Edit Letters: What They Contain and How I Draft Them

Last week, we covered the basics of what an edit letter is and when it generally happens in the editorial process (along with a few key ways they differ from beta reader and CP feedback). This week, I want to quickly talk about the process an editor goes through to create one. Contrary to popular belief, it’s not just a matter of simply reading a manuscript and regurgitating thoughts into semi-coherent notes. A large part of our job is actually to help prepare your work (and you) for exposure to the often unfiltered reader response. And trust me, unless your editor is a walking cliche of the editors-are-evil myth, reader reviews will hurt a hell of a lot more than anything your editor will say. Your editor should have your best interest in mind, and they realize that hearing that your manuscript needs even more work isn’t exactly a pleasant experience.

But I’m getting slightly ahead of myself. Believe it or not, the process of drafting an edit letter is actually quite nerve-racking for most editors. It’s often our first true interaction with an author, and so we’re never fully sure how they’re going to react to the things we have to say. No one likes being the bearer of bad news, after all. Just like no one likes receiving it. But such is the nature of the job. We’re not paid to sugar-coat and coddle. We root out and diagnose the cancers in your manuscript that you might not even realize are there, and then, most importantly, we tell you how to cure them. That’s a hefty responsibility, don’t you think? Which is why I never understand when authors assume this is a quick process.

Every editor does this phase of edits differently, but the intent is always the same, and the finished product will be very similar. So let’s talk about how I get to that final letter.

The first thing I do is download the file to my Kindle. That might sound obvious, but I have a very specific reason for doing this — it helps keep me from becoming mired in things which technically fall under line edits. For a dev edit, I have to mostly turn off “Editor Brain,” which is something you’ll hear editors joke about if you ever manage to find them chilling in their natural habitats. For those unfamiliar with the term, Editor Brain is the inability to look past or otherwise ignore grammar atrocities and other minutiae. When you spend most of your days mired in fixing those things, it can be really, really hard to turn that facet of your brain off. It becomes muscle memory, a reflex. But the point of a dev edit is to focus on the big picture, not the minutiae. That comes later. So I physically prevent myself from being able to comment on or address those line-edit type flaws by putting the manuscript in a venue where I’m more accustomed to simply being a reader.

If you noticed, though, I said I have to “mostly ” turn off Editor Brain, because really, editors never truly manage to turn that perspective off. Which is a curse they don’t tell you about when you’re a fledgling editor dreaming of all the awesomeness that being an editor kinda sorta (as in not at all) entails. I still notice the finer details as I read, the flaws that will need to be ironed out during the next round of edits, I just don’t do anything about them.

Instead, I carefully read the manuscript in its entirety, making notes about things that are murky, elements that aren’t explained or developed enough, sequence issues, or even just emotional responses, as needed. I use the notepad feature on my phone for this, because it’s conveniently mobile and doesn’t require me to infringe upon my “reading” space, thereby keeping my focus from slipping back to those aforementioned line edit problems.

Once I’m done reading, I set the project aside for at least twenty-four hours. And again, I have a very specific reason for this. See, ideally, your editor should be one of your biggest fans. Which means that there’s a period during the review process where the reader part of us takes over. And that means that, if you did your job well, we finish the book with a massive book hangover and a lot of “OH MY GOD I LOVED IT” clouding our judgment. There’s an emotional high that comes from reading a really satisfying work, even if that work might still be a tad rough around the edges. And emotions get in the way of logical analysis. So I give myself time to savor that book hangover and come down from the overwhelming number of reader feels I usually have after finishing a story.

Then, once I can don my editor hat again, I take my notes and compile them into the actual edit letter, carefully phrasing my feedback to toe the line between honest and supportive, compassionate and constructive. Or at least, I do my best to. I usually start by listing the good stuff: what I loved, what it reminded me of, what the author did really well. Then I segue into the standard categories I generally include: Concept, Voice & POV, Pace, World-Building, Character Development, Miscellaneous/Manuscript Specific Concerns, and  Overall Thoughts. I don’t always need all of these, but that’s the template I start with. I find it helps to take what can feel like a massive wall of text and break it into bite-sized portions, both because it’s a tad less daunting and because it’s easier to continue the discussion.

Once I identify the categories I need, I’ll draft my analysis of each, identifying both what’s working and what isn’t, and my suggestion for how to fix it. This takes anywhere from one to three days, factoring in both the time it takes to carefully draft a letter of that length and the mental gymnastics needed to not only identify the problems, but also the solutions that most feel like the author’s style and voice. It’s a lot like playing with puzzle pieces, rearranging and tuning and tweaking until everything snaps into place.

Then I proofread, take a deep breath, and hit send, crossing my fingers that it doesn’t unleash a storm of backlash. Not because I’m not confident in my analysis and suggestions, but because, until I hear back from the author, I’m as nervous and anxious as they were while waiting to hear from me.

And there you have it, my personal approach to creating the developmental edit letter. This concludes the portion of my presentation I did with C.M. Spivey. At the conferences, we then went on to showcase the edit letter I provided for From Under the Mountain, discussing the various aspects and how Spivey interpreted and implemented my suggestions. Since that material is copyrighted to the author, I’m not at liberty to post it online. But perhaps if you ask nicely enough, they will on their own website. 😉

Next week, I’ll have something new to talk about. I’m not sure what yet, but I’ll find something. If anyone has questions or comments regarding edit letters and the process of drafting or receiving/implementing one, feel free to post in the comments below. Otherwise, happy reading/writing!

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