Surprise! Sentences Don’t Matter. Here’s Why.

Or, What Working in Magazines Has Taught Me About Storytelling Part 1: Your Sentences Are Trash.

Someone asked me the other day if it was difficult for me to take editorial notes on my manuscript. I’d labored over it for so long in private. Was it weird to accept input from other people? Was it hard to let go of complete creative control?

I hadn’t really thought about it until they asked, but once I did I realized that while it was a strange transition, I don’t find being edited difficult. At all.

This is probably because I work in magazines, which basically means I get spend all day every day watching my writing be ripped to shreds. Thinking about my friend’s question got me thinking about all the other ways working in the magazine world has impacted* my writing.

I realized that being a capital E Editor has transformed the way I approach writing. Not only am I very comfortable being red penned—spending eight hours a day having your writing destroyed will do that to you—I write differently. I thought it would be fun* to share some secrets of the trade here in the hope that others can benefit.

Secret 1: Structure is more important than sentences.

Growing up, I thought being a good writer meant writing pretty sentences. I was all about alliteration, adjectives, and big words. Purple prose was my friend. Structure, scenes, pacing—these were not ideas I associated with writing. I thought writing was about being an adept juggler of words.

Working in magazines has taught me that writing is really about being a master of story.

In my first month working for a women’s magazine I learned that sentences don’t matter. Why? Because every sentence I labored over was deleted or edited into an entirely different thing. No one cared about my word juggling abilities. No one wanted adjectives or adverbs or prose anywhere close to the color purpole.


When Editors gave me notes, they didn’t ask about specific word choices or draw hearts around my vivid descriptions. Instead they asked things like:

  1. How does this serve the reader?

  2. How can we structure this piece to keep the reader engaged?

  3. What is the best place to enter this story?

  4. What are the scenes?

Being an Editor requires analyzing a piece of writing as a whole. Writing for magazines has taught me that sentences are important, yes, but they’re the last step, the least important component, of storytelling. Why?

Sentences can always be rewritten. There are an infinite number of pretty words available to fill a line. But there’s only one right way to tell a story.

And in order for those pretty sentences to work, the structure has to be strong. Structure is what matters.


^^^ Boromir talking about the Ring of Power, but also probably about pretty sentences.

Working in magazines has trained me not to focus on sentence level writing until the final draft of a piece. Instead, I focus on the structure. What is the architecture of an article, an essay, or a book? How is the piece put together? What are the hinge points? Key scenes? Where is the arc going?

I think of it this way: structure is the foundation of story. Scenes are the scaffolding and walls. Sentences are the decorations.

I don’t know about you, but I would much rather decorate a house than build one. But if the house isn’t built, there’s no walls to paint, no pictures to hang, no furniture to arrange. And if the house is built poorly, it won’t matter how well decorated the place is, when a storm comes, it will collapse.

This was a heartbreaking revelation for me at first. I wasn’t good at structure. I was good at sentences. Who was I, as a writer, if my pretty sentences didn’t matter? If I slaved over a piece, filling it with elaborate metaphors (see the house references above) and vivid descriptions, and then my Editor told me to cut it all and start over, how was I possibly going to come up with that many more beautiful words?


It grounded a truth within me that has become fundamental to my writing:

I have an infinite number of pretty sentences within me.

Someone can cut my story and tell me to start from scratch and that is fine. I can come up with a million new interesting sentences. The well will not run dry.

And guess what? You have an infinite number of pretty sentences within you, too. 

So don’t worry about them. Worry about the structure. You have a million chances in a story to wow the reader with your beautiful wordsmithing. You have one chance to get the structure right. That’s what you need to focus.

In conclusion: start with structure. Build scenes. Then work on sentences.

Hi friend! If you liked this post you will probably like my newsletter. It’s a weekly manifesto on writing, motivation, and living your best life. You can sign up here.

*Yes impacted. I have to google “affect v effect” every time I want to use it in a sentence. Yes I’m an Editor. No I am don’t “get” grammar.

*I have a weird definition of fun.


The Absolutely True Story of How I Got A Literary Agent

In case you missed my obnoxious postings on every social media platform: I signed with an agent last week!

Cue all the celebratory GIFS.



I first shared the long version of the story in my weekly newsletter (sign up here for more GIFS than your heart can handle).

Last year, I had one goal: write a book. I was so focused on this goal that I called 2017 “The Year of the Book” (I know, super lame and uncreative, but whatever).

Everything I wanted out of the year boiled down to this one desire.

I took a writing class. I went to writing meetups. Eventually, I started a critique group. Mostly, though, I wrote.

I churned out 60 pages in three months and then fell stagnant. Sometime in the summer, I picked back up the writing torch and by August I had written my way to a first draft.

Of course, it only got worse from there. I went through the manuscript with a critique partner. I revised until my fingers cramped. I added entire characters and scenes. I became so engrossed in a world of twisted friendships and vicious lies that it started poisoning my own relationships. I was a mess.

And then someone told me I had written a murder mystery, which was not at all what I had intended, but was, in fact, exactly what I had done. So I ripped out the second half and wrote it from scratch.

That was super fun. (JOKES)

And then I had what I jokingly referred to as a Book-Like Thing.

I started researching next steps in October and learned that the first—and arguably most important—step to publishing a book is to get an agent. As an author, you don’t pitch a book directly to a publishing house, you pitch to agents, who, if you are very very lucky, will sign you as client, and then try to sell your book to a publisher and also represent you and all of your literary works until you die (and even after! Morbid, but true).

I decided that 2018 would be The Year of the Agent. I made it my mission to convince someone to represent me by my birthday.

How do you get an agent? Well, you Google it, like I did and then you write a query letter.

A query letter is the Holy Grail of publishing. It is an elusive, page-long, magical piece of writing that sums up your book and convinces an agent that they want to read it and work with you for eternity. I made a list of agents I thought might like my book. Basically, I was looking for anyone who liked “unlikeable” (more on that later) girls and dark mysteries.

I agonized over my letter, rewrote it approximately 39 times, and in January decided I was too tired to care anymore, so I started sending it to people on the aforementioned list.

I sent three queries a day. Twenty four people in total, which meant 24 personalized greetings, different variations on first ten pages, first three chapters, three page synopsis, 200 word synopsis, and so many other random pieces of writing that I started to go just a little bit mad.

Of those 24 people, seven requested either the full or partial manuscript. Thirteen rejected me. Five never responded. Four rejected me after reading the partial or the full.

One asked me to revise and resubmit.

Which I did not want to do (see above about hating this book more than life itself by this point). But I did it anyway. I spent a month going through the book line by line, word by word and revising until it was where I wanted it to be.

Psych! I revised it and then when I hated it so much I couldn’t stand looking at it anymore I sent it off while yelling profanities at the FBI agents I assuming are listening in on my computer.

And then this amazing thing happened where an agent offered to represent me. This
was quickly followed by another thing happening which is that I burst into tears, ran around in circles, and then cried some more.

Because writing this book hurt me. It was freaking hard, you guys. Like, imagine sticking a hand down your throat and un-rooting an organ and then jamming it into a computer and calling it a book. That’s the kind of hard it was. And to think that this thing I’d labored over actually had value to someone else made me weep and feel all the feelings.

On a practical level, it meant I had to let all the other agents I’d queried know so they could counteroffer if they so desired. And the crazy thing is that some of them did.

I ended up receiving several offers which was maybe the most stressful thing that’s ever happened to me. I made charts. I made pro/con lists. I stalked them on message boards and talked to their authors. In short, I got real creepy.

It was a tough decision, impossible really, because they were all awesome. In the end I did the same thing I do every time I get hungry and went with my gut. And to make a long email newsletter short, I’m now represented by Christa Heschke of McIntosh & Otis.

Why Christa? Well, she said my book reminded her of The Heathers which is not only my favorite 80s movie, but also the best movie to musical adaptation of all time. More importantly, flattery will get you everywhere with me. Also, she had great editorial notes and vision for where the book should go. She’s also a career agent—she’s not just looking to sell books, she’s looking to support someone in every aspect of their career, which really appealed to me because I kind of plan on churning out books until I die.

There was also a serendipitous coincidence that pushed me in her direction. My Book-Like-Thing references several literary masterpieces, one being Of Mice and Men. I quoted John Steinbeck a few times and there’s even a scene involving hamsters and Lenny and I won’t say anything more because SPOILERS (although I don’t think it’s in any way a spoiler to say that not all the hamsters in this book make it out alive). When Christa told me McIntosh & Otis represented John Steinbeck and still handled his estate I got that goose bumpey, cold-fist-in your-gut-feeling.

Anyways, I signed a contract thing and promised to give Christa all my children if she sold my book (not really, but honestly I’m not opposed), and now she is my agent.

What comes next? Wouldn’t you like to know! Just kidding. What comes next is that Christa gives me notes and then I have to revise the entire book again (which sounds like cruel and unusual punishment to me, but oh well) and then she’ll take it to publishers and do her thing.

I’ll write more about what it means to have an agent, what the submission process looks like, and other things that are a bit more in the Motivational Monday wheelhouse, but for today, I’m celebrating the fact that I’ve not accomplished my goal for 2018 and imagining bigger, more terrifying dreams to wrestle in the future.

If you have any questions, thoughts, or concerns about hamsters, shoot me an email. I’d love to chat with you. I hope you invest time in the dream that sets your soul on fire this week. Nothing could be more worth doing.

And if you want to stay up to date on my book journey or want a weekly reminder to DO THE DANG THING subscribe to my newsletter. I hope to see you there.