Literary Agents Share Their Best Writing Tips

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Browse the Internet and you’ll find all sorts of tips for writers from fellow writers, editors and publishers. Another group of professionals have their own take on the writing process – literary agents. After all, they work closely with aspiring authors to get their work published.

Most writers won’t need an agent to represent them. If you’re primarily a freelancer writing magazine features, business publications and website content, you won’t need an agent.

But if you’ve completed writing a book — either fiction or nonfiction — that you believe is your best work and you want another pair of eyes to look at it, then it might be time to search for a literary agent. Check out the Association of Author Representatives, which has a database of agents that you can search based on different criteria. Other sources are publishing industry magazines, such as Poets & Writers and Writer’s Digest. For more about finding a literary agent, check out these pros and cons from Masterclass.

Even if you plan to self-publish your novel or memoir, or if you don’t plan to write a book at all, it’s worth paying attention to what literary agents have to say about the writing process and the publishing business. After all, they’re review hundreds of manuscripts in search of talented authors with potential. They know what works and what doesn’t in the marketplace. There are nuggets of truth in their words of advice.

Below is a collection of agent advice for writers, gleaned from past issues of Writer’s Digest magazine. In each issue, WD profiles a literary agent who shares tips for pitching and writing, and the genres they work with. They describe what they look for in author submissions as well as what they love about the work they do as agents. Whether you plan to self-publish or have no plans to publish a novel at all, it’s still worth it to hear agents’ perspectives on the publishing process.

“Don’t be precious about your material. Don’t keep a sentence because it sounds nice. Be prepared to get rid of material, and be as ruthless as you can.”  Claire Anderson-Wheeler, Regal÷ Hoffmann & Associates

“Keep writing, even when people aren’t telling you to keep writing.”  Kerry Sparks, Levine Greenberg Rostan Literary Agency

“Get yourself a great critique partner.” John Cusick, Folio Literary Management

“No amount of good pitching will make up for a bad project, so focus first and foremost on your craft. Always challenge yourself to improve.”  Zabé Ellor, The Jennifer De Chiara Literary Agency

“Story arc is important, no matter what genre – even nonfiction, maybe especially.”  Rick Pascocello, Glass Literary Management

“Write what excites you; that passion can leak into the text and start a chain reaction.”  Ian Bonaparte, Janklow & Nesbit

“Understand that rejection is part of the process – learn from it instead of taking it personally.” Megan Close Zavala, formerly of Keller Media, now a writing coach.

“Believe that you have many stories to tell, and don’t despair if your first book doesn’t sell.”  Connor Goldsmith, Fuse Literary

“Don’t hold back when writing and dig as deeply into your emotional reservoir as you can.” Heather Cashman, Storm Literary Agency

“Practice verbally describing your pitch and watch for people to perk up with interest – that’s the heart of your pitch.” Caroline Eisenmann, Frances Golden Literary Agency

“Write a lot. Show your passion. Be authentic. I look forward to being surprised by a fantastic story.”  Linda Camacho, Gallt & Zacker Literary Agency

“Not every book you write should be published, but that doesn’t invalidate the experience you gained in writing it.” Susanna Einstein, Einstein Literary Management

“Don’t worry about following trends. Build a community. Support your local bookstores and fellow writers.” Lisa Grubka, Fletcher & Company

“Remember that agents and editors got into this business because we love books. We are not your enemies.”  
On editing: “Try to understand the gap between your intention and your editor’s understanding of your work.”  Rachel Sussman, Chalberg & Sussman

“Immerse yourself in the authors of your genre.”  John Talbot, The Talbot Fortune Agency

“Always build your platform by publishing smaller works: essays, articles, poetry, stories.”  Natalie Kimber, The Rights Factory

“Learn your own weaknesses and root them out ruthlessly. Don’t aspire to be published; aspire to be read.”  Bob Hostetler, The Steve Laube Agency

“Know the comparable titles that aren’t blockbuster bestsellers.”  Christopher Rhodes, The Stuart Agency

“No one’s success hurts the chances of yours. Be supportive in your communities. Be careful who gets to weigh in and critique your work.”  Erik Hane, Headwater Literary Management

“Pay attention to what people are looking for (manuscript wish lists). Write freely, edit with precision.”  Stephanie Hansen, Metamorphosis Literary Agency

“Have courage. You won’t know how to do any of this yet…but you’ll learn.”  Tricia Lawrence, Erin Murphy Literary Agency.

“Know/learn when to keep at it and when to move on. Don’t give up on your dreams of being a published author, but sometimes it is best to move on from a project that’s just not working…, and start something new.”  Patrice Caldwell, New Leaf Literary & Media

Do you work with a literary agent? What is the best advice you have received from them?

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