Literary Terms Defined: The Uncommon and Common

bookGIVEAWAY: I am very excited to again give away a free book to a random commenter. The winner can choose either CREATE YOUR WRITER PLATFORM or the 2013 GUIDE TO LITERARY AGENTS. Commenters must live in the US/Canada; comment within one week to win. Good luck!

UPDATE: Kim won. Thanks for all who participated.

Working for Writer’s Digest Books, I come across a lot of literary terms — both the common and uncommon. Because it’s healthy for writers of all levels to be familiar with terms they may come across in articles, conversations and contracts, here are some literary terms defined for your enjoyment.

Boiler plate contract (also know as a “standard contract”) – (n.) This term usually refers to an agreed starting contract between a literary agent and publisher. If Agent X sells a book to Putnam, for example, their next deal with Putnam will likely have the same royalty rates and subright splits as the first deal.

Denouement – (n.) French for an untying. The denouement of a novel or story follows the climax; it represents the unraveling pf the complexities of a plot, and the clarifying of the story’s details and misunderstandings.

Galley – (n.) A bound version of just the text of the book (or article, if writing for magazines). There is little to no illustration and the cover is a solid color with release data printed on the cover. Used for the same purposes as ARCs (advanced reader copies).

Kill fee – (n.) A fee paid to a writer who has worked on an assignment that, for some reason, is not published. For example, you’re contracted to write an article for a magazine and you turn it in. The article itself is satisfactory. But then the editor calls you and says they are changing the focus of the upcoming issue and they can’t use your article as part of the package anymore. They have no more need for it, so they pay you a kill fee (a percentage of the original promised price — usually 25–50%) and all rights to the article revert back to you.  Your best bet is to try and sell it elsewhere.

Logline – (n.) A one-line summary of your story.  For example: “A treasure hunter searches for a fabled artifact in the Himalayas.”

Narrative nonfiction – Nonfiction that uses the devices of fiction.  You’re telling a true story, but using things such as character development, dialogue and cliffhangers. Think about it like the movie Apollo 13. The whole story is true, but it’s told in a dramatic fashion, like a fictional story would be. Oft-cited examples of narrative nonfiction include The Perfect Storm, Seabiscuit, In Cold Blood and The Right Stuff.

New adult – a new and growing genre that features protagonists aged 18-26. This age of main character was previously a “no man’s land” area between young adult fiction and adult fiction. Characters in new adult fiction are usually in college or just out of school starting their post-education lives.

On spec – Writing a complete assignment before money is assured through a contract. When you compose an original screenplay not commissioned by anyone, it is known as a “spec screenplay.” If you query a magazine or newspaper with an article idea, they may ask you to write it on spec, meaning they want to see the finished product in its entirety before making a decision to purchase and publish it.

Sic – Latin for thus or so. Usually [enclosed in brackets] or (parentheses), sic is inserted after a word, phrase or expression in a quoted passage to indicate that the word or phrase has been quoted exactly as it was written, even though it may seem strange or incorrect (e.g., there was a spelling error in the quote).

Simultaneous submission – (n.) A submission where the writer submits his work to multiple editors or agents at the same time.  Submitting to more than one agent is common (and encouraged). Some agents will only review queries or manuscripts exclusively; however, they should be upfront about this quirk in their online writers’ guidelines, and they should have a limited amount of time to be the only ones reviewing your work (one month, for example).

Stet – Latin for let it stand. Editors and proofreaders place the word stet in the margin of a manuscript to indicate that a marked change or deletion should be ignored, and the copy typeset in its original form.

Vet – (v.) A term used by editors when referring to the procedure of submitting a book manuscript (usually a memoir or exposé) to an outside expert for review before publication. A manuscript is usually vetted at the publisher’s expense.


F&G: stands for fold & gather – (n.) The picture book version of a galley. They are not bound but show the picture book in all its four-color glory. It’s then sent to reviewers and the like.

MG: stands for the genre of middle grade fiction.

MS/MSS: stands for manuscript/manuscripts – (n.) The typed, double-spaced, in-a-standard-font version of an author’s work submitted to a publishing house.

PB: stands for picture book – (n.) A book for younger children that has sparse text and big, colorful (or occasionally black and white) pictures. They generally have 32 pages.

YA: stands for the genre of young adult fiction.


On the record – When everything in an interview is fair game to be printed and attributed normally.  This accounts for 99.9% of interviewing for most writers.

Off the record – When a source explains something not for publication by any means, but just as a personal explaination to the interviewer. To be truly off the record, both the source and writer must agree to it. If a source simply says “Off the record” and gives their thoughts without the writer agreeing to stop reporting, then the conversation is not truly off the record, and the writer must determine whether to use the material.

Unattributable – This is the current term for when you quote a source but keep their identity anonymous.

On background – What’s said cannot be quoted nor can the source be identified, but the gist of what’s said may or may not be printed. For example, “A source inside the McCain campaign, who wished to remain anonymous due to the sensitive nature of this information, hinted that they may be as few as only two names on McCain’s short list of potential vice presidential candidates.”

Got any terms you want defined? List them in the comments. If I do a second edition of this type of column, I will try to includes yours.

GIVEAWAY: I am very excited to again give away a free book to a random commenter. The winner can choose either CREATE YOUR WRITER PLATFORM or the 2013 GUIDE TO LITERARY AGENTS. Commenters must live in the US/Canada; comment within one week to win. Good luck! UPDATE: Kim won.


About Chuck Sambuchino

Chuck Sambuchino is a freelance editor of query letters, synopses, book proposals, and manuscripts. As an editor for Writer's Digest Books, he edits the GUIDE TO LITERARY AGENTS and the CHILDREN'S WRITER'S & ILLUSTRATOR'S MARKET. His Guide to Literary Agents Blog is one of the largest blogs in publishing. His own books include the bestselling humor book, HOW TO SURVIVE A GARDEN GNOME ATTACK, which was optioned by Sony Pictures, as well as the writing guide, CREATE YOUR WRITER PLATFORM. Connect with Chuck on Twitter or at his website.


  1. Charlotte Hunter says

    It’s always wise to review these terms, to ensure no needless mistakes are made in our complicated business. Thanks for the review.


  2. says

    Great post. Thanks for sharing. Stet, On Background and F & G were all new to me. I enjoy learning about the business of writing.

  3. says

    This is great, I’ll bookmark it for future reference.
    Thank you.

    (I’d say something witty about how I’d rather have ‘sic’ scribbled somewhere on my MS , than ‘suc’ , but that would be lame and downright brazen… )

  4. Sue LeBreton says

    Thanks for this information. I was very interested to learn about the New Adult genre.

  5. says

    As always, your post is informative and to the point. Thank you for all of the information and guidance you give writers!! If lucky enough to win, Create Your Writer’s Platform sounds like a winner to me! :-)

  6. says


    Nice to have some industry terms defined. I’d love to see some craft terms defined, too. For writers those can be even more mysterious because their often poorly defined or defined not at all.

    I don’t mean terms like “analepsis”, “fabliau”, “litotes” or “peripeteia”. This are precisely defined literary terms. I’m talking about terms that are used every day in editorial offices, in critique groups and online, but which are fuzzy at best. Terms like…


    (*See last week’s discussion on WU kicked off by Meg Rosoff)
    (**Yes, this adjective is now in common use in editorial offices)

    Even a familiar term as “theme” can cause confusion and grief. What is theme, exactly? The author’s message? A motif? And what about “omniscient” as in narrator? How omniscient is omniscient? Godlike perspective? Intrusive authorial comment? Merely objective reportage?

    When terms of our craft are not as well defined as industry terms like “simultaneous submission”, then authors are shooting at moving targets without instruction in the use of bow and arrow.

    (“Simultaneous submission”…come to think of it, wasn’t that also a referent in 50 Shades of Grey?)

    Anyway, if ever you’re stuck for a topic for a post, there you go.

    • Gretchen Stone says

      Don, Voicey? I found my voice, now I have to somehow imbue my ms with it to such a degree that it is voicey? It is a good thing, right?

      I know ‘mouthy’, I will go to work on voicey, although I do hope they are similar.

      Memes and themes rhyme just to be mean.

      I’m going to the dictionary now to look up fabliau.


  7. Judith Coopy says

    I am a retired English (ESL/EFL) professor and find this blog post of great help to me. I have written textbooks and many articles, but nothing has been published in the US.
    Knowing a bit more about these terms and all their meanings will help me to sort things out.
    Thank You, Judith

  8. says

    That’s an interesting list of terms. Many of them I knew (like kill which I’m intimately acquainted with, lol!) I’m glad to see the definition of new adult. I kinda guessed what it was just haven’t had the time to really look to see. So, thank you.


  9. says

    F&G and On background were new.

    Many of the others I know only as of the last year – I’ve been reading blogs intensively as part of my education for eventual publishing.

    Acquiring and using the specific jargon for a field is an interesting and important part of setting a fictional character in that field – using one term wrong can tell readers you don’t know what you’re talking about.

    Thanks for the list.

  10. says

    The kill fee is interesting. I mean, why should I care whether they publish the article or not? I would never agree to write an article for someone on terms that would allow for this to happen – if they are happy with the article, they pay; what they do with it next is their business.

    Then again, I’m not a VERY experienced writer. So perhaps there are some sides of the business I’m not aware of.

  11. Lea says

    Regarding simultaneous submissions — I found out this year that they are frowned upon in poetry. A poem can be published only once, as I understand it, and your poem can be rejected as a submission if it’s published on your own website. Didn’t know that either — interesting.

  12. Arizona says

    Thank you for this. While I did know quite a few of these terms, there is an equal number that I was not sure of or did not know. Thanks for the clarification and the new-to-me info.

    Loving this site.


  13. says

    Chuck you are the man. Learning some of the industry terms is just frickin awesome, but I’m a newbie’s newbie, so I’m still stuck in storytelling mode (still lovin the industry terms though). I thirst for the story telling term or maybe it’s the craft terms. I’m still not sure I understand plot, theme, Grammar vs. Craft, structure, voice (voices in my head), story ideas, story purpose, and so on and so on. Sometimes I think I understand, but I often wonder if some terms out there are laymens terms. Uh oh, here comes the boss……………….

  14. says

    A great resource for anyone wanting to enter the world of publishing. Thank you for taking the time to put this together for us.

  15. says

    Chuck, Good stuff. I especially appreciate the material about “on background,” and various other designations for attribution, although you forgot a couple: “p.l.” for “probably a lie” and “p.e.l.” for “politically expedient lie.”

  16. says

    This is super helpful, Chuck. I also wish somebody would officially define words like “quiet” (e.g., “that plot’s too quiet”). Thanks!

  17. says

    Both of those giveaway books sound really interesting! I’m in college and the only thing my creative writing classes have taught me is to be really, really scared of trying to publish…

  18. says

    ‘New adult’ raised a picture of an adult newly minted, still wet behind the ears, as opposed to one who has been around the block a few times.

    Thanks for a very informative post.

  19. Tina says

    Concerning the New Adult genre, would SUMMER SISTERS by Judy Blume be included in it? The protagonist is aged 12 and grows to adult by the end of the novel.
    What about THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, and INTENSITY by Koontz? Both of these protagonists are around the just out of college age.
    The protagonist of THE LAST CHILD is thirteen, would that novel be categorized as New Adult?

  20. Season says

    Thanks for this. Some of us are new to publishing and feel like we’re sitting at the kid’s table.

  21. Tom Witkowski says

    I’m about a 1/3 of the way through my first novel. I’m trying to be a sponge about the publishing industry. So thanks for the tips.

  22. says

    Thanks for the reference. I didn’t know what some of these meant and while I always have google, having things in one spot is handy!

  23. says

    Chuck, you forgot to define “Rothgreen,” where one is jealous of everything that Phillip Roth wrote. (Don, “fabliau”? Is that a specialty condo in Hawaii?)

  24. says

    Hi Chuck,
    thanks for the definitions. I’ve heard a lot of those words and abbreviations and never understood what they meant. Thank you for help!

  25. says

    I once took a short story class and the instructor used the French term “fusille” or “fasille” or something that sounded like that. It meant throwing in a character for the purpose of doing something but don’t serve another purpose. (The writer of one story had a group of people drive by the main character and knock off his mirror; we concluded that that was a car full of “fusilles.”) I know that’s not much to go on, Chuck, but if you ever figure out what term I’m trying to get to, I’d be eternally grateful.

    And PS: If you’re French, please forgive my bad French.

  26. says

    Thank you for defining these terms, Chuck.

    I would love to hear your definition of “revision” versus your definition of “editing.”

  27. says

    Love terms like this! I’m a word junkie, tho.

    I studied logic terms and rhetoric terms at college; you know, “ad hominem attack”, “straw man argument,” “intrafix” (like a prefix and a suffix, but in the MIDDLE of a word), “zeugma,” and so on.

    If you are any kind of writer, you LOVE words. (I used to read out of the OED like it was just a book. Sick, yeah, I know. ;)

  28. says

    A nice wrap up, but as a chapter book writer, I’ll have to throw out there that you left out CB. CB=chapter book for those lovable readers between PB and MG ages. :-)

    Thanks for the great article though!

  29. says

    Kill fees would break this writer’s heart…because what writer really does it for the money??? Love the “vet”. Didn’t know that one! : )

  30. says

    I suppose these are must-have tomes for those of us immersed in writing prose. I barely get my head above water long enough to take care of life’s tedious daily chores let alone learn the idiosyncrasies of the publishing business. Thanks for writing these references.

  31. Gerri says

    Very informative and helpful article! Thank you!!! Going to save this in my favorites for future reference!!!

  32. says

    In my career writing user guides & procedures so rocket scientists could control spacecraft, I had to be meticulous with all my terms, but this is a new environment! Many thanks!

  33. says

    I didn’t know what denouement meant until this post. I have heard the word before but didn’t realize what it meant. If I’m ever on “Jeopardy,” this will come in handy!

    CJ Hines

  34. says


    I knew several of these terms, but a few of them were new to me. Thanks for the explanations!


  35. Jo O'Rourke says

    Wish I’d known about the kill fee (and insisting on a SIGNED contract, even with friends!) before spending half a year working on a project that never got to breathe a word of life into anyone’s ears.

  36. says

    I love these, but as a new writer I already know there are so many more! Start with the basics, like WIP (Work in Progress), MC (Main Character), MMC (Main Male Character), and MFC (Main Female Character). Throw in some of the Fan Fiction terms, like Red Shirt (a throwaway character who gets killed off), or Mary Sue (a female character who is so perfect that she is annoying), or even Fan Fiction (stories written by fans of an original work). And there are many more!

    BTW, I already have CREATE YOUR WRITER PLATFORM and must say I love it! Keep up the good work!

    • says

      I was always under the impression that a ‘Marry Sue’ was when the author was, to some degree or another, writing themselves into their novel, on purpose or not.

      Does ‘Mary Sue’ apply to both terms? Or am I just way off base here?

  37. says

    This is helpful Chuck. I’m glad to now know the meaning of Logline, and plan to use it now. Also, I wonder if SIC actually means ‘spelling is correct’? The reason is because I began reviewing my own writing and at times, especially relating to words in other languages, would put [spelling is correct] in my notes to let me know there was no reason to check the spelling again. Only afterwards did I notice that the abbreviation was SIC. Yes, I realize that SIC is used where the spelling is incorrect, but the abbreviation denotes that the editor should leave it as it is. Would love a copy of your Writing Platform book!…..So perhaps I should get it while discounted, yes? Thanks.