The Aspiring Writer’s Dictionary

Hacks for Hacks: Sense of humor requiredThe complexities of the publishing industry can confuse new and aspiring writers. Inspired by Ambrose Bierce’s The Devil’s Dictionary, I present this handy lexicon to
show you all the terms you need to know as you start your literary career.

#amwriting (slang): Twitter hashtag that signals the arrival of a context-free non-sequitur. Designed to make the activity of sitting in front of a computer sound interesting.

Advance (n.): a sum of money offered to a writer prior to publication; invariably smaller than the advance given to that one author you hate.

Amazon (n.): the Great Beast slouching toward New York City via free Prime shipping. Hey, the UPS truck is here!

Comic Sans (n.): a whimsical typeface derived from Latin sans for “without” and comic for “dignity.”

Aspiring writer (n.): what authors refer to themselves as when they’re blogging instead of working on their manuscript.

Barnes & Noble (n.): america’s leading retailer of notebooks, pens, and coffee mugs.

Beta reader (n.): a reader who sees an almost-ready draft of your novel before you show it to your VHS readers.

Blogging (v.): authors sharing writing advice with their audience, who presumably consist only of other writers.

Borders (n.):

I met a traveler from an antique land
Who said: “A vast and empty anchor store
Stands in the mall. Near it, across from Radio Shack,
Half junk, its shattered signage lies, taken down
Its boundless shelves, and kiosk of Starbucks coffee,
Tell that its manager knew what readers read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The buyers that mocked them and the cash that fed:
And on the endcap these words appear:
‘Welcome to Borders, bookstore of bookstores:
Look on our selection, ye Mighty, and save!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The empty parking lot stretched far away.”

Brand (n.): originally a marketing term to describe the signature features of a company or individual. In the social-media-marketing age, it now means pretty much whatever the hell you want it to.

Coffee (n.): the elixir of life itself. The coffee-cup rings on notebook paper is the shibboleth of the writer class. The caffeine amplifies writers’ anxiety and neuroses crucial to their work.

Comic Sans (n.): a whimsical typeface derived from Latin sans for “without” and comic for “dignity.”

Courier New (n.): the preferred typeface of ninety-nine percent of the publishing industry for some inexplicable reason.

Critique (v.): a polite way to tell someone you hate their book.

Editors (n.): brilliant, attractive people you hope will give you lots of money.

Facebook (n.): social media platform used by relatives to post infuriating political opinions. A place to stroke one’s ego by having “friends” “Like” their updates about publishing.

Kindle (n.): a bookstore that fits in your pocket and, by the way, takes credit cards for your convenience. Electronic device designed to enable readers to read erotica without judgment from peers.

Multiple submission (v.): the act of submitting more than one story to the same market at the same time, to much the same effect as the multi-ball setting in pinball.

Self-addressed stamped envelope (SASE) (n.): antiquated method of delivering bad news.

Poet (n.): a class of writers to whom fiction writers look to feel better about their stalled careers.

Platform (n.): a really good author photo.

Query (n.): a one-page summary of your book, which saves the editor the time of having to read the whole thing before throwing it away.

Self-addressed stamped envelope (SASE) (n.): antiquated method of delivering bad news.

Self-publishing (n.): the greatest revolution in publishing since Gutenberg, overexposure to which can lead to derision from gatekeepers, intolerable smugness, and interminable arguments using talking points laden with dinosaur metaphors.

Serial (n.): a long story released in short, regular installments until the author thinks up a serviceable ending or the sales dry up, whichever occurs later.

“Show, don’t tell” (exp.): the writerly equivalent of “Have a good one.” An easy thing to say in your writers group when you haven’t read the story, it has been repeated so often and in so many contexts that no one remembers its original meaning.

Simultaneous submission (v.): the act of submitting a story to more than one market in order to accumulate rejections more quickly.

Slush pile (n.): the foreboding hills of paper into which manuscripts are tossed, only to come back rent, misshapen, or not at all. The inspiration for H. P. Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness.

Small press (n.): a press of not large size, like a hundred pounds or so.

Social media strategy (n.): imaginary concept created by marketing firms in search of a new revenue stream.

Submission guidelines (n.): judging by slushpiles, unknown.

Writers group (n.): group of fellow writers with whom you drink beer; bestowers of jealousy toward fellow members who receive acceptance letters.

Did we miss anything? Add your definitions in the comments section!


About Bill Ferris

After college, Bill Ferris left Nebraska for Florida to become a rich and famous rock star. Failing that, he picked up the pen to become a rich and famous novelist. He now lives in Chapel Hill, North Carolina with his wife, Jen, and his sons, Elliott and Wyatt, and he looks forward to a life of poverty and ridicule.


  1. says


    “ARC” – phrase, acronym for Anxious Reach-out to Consumers.

    “Buzz Book” – phrase, an upcoming title about to have its strength shorn away by indifferent consumers, like the hair of Samson.

    “Movie Deal” – phrase, a conjurer’s illusion causing observers to believe that something has really happened when it hasn’t.

    “Option” – noun, a portentous turning point determining one’s future destiny.

    “Voice” – n, once meaning a unique style of story and narration, the term now replaces all literary descriptors from allegory to zeugma.

    Nice to smile on a Saturday morning, thanks.

  2. says

    What an amusing way to start the weekend, Bill.

    Here I sit with the elixir of life itself, and you’ve already convinced me today to never call myself an aspiring writer again. I’m also glad to see my writer’s group is not abnormal.


    Rejection letter: a brief missive expressing affection, often less than a paragraph long, whose correct interpretation is yet to be understood

    Royalty statement: proof to the members of your writing group that you should be hailed as the king or queen that you are (and that they should hate you more and conspire to slip some poison in your beer)

    VHS reader: an individual who reads a revised, slimmer version of your manuscript but still tells you it’s going to be a very hard sell

    • says

      Thanks, John – couldn’t find VHS even after severe googling.

      Useful acronym – once you know what it means.

      Tough subjects will be a VHS; if they’re poorly written, they won’t stand a chance. If extremely well written, they will redefine the field. I hope for the latter – but the subject (which includes how society ‘sees’ and treats people with disabilities, and severely limits what they’re allowed to want) is tough, and tough writing.

      I don’t care – if other people want to write about werewolves and fairies, which I’m not likely to encounter, I can write about real people (okay, characters) having to deal with the real-life limitations imposed by things that happen to them, willy-nilly.

      We can’t avoid Life – it is what happens to us while we’re making other plans – and no one knows what will come down the pike, from an infection picked up on a peacemaking mission, to a tractor-trailer barreling down the wrong road at the wrong time, or a child…

      Fiction gives us ways of dealing with Life before and after it hits us.

      • says


        No matter how hard I try, I still can’t make it past VHS. I am getting innovative though, and hope I’ll soon be onto DVDs.

  3. says

    Bill–thanks a lot. Your dictionary is witty and pretty accurate. Here’s one addition, and one correction:
    Agent (n): a class of person who relies on the I Ching, dreams, divine intervention and/or spreadsheets to establish criteria for promoting “product” (technical industry term for literature). Faced with electronic query letters, agents can often be identified by their contempt for the Reply key.
    Editor (n): a near-extinct species within the publishing eco-system. Once helpful in refining product, all extant editors are now in a meeting somewhere.

  4. Anjali Amit says

    Thanks for a wonderful start to the weekend.
    Ozymandias is my favorite poem, and you just made it better.

  5. says

    Love this!

    Here’s one

    Debut Author: a pristine, virginal newbie with a fresh voice upon whom high hopes are pinned as he/she is strapped to a tree and the dragon (the public) is called forth (pub day). Will the debut author satisfy the dragon, or will it reject him/her? It’s a drama that plays out each publishing season.

  6. says

    Indie: once intended to mean a serious self-publisher, now indicates a class of people afflicted with a psychological condition which causes them to see everyone around them as a buggy whip manufacturer or an old lady clutching pearls

    Plotter: a large printing device for making posters

    Pantser: a writer who, unlike most of his or her peers, wears pants while working

    WIP: “Work in Progress,” commonly understood to mean that half-finished novel that isn’t going anywhere and will probably vanish quietly into the ether when you get a more interesting idea