Author Masterclass: What Do Editors Want?

I always look forward to the gems of knowledge to be gleaned from the fantastic SCBWI Masterclasses. Today was certainly no exception as leading the class was the vastly knowledgable (and lovely) editor, Rachel Wade of Hodder Children’s Books.

An Insider’s Perspective 

Rachel began by introducing the publishing umbrella, Hachette Children’s Group and took us through the different imprints. She gave an insider’s tour of the inner workings of a publishing house. She explained how editors champion stories from the original submission, through the whole physical and commercial journey, right to their ‘birth.’ She likened the editor’s role to a midwife’s, delivering the author and illustrator’s baby, safely into the world.

Now that we understood the many hoops and stages that books have to go through before hitting the shelves, we were ready to find out exactly what we can do to help our submissions to cry out, ’Pick me! Pick me!’ 
Rachel Wade, Cath Jones and Louisa Glancy, deep in writerly discussion

So, what do editors want? 

Although Rachel takes note of consumer insight, ultimately, it is not a list of attributes she is searching for, more a feeling— a book she loves personally. So, the answer, in short, is, a book they love. But an editor won’t know if they love your book if they are not intrigued enough to read it in the first place. To reel them in, you will need a succinct pitch/cover letter; a book pitch that wows and intrigues; a brilliant opening and finally; a well-edited story that they will love. Here’s how Rachel encourages us to prepare each of these key components:

1. The Pitch/Cover Letter

The pitch letter needs to be professional. Rachel recommends keeping it to one side of A4.  

Key components to include are:

  • That you are a member of SCBWI
  • If you are active on social media, say so
  • Include your Twitter handle
  • Mention any good writing practise, e.g. that you blog
  • Include relevant details about yourself
  • Say why you’ve chosen that particular agent. 
  • Include a word count and the genre of your book/ intended audience
  • Your pitch
  • A short, concise synopsis
  • Successes and any relevant awards 
  • Show your longevity as a writer
Lunch time, enjoying talking writing with a packed class of like-minded SCBWI members

 2. The Book Pitch 

Rachel emphasised the importance of a great pitch to give a flavour of the core of your story and grab a busy editor’s attention. It needs to be snappy and straight to the point. Most importantly, it must intrigue.

At this point, we spent a few minutes writing our own pitches. We then practised them on each other. Rachel thoroughly recommends practising your pitch on people who have not read your book. Are they intrigued? If not, back to work!

3. The Opening

Your cover letter is sparkling, your pitch is snappy and you have managed to intrigue the agent/editor enough that they read your submission! Hooray! But the opening is where it really counts. After sharing our own favourite story openings and studying Rachel’s, we discussed what we need to do to make our openings stand out from the crowd. Rachel suggested we ask ourselves:

  • Is it different?
  • Have I built in suspense?
  • Have I grounded the reader with some background information?
  • For chapter books, have I used a well-phrased title header?

Happy with your opening now? Next, it’s time to edit the rest of your story…

Happy SCBWI members, Polly, Terri, Adrian and Helen, filled with lunch and juicy time
4. A well-edited story 
To get us in the zone, we edited examples on a handout. We discussed how much easier it is to edit someone else’s work. Rachel revealed that all the best writers have stories that sit in drawers. Some of these stories just need time and space. Others simply needed to be written to get to where you need to be on your writing journey. 

Although feedback can be valuable, Rachel suggests we analyse what the critique member/agent/editor is saying, before editing. Only edit if it feels right. She believes that the holy grail is finding the right editor for you.

Rachel wrapped up this section with the quote:

‘Remember, when people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.’  (Neil Gaiman) 

What if my book keeps getting turned down?

Rachel suggests you ask yourself the following:

  • Is every word earning its place?
  • Has your story got an original angle?
  • Does it catch attention immediately? 
  • Do you show rather than tell? Don’t show and tell. 
  • Try changing the genre, or point of view. Keep an open mind.
  • Write for pleasure rather than trying too hard to fit into a ‘box’.

Insider’s tip: Rachel prefers receiving whole manuscripts so she can see how the story ends.

Finally, Rachel explained that most editors and agents are like treasure hunters, searching for a story to embrace and champion. They love reading books and want to see fantastic submissions and publish great books.  

Rachel ended this insightful session with the quote:

’Writing isn’t about making money, getting famous, getting dates, getting laid, or making friends. In the end, it’s about enriching the lives of those who will read your work, and enriching your own life, as well. It’s about getting up, getting well, and getting over. Getting happy, okay? Getting happy.’ (Stephen King’, On Writing) 

I left this masterclass full of enthusiasm and a clear sense of what editors want. There is no magic set of rules, but honing our craft, writing for pleasure and putting together an appealing, professional submission, will certainly improve our chances of publication. Thank you Rachel, for such a fun and insightful masterclass!

Rachel’s Suggested Further Reading:

Stephen King, On Writing

Lyne Truss, Eats, Shoots and Leaves

Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook 2016

Joanne Harris @Joannechocolat on Twitter

As a child, Kerry Trickett’s teachers would ask her if she was, in fact, eating the books she borrowed. They couldn’t believe that she could be reading them so quickly (and often more than one at a time)! The truth was that she couldn’t get enough children’s fiction.
Things have not changed much since! Studying primary education, followed by years of teaching, meant a lot of children’s fiction to read, study and explore until her heart (and stomach) were content.

Kerry is currently enjoying working on a number of picture book manuscripts with the aim to tempt other children to grow an appetite for reading as healthy as her own.

She lives happily with her husband and two young, story-loving children, in a home that is bursting at the seams with picture books.


  1. Thanks, Kerry! It was lovely to meet you all

    1. My pleasure. It was lovely to meet you too, Rachel.

  2. Great write up Kerry - it was a fab event!

    1. Thank you Emma. It was such a meaty Masterclass!

  3. Thanks for sharing this - and I so agree about On Writing, brilliant book

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