON-EXCLUSIVE RIGHTS – You retain the right to resell the piece.

ONE-TIME RIGHTS – Gives the magazine the right to publish the piece once, but not necessarily first.

PAYS ON ACCEPTANCE / PAYS ON PUBLICATION – This clause of a contract determines when the writer will be paid for their work, and is primarily used for short stories and magazine articles, not for books. Payment on Acceptance means the writer will be paid when the magazine accepts the story for publication. Payment on Publication means the writer will be paid when the story is published (ranging anywhere from six weeks to nine month or more after acceptance). It should come as no surprise that Payment on Publication is the much more commonly used clause.

REPRINT RIGHTS / NON-EXCLUSIVE REPRINT RIGHTS – Reprint rights tell the publication the piece has been published prior. Usually reprint rights are approximately 35% of the agreed upon fee for First Rights. Non-exclusive reprint rights mean you retain the right to re-sell the work yet again, maybe even simultaneously.

RIGHTS – Publishers are contracting for the “right” to use/publish your work and they should pay you to do so. (Some smaller magazines only have the resources to pay you in copies of the magazine in which your work appears, but hey, you’ve got to start somewhere…) There are a lot of different kinds of rights; the more the publisher asks for, the more they ought to pay you. In the absence of a formal contract, it’s usually assumed that the magazine gets FNASR.

ROYALTIES – This is the percentage of the profits that will be paid to you for sales of your book. If you’ve received an advance, you do not receive any royalties until the book “earns out” it’s advance. Royalties are commonly between 10% and 15% of the book’s profits (though some publishers pay a percentage of the book’s net profits, and some pay a percentage of the gross profits). This only applies to books; magazines do not pay royalties.

ROYALTY PERIOD – This is how often your publisher will pay you royalties. It is usually twice per year, but some contracts call for either annual or quarterly royalty periods.

WORK – Formal industry term used in contracts, interchangeable with “piece” or “article.” Refers to the “piece” of “work” you are signing the contract for.

WORK FOR HIRE – Pretty much the same as giving away all rights for a set fee. All work you do becomes the property of the employer to use as they like.


Gray Rinehart said...

Nice list, Ed!

Edmund R. Schubert said...

Thank you, kind sir. It's just the basics, but everybody should know the basics, eh?

Nancy said...

Thanks, great info.