Edit Letters: What are They and When do They Happen?

Apologies for the unintentional hiatus over the past few weeks. To say this summer was a whirlwind would be an understatement. I honestly can’t believe it’s already September! It feels like it was just March. But anyway, now that the conference circuit has more or less come to a close, I’ll be able to return to my regularly scheduled posting routine.

As some of you know, I did a presentation with C.M. (Cait) Spivey on edit letters at both PNWA and the Willamette Writers Conference, and many have asked that I post that presentation here. Since it was more of a tutorial on how to implement the suggestions contained within an edit letter than a generalized talk about the letters themselves, I can’t post the presentation in its entirety. But I can use the generalized bits. Perhaps those will still be helpful.

So let’s talk about edit letters, shall we?

When you look back across the archives of my site, you’ll see that I’ve already talked a lot about editing-related topics. Everything from how you become an editor, to the realities of the editing life, to the various pet-peeves and editorial myths that drive editors nuts. But I haven’t ever truly talked about what an editor does.

Technically, the idea that an editor’s only job is to find errors is an editorial myth. But it does have some basis in truth. I mean, a large portion of editing does revolve around the finding and fixing of “errors,” but that has less to do with the myth’s portrayal of editors being sadistic grammar Nazis and more to do with the fact that we’re an expert set of objective eyes. Our main job is to help protect authors from reader backlash, and there are two main ways we do that — line by line (or in-line comments, as some editors call them) and edit letters.

The line by line comments are known as line or copy edits, and are the hallmark of editing, the thing most people think of when they hear the dreaded E word. They include things like grammar, sentence structure and flow, clarity and economy of language, and voice consistency.

But before a project gets to the line edit phase, it goes through what is known as a developmental or structural edit. And that’s where edit letters come in.

Dev edits, as we editors affectionately call them (because, let’s face it, five syllables is just too long to say on a regular basis), are used to analyze, diagnose, and address underlying problems with storytelling mechanics. They provide a bird’s eye view of the manuscript and allow the editor to carefully evaluate things like plot, pacing, character development, market concerns, and emotional resonance — the foundation of your story, in other words.

Because of this, dev edits happen very early in the editorial process, and may even happen as part of acquisitions instead. I can’t speak for all agents or editors, but at REUTS, we believe in disclosing any potentially drastic revisions we’d like to see up front, that way the author can determine whether or not our vision for their story aligns with their own. A disagreement at this stage likely means the agent or press is a mismatch, as ideally, the edit letter will provide feedback that improves upon the author’s intent and story, rather than drastically altering it.

The purpose of the edit letter, therefore, is to open a dialogue between the author and editor. It’s the opening volley of a strategy meeting, more or less, meant to encourage brainstorming and discourse over the various aspects that might need addressing. Which is why it’s not quite the same as the feedback you receive from CPs or beta readers.

One of my favorite (and I’m totally being facetious here) things to run up against is an author who fails to understand the key difference between beta readers, CPs, and editors. (I’ve talked about the differences before, if you need a refresher.) Each is valuable, yes, and every author should be utilizing all three, but each has its place in the process. In the hierarchy of outside feedback, editors are alpha. Once you start working with one, you really shouldn’t be utilizing other sources of feedback. Those all happen before you bring in the expert, not after. And yet, I’ve seen people do this, a lot, both in an effort to implement developmental revisions and in between rounds of line edits.

Don’t do this. It’s one of the main editorial no-nos. But the reason probably isn’t what you think. Editing myths often portray editors as power-hungry, judgmental individuals. But we’re not really (or at least, we shouldn’t be). We’re your ally. We’re also highly experienced, paid professionals. Chances are, if your editor is telling you something needs to be fixed, it’s for a very good reason.

I’m sure some of you are thinking, “but what if I don’t agree with the suggestions? What if I want a second opinion?” Still don’t do it. Talk to your editor instead. The editing process is supposed to be a partnership, and much like marriages, that partnership can’t work without communication. By turning to people outside of the editor-author relationship, you’re essentially vetting your editor’s comments. You’re telling the editor that you don’t trust them, and that these other people matter more. And worse, you’re breaking the confidentiality of what should be a private part of the production process (especially if you’re working with a press). It’s insulting, frankly, and much like a cheating spouse, it engenders mistrust on both sides, creating a fractured, difficult path for both parties.

So yeah, talk to your editor. Tell them your thoughts and concerns, and if you must bring in outside opinions, clear it with them first. But never, never do it after the majority of the editing is done, and then expect the editor to make changes according to your CPs’ or beta readers’ thoughts. That’s the wrong head-space to be in when you approach this process.

Next week, I’ll talk about my particular approach to drafting an edit letter. But in the meantime, do any of you have questions about edit letters or developmental editing in general? Let me know in the comments below, and I’ll make sure to answer them in the conclusion article! 🙂

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