How To Think Like Your Agent

Practical writing advice for non-practical writers, from Eric Nelson, an editor-turned-agent with 17 years of experience. You might want to follow me on Twitter at

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The Secret to Great Writing

I have read many good rules for writing. I’ve personally bookmarked web pages on writing good blog posts, sex scenes, synopses, dialogue, titles, emails, profiles, radio stories, and magazine articles.  

Most of these rules are general enough for a fourth grader, so they only define good writing. Or they are so specific to one kind of writing that they can be safely ignored by everyone else. 

If someone told me they had found one rule that would help any writer, in any situation, I would tell him I seriously doubted it. 

Yet I have one recommendation I’m constantly making for diet books, spy novels, leadership primers, and biographies.  If you start looking for this tip, you’ll find it in the writing of Malcolm Gladwell and Chuck Palahniuk, David Baldacci and Amy Hempl, Seth Godin and J.K. Rowling.  Even Paul Krugman and Ira Glass. 

What is it? Create in the mind of the reader two possible outcomes, and make sure that the actual outcome seem slightly less likely from the start. 

This is much more easily said than done, but it is amazing when it works.

Let’s take an example most people know: THE HUNGER GAMES.  At no point do readers think Katniss will die. So that’s not one of the two possible outcomes. The two outcomes are that that Peeta will die or not. The reader will stick around until the end because seeing him live seems crucial, and yet it is clearly established at the beginning: for Katniss to live, he must die. And this looks like it could go either way the whole way through the book.

Another many of you will know: the Red Wedding.  It is explicitly  stated in the novel this is a potential outcome many times, but you cannot allow yourself to believe it. 

A nonfiction example you ought to know: David Grann’s New  Yorker article “The Mark of a Masterpiece.”  The first half of this article is a compellingly portrait of the new science of authenticating art.  It’s consistently done and convincing. And then the next half of the article is the nearly complete destruction of the new science of authenticating art. Most writers would have just written the second half.

Let’s pretend you’re writing an op-ed about the perils of high stakes testing. You have to start with a recent headline about this, and you have to let people know you’re against it.  That’s the genre. However, you should devote the next part to acknowledging what your opponents have right, and then a flattering description of the part of their argument you are about to tear to pieces. Let the reader teeter on the edge of thinking they should support high stakes testing. And then spend a few paragraphs destroying that reason. That’ll leave you about a hundred words to wrap things up, but you will already have blown a few minds.

Let’s pretend you’re writing a novel about a diamond heist in Paris.  You have a couple of choices.  You can make it seem likely this heist is going to be foiled. But that can’t just be obstacles; readers really have to think, “Oh, this is a novel about a heist gone wrong.”  Or you can make it seem likely the heist will work, but that the whole team is not going to make it.  Or maybe the heist doesn’t work, and none of the readers were expecting that to happen.

Look at what you’re writing now. What’s the final destination? What’s the red herring destination? Are readers really going to buy into both, and come out surprised on the other side? 


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