Breaking Down Editorial Letters

Lately I’ve gotten a couple of questions about editorial letters–those pesky little (and sometimes, not so little) letters writers receive from their editor requesting revisions to their book after the publisher has purchased it. (Or, if the book sold as a proposal, after the writer has delivered a first draft.) So, I thought I would try to break down what an editorial letter looks like.

But first, a disclaimer: I’ve only written two published/soon-to-be published books, and have therefore only received two letters from my editor (whom I’m nominating as the Best Editor in the Universe). In no way do I consider myself an expert on this topic, or on any other topic in the writing world. This is just my experience, although I will say it does seem to resonate with what I’ve heard other writers say about their editorial letters.

I’ve noticed that a lot of revision letters can be broken down into the following four sections, the first of which is:

1. We Love You, and We Love Your Book!
This is usually a paragraph or two where your editor tells you all the reasons he/she loves you and your book. The purpose of this paragraph is to make you feel like a million bucks. This is necessary. Because, before reading the next section of the letter you’ll probably want to:

2. Gird Your Loins
This is the meat of the letter. Picture your editor sitting next to you and saying, “Now that we’ve bought your book about Zombie Unicorns–which we absolutely love so much–here’s everything we want you to change about it.”

Warning: Before reading this section you may want to bust out the chocolate and lock up the want ads. Because after reading this, you may feel like a big fat pile of incompetence and decide you should try pursuing another career, as you are obviously not cut out for the writing life.

In this section, you may read such comments as: “We love your zombie unicorn main character, but we’ve noticed several issues with the plot…” Or, “We love your zombie unicorn’s love interest, but have you thought about developing another character and making it a love triangle?” In short, the comments in this section may require you to perform major surgery on your manuscript. After reading these paragraphs in my own letters, I have been known to consume unhealthy amounts of chocolate and bury myself in mindless Netflix streaming.

After they’ve addressed the major issues in your manuscript, your editor may ask you to…

3. Pick Some Nits
This is the section where your editor catches all the small things you may have missed, such as…“On pg 156 your zombie unicorn is wielding an ax. But on pg 157 she’s carrying a fairy feather duster. Reconcile, please.” Or, “You used the word ‘but’ 333 times. You seem to have a slight fetish there. Revise to avoid repetition, please.” After reading all this, you may well feel like trying your hand as a professional in a less painful profession, say, maybe in the auto industry as a crash test dummy. Editors know this, which is why they usually end their letters with the final section:

4. But Don’t Forget! We Love You, and We Love Your Book!
This is the section where your editor reminds you of all the reasons why they love you and your book, because no matter how overwhelmed you may feel by the letter you’ve just read, the honest to goodness truth is this:

Your editor believes in you, and your work. That’s why they purchased your book in the first place. And because they want you to succeed, they’re willing to role up their sleeves and do everything they can to help you write the best book you possibly can.

So, that’s my take on editorial letters. My personal policy on those pesky suckers is: I read them, then I allow myself to get angry/overwhelmed/depressed–and then I walk away. After a day or so has passed, I read it again. Then I walk away again. Somewhere around day three or four (and after I’ve fortified myself with enough coffee and chocolate) I get to work. Usually, I find I’m excited to revise and bring the manuscript a little bit closer to becoming the book others will one day read.

Any tips on coping with editorial letters, or stress in general, that don’t involve caffeine or chocolate? Let me know in the comments!

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5 Responses to Breaking Down Editorial Letters

  1. I hope to one day actually have this problem! There are so many uphill steps in the writing process. Thanks for sharing your ideas about this one.

  2. So much truth. It’s good to know that most ALL of us struggle with the editorial letter. I’m like you. After some time has passed, I’m grateful for it. It becomes my road map in the revision process.

  3. There is a funny You Tube video entitled “Editing Letter” that shows author
    Lara Zielin’s agony and ecstasy as she edits her debut novel, DONUT DAYS.
    Definitely worth watching!