I haven’t written for the blog in a while, because I haven’t really found a topic that interested me enough to drag me away from my WIP. But I recently read an article by designer Mike Monteiro called How To Read A Client E-mail, which was full of wisdom about how to deal sensibly and sensitively with client feedback and requests. While I was reading, I thought, ‘This would be equally applicable to edit letters’. There are a number of parallels between dealing with a design client and dealing with your editor. I also hear from many writers that receiving their edit letter is stressful, and nobody really explains how to handle this stuff, when you first climb aboard that wagon, so here we are.
Let me say first that the advice here is mainly applicable to people who either aspire to being traditionally published, or who are currently encountering the processes of traditional publishing. I guess it could be equally applicable to those who are self-publishing, and have received their first developmental edit notes. I’ll mention later how these paths diverge. But for now let’s assume you are a trade author, or would like to be.
First of all, you wrote a book. Congratulations! That part is hard, and you did it. I hope you’ve rewarded yourself, in some small way at least, for finishing. Have a glass of wine. Have three. But make sure you’re sober when you get your edit letter.
Now, if you don’t mind me being a bit forward, can I ask if you wrote this book on proposal? You did, right? Maybe, if you’re a baby author, you just crunched that sucker out, hoping someone from a publishing house would like it enough to take a chance on it. That’s how most of us start. For future reference, though, it’s a good idea to make sure your next manuscript is under contract before you write it. That’s the pro way to go. Because writing a whole book is difficult and time-consuming work, and will likely take time away from your day job and family life. You need to have some certainty about whether that work will be recompensed.
I’m not saying you have to have a contract. I know many writers who prefer to write without a contract deadline hanging over them. That’s fine. It’s good when you’re actively creating to think about the art first and the money later. But I will say now – your professional writing career is a business. Art is art, and if you want to make art, that’s great. But if you’re making art with the express intention of selling it, then you need to be business-like.
Here’s something important to remember: your writing is both Art and Product. I’m not saying that your book is a widget that can be replaced by another widget. But a book for sale on a shelf is a product. The grey area between ‘the art’ and ‘the saleable commodity’ can be tricky. So here’s a question for you: Did you write this book with the plan of sticking it in a drawer? No. You wrote it to pitch it for sale. And your publisher is planning to sell it to many more people, because that’s how their business works. So please don’t tell me you wrote your 100,000 word manuscript on spec, without some tangible assurance that you’re going to get paid. I’ve been there, okay? And it’s painful to have your hard work rejected.
It’s important that you understand this conflation of Art and Product. Because your publisher understands it. And that’s how they approach it. They have to do what’s right for their business and you have to do what’s right for yours.
So c’mon – get a contract.
Now everyone’s on the same page and we all know where we stand. Excellent.
The next thing you should consider, probably before you send your book off to your editor is: Did you get your book beta read? Because you need that. It’s good to have a second opinion before you send your book to an editor. Give it to a beta reader – someone who you trust. Maybe a friend, maybe family, but not someone who will just tell you that every word you write is made of gold. You want an honest opinion, not a general gushing ‘This is sooo great!’ because that kind of feedback isn’t useful.
Let’s assume at this point that you’ve written your book under contract, received a second opinion about it from a beta, then given it to your editor – yay. But now you’re about to receive feedback and edit notes. And you’re anxious about that, and about what your editor might want to change.
This is all perfectly normal and understandable, because you’re still emotionally attached to the Art part of your book: the beautiful-writing, dreaming-about-characters, emotional energy of creation part. A good editor is sensitive to this (and there are many good editors – most editors are lovely word nerds, just like you and me, who aren’t appropriately paid for their dedication and hard work, imho). You need to remember that your editor is not trying to piss you off, or strangle your vision, or straitjacket your art, okay? All they want is to work in a collaborative way with you to make your book the best it can be. This is in their interest after all: they want to publish something that’s attractive to their market (readers) and will sell well. You don’t want an adversarial relationship with your editor. That’s counter-productive for everybody.
So here we are. Let’s imagine your editor’s email has just dropped into your inbox. And you’re a bit scared to open it, and how things might proceed from there. I’m going to follow some of Monteiro’s suggestions very closely at first, because they’re very sensible, and also because – for the purposes of the editorial process to arrive at a finished product, aka Your Book – your editor is your client. Yes, that’s right. The publisher has bought your work, and now they are tweaking and adjusting it to create a saleable commodity. And it is your job to facilitate this process.
Now this is what I suggest you do:
First – Read: Read the email and edit notes all the way through. Don’t jot things down or think too much, just read it to the end. Okay. Breathe. Breeeeeaaathe.
Second – Step Back: Step away from it. Go for a walk, watch some TV, have a coffee, do some exercise, have a cry… Whatever you need to do to let off steam about it. This allows you time to process, and cool down (if anything in the email made you upset or angry). Don’t feel bad about having an emotional reaction. Sometimes just the act of receiving edits can create Strong Feelings, and that’s okay. Also, see above: you’re still emotionally connected to the art.
Take note of your reaction. Then remember: Your publisher likes this story – that’s why they bought it (you’ve got a contract, right?). So don’t panic. This process is just a matter of honing a rough cut diamond into a glittering gem. You’ll work it out.
Third – Reply acknowledgement: Come back to your desk and reply to your editor. Just something simple, like ‘Thanks for sending on these notes. I’m reading them carefully, so I understand everything, and I’ll reply as soon as I’ve gotten through them.’ That’s it. Don’t write anything more. Just a simple acknowledgement to your editor that yes, you’ve received their instructions, and you’re examining them. Send that off.
Fourth – Read again and compile notes: Once you’ve calmed down (that may be the same day, but I recommend you sleep on it), read the email and edit notes again, all the way through. This is when you get out handy pen and jotter, and start to jot things down. Alternatively (which is what I do) paste the body of the letter into a document with a two-column table. In one column, paste in all the questions, statements and concerns from your editor, line-by-line. In the other column, you can start roughing out your responses.
You will most likely have a meeting to go through all these things. It might be a face-to-face meeting, or a phone meeting. Either way, you need to be prepared for both the meeting and the logical next step, editing your manuscript. So take notes on the edit letter. Here’s some things to take note of:
- Note the compliments you’ve received from your editor. A good editor will give you some positive feedback before launching into a laundry list of manuscript flaws. Accept those compliments (good job!) and move on.
- Note where your editor asks questions. Editors generally ask a lot of questions, testing the logic and continuity of the story from all angles, which is a good thing. Do they ask about characters’ motivations or personal backstory? Or maybe they ask about what happens when? Or they might want to know what exactly you meant to say at a certain point? Note all those questions. For some of them you will have a ready response, but others will need deeper consideration. Remember: This is your story. Nobody knows this world, these characters, like you do. So you should be able to figure out answers to these questions (and if you can’t? maybe your editor has a point, and you need to flesh that part out, yeah?).
- Note where your editor gives specific directives. Statements such as ‘I didn’t have a clear idea of where this scene was located, we need to add some details here’ or ‘There is an excess of description in this chapter, which will need to be trimmed’. These are all things you can correct. Make another note in your second column to ask your editor about these items if you don’t have a strong idea of what you should do to correct them. Questions this time will flow from you to your editor – ‘Reduce from four pages to two?’ or something of that nature.
Fifth – Dealing with non-specific critique: Now comes the tricky bit. Sometimes your editor gives comments that aren’t focused directives or questions – phrases like ‘This isn’t really working’ or ‘This character seems a bit boring’, or ‘This scene feels out of place’. They might even offer a suggestion (‘Can we cut this character entirely?’) that freaks you out.
This is the stuff that sends writers into a panic spiral – ‘But that character is really important!’ or ‘Omg, my editor just doesn’t get my story!’
Breeeeaaathe. Don’t panic.
First, try to narrow down whether there’s actually a problem, and what the problem is. If your editor doesn’t provide any more direction than ‘It’s not working’, then make a note in your second column asking them to clarify. Questions again flow from you to your editor: Ask why they think it’s not working. They should be able to justify their concern with more than a vague ‘it’s the vibe’ kind of answer, especially if they’re suggesting a radical change.
Remember: Your editor is offering an outsider’s perspective. They’re suggesting that their vision of the story (as a reader) doesn’t seem to gel with yours (as the writer) at this particular point. And a writer’s job is to be a master of communicating a vision in words. So if your editor can justify that there’s a genuine problem – a disconnect between the reader and your vision at some point – then it’s good they picked it up. Rough cut diamond into glittering gem, remember? Your editor is simply seeing a problem, then making a suggestion for how they think the problem might be corrected, because that’s their job.
Read through your editor’s idea carefully, and consider whether it improves on what you’ve already written. If it’s an improvement, great. If it’s not, you’ll need to explain why your editor’s suggestion won’t work – because your editor will want to know why – and find a better solution.
If your editor can’t clarify what the problem is, and it’s sticking in their craw, then you really need to talk that out. Non-specific critique requires active discussion. These are good things to work through in the meeting. Nail that shit down, or it will come back to bite you on the arse. You need to iron these issues out before you begin any changes.
Remember: you’re not changing anything yet. Don’t go charging off and altering the manuscript before you’ve clarified things. And don’t follow vague suggestions like, ‘Can you work up two versions of this chapter so we can compare them?’ No, you can’t. Because that’s a lot of work, and as Monteiro points out “you’re not giving them taste-tests. You’re not running a froyo shop”. Find out what the problem is first, and then prepare to problem-solve.
There’s always a possibility that the editor’s vision for the story is really at odds with the writer’s. Sometimes the acquiring editor, who loved the book, isn’t the editor working on developing it. It’s unfortunate, but it happens. If you’re under contract, then have that meeting asap. At the meeting, you’ll need to negotiate like visions for the book. You need to make sure you and your editor are working in tandem going forward, or you’ll be in a world of pain. Don’t fuck around at that meeting – get a clear, mutually-agreed-upon vision. Figure it out. You can do that, because you’re a creative, and a professional, and your book is under contract, so everybody wants a happy ending.
Sixth – Reply email: After you’ve compiled everything, write a short reply email. Thank your editor for the compliments and developmental advice (editors should be thanked more often). Tell them you have questions. Ask your questions on editorial directives (‘Reduce from four pages to two in chapter six?’) as simple dot points. Then get your ducks in a row – list some of the things you want to discuss, including the need for clarification of non-specific critique issues.
Tell them you’re looking forward to talking over everything at the editorial meeting. Suggest a date for your meeting – sometime in the next week or two, so you’re not sitting around anxiously waiting. The meeting will take some time, so make sure you’re not in a rush that day. Ask about the timeline, so you know how long you’ll have to complete changes after the meeting. If the timeline is tight, bring the meeting forward. You can’t have a meeting then turn around edits in 24 hours – again with the froyo shop. Make sure you’ll have the time you need to do a good job. Your editor should be wholly amenable to that.
Before the meeting: Stay busy. Keep working on another book (you should be doing that anyway), or tend to your neglected family, or your day job, or your hobby, or whatever.
After the meeting: You should have a clear idea of what you’re doing, and a timeline to do it in. Great. Get on that.
Note for self-publishing authors: The same rules apply for all the issues I’ve mentioned above. You might still need a meeting, or at least a phone call. You might still need to iron out problems. The main difference is, the buck stops with you. If you’re writing to self-publish, you have all the freedom in the world. But use that responsibility wisely. You’re the writer and the publisher, so you don’t have to incorporate editorial advice from the editor you hired – but you hired them for a reason, right? Don’t just turn up your nose and say, ‘Well I want to keep that character, so tough luck’. Think about your editor’s suggestions – they might be an improvement. If you’re not sure, compare feedback from your editor and feedback from your beta reader. If everybody is singing the same song, maybe you do need to make a change. It might not be what you originally envisioned for the story, but if it changes things for the better, then do it.
And that’s it. You’ve dealt with your edit letter in a professional way. Congratulations, and good luck with your book. Hopefully I’ll get to read it one day 🙂