07 February 2018

We’ve pulled together feedback from editors who assessed applications for WriteNow last year. Here are our top tips for what makes an excellent application:

Don’t try too hard

Some of the best writers kept it simple. They weren’t overly descriptive with language and didn’t use too many adjectives or adverbs. This made the story feel more natural.

The best writing had something fresh and new about it – maybe an unusual setting, or a different way of telling a familiar story. The best stories didn’t overdo this, and weren’t too complex. Often the simplest stories with fundamentally human themes are the most engaging.

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Lemara Lindsay-Prince sharing ideas at WriteNow

Work on your synopsis, and then work on it again

One of the questions we ask as part of your application is ‘tell us what your book is called and what it’s about’. This can often a question many writers struggle with, so do make sure you don’t let yourself down and put some time and thought into yours. A great synopsis should:

  • Be concise and clear. Get to the point.
  • Include the main plot, a summary of themes, a hint of an ending – and no more. Try looking at the back of a few published books in your genre to get a sense of how to structure a synopsis well. It should be a little longer than what you would normally read on the back of a book, but we don’t need to know everything.
  • Include a hook to grab our attention. A simple and intriguing message will immediately make us want to read more.
  • If you can think of one, include a snappy positioning line which lets us know where to ‘place’ your book straightaway - for example ‘ROBINSON CRUSOE meets THE POWER’.
  • Tell us which genre you think your book is (for example commercial fiction, or women’s fiction, or smart-thinking non-fiction). If you can, make comparisons with other books which are similar to yours - which successful author’s fans might enjoy your book and why?
  • Highlight what is unique about your story or proposal. For example, “there are plenty stories about X, but this one comes from the angle of Y, which will especially appeal to Z readers”.
  • Don’t worry if you don’t have a title or if it’s a work in progress. A great title can immediately capture the attention, but equally if the story and writing is amazing, the title doesn’t matter at this stage.
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writenowimage

For non-fiction writers
Be clear about how your proposal offers something new to the discussion. This can be political, emotional or philosophical, but have an answer to why you have chosen to write this book and why you are best placed to write it.

Make sure to demonstrate why you think there is an audience for your story. Non-fiction responds to the trends and status quo in a way that fiction doesn’t have to. For example, a proposal exploring BAME identity in the face of structural racism might point to the rise of activist currents that shed light on the same subject, such as Why Is My Curriculum White / Rhodes Must Fall / Black Lives Matter. Equally, an autobiographical proposal about the transgender experience might point to popular interest in hugely successful TV shows such as Orange Is the New Black.

Finally, the originality of the idea and the profile of the writer can be just as important as the quality of writing itself. We would encourage writers to get their work out there in whichever way possible: in magazines, online blogs, newspapers, etc. and to tell us as part of your application if you have an existing platform.

Be careful with dialogue
Dialogue can be particularly tricky to write in a way which sounds natural, and can be hard to follow if you’re reading a short extract. To develop your dialogue, try listening to how people talk in real life - notice the rhythm and how people ask questions.

Be careful not to overuse dialogue. Overly long passages of conversation can be difficult to follow, particularly for young readers, and don’t always further the plot or show character development.

Show, don’t tell
Aim to create an immersive reading experience, which feels natural and draws the reader in – and leaves them wanting more. Try not to think too much about how you convey the plot or story line in your sample of writing. Focus first and foremost on creating atmosphere and characters.

Less of the backstory
The best plots don’t need to be over-explained but can be referred to more subtly, which creates more pace and intrigue for the reader. It can be easy to try and pack too much information into a short extract.

Workshops during WriteNow Live

Workshops during WriteNow Live

Choose the right extract
Think about how you can find a 1,000 word sample which is representative of the book as a whole, and which ideally clearly links to the synopsis you’ve (this helps to avoid confusion).

Try not to start at a point in the book where there are lots of characters who haven’t been introduced, and don’t feel that you need to use the full extract space. A shorter extract that ends after a clear, well-drawn scene is better than having to include a paragraph of your next chapter to fill space.

Get someone else to read it (not your mum)
Ask someone who has never looked at your work before to read through your application – a trusted someone but equally someone who is going to be honest.  They will be more likely than you to spot anything which is confusing or point out anything which isn’t working, or highlight any errors. As a writer, you’re often too close to it.

Give it final proof read before you click submit
The odd typo isn’t the end of the world but it looks sloppy if your submission is full of mistakes. Check for consistency too – for example if you’ve changed the tense or a character’s name in one place, make sure this is the same throughout.

We are humans too!
Remember that your application is going to be read by a real person – a real editor at Penguin Random House. They want to love your book. They’re on your side!

Finally, have confidence in yourself
So many writers who make it through – both to our workshops and our mentoring programme – say that they almost didn’t have the confidence to apply.

In the words of Toni Morrison:“If there's a book that you want to read, but it hasn't been written yet, then you must write it.”

Your voice is important. We want to hear it.
What are you waiting for?

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