The edit letter: words that strike fear into the hearts of many an author. We are sensitive creatures, we writers, and never so sensitive as when we put our work into the hands of critics. We know editors and critique partners want our work to reach its highest potential, but it doesn’t take the sting out of the news that the book is not perfect just as it is.
Many authors may not get one of these until they get an offer of representation or sell a book. The edit letter is a staple of professional developmental editing during preparation of a manuscript for publication. Many editorial agents use them as well, and mentorship programs like Rogue Mentor commonly require them as part of the mentor’s obligations to their mentees.
In my case, I had received critiques inline or in comments from betas and CPs, but nothing more formal. My Pitch Wars mentorship gave me my first experience with an edit letter—still the most thorough I’ve gotten. My mentor’s letter was long (14 pages), comprehensive, enthusiastic, and it even had gifs.
Later edit letters I’ve gotten were much shorter. In fact, with my book that’s now on sub, my agent just wrote me a quick email with a few points she wanted me to address. My editor, Heather, typically sends an edit letter of 1-2 pages for my urban fantasy novels.
I always feel nervous when I initially open an edit letter. But with experience, I’ve come to recognize them as powerful tools for revision. In fact, I recently started writing my own edit letters for myself – as well as for my CPs, betas, and most recently for my new mentee (hi Rykie!)
This post will address the what, why, and how of edit letters. Why is an edit letter useful? What can and should you expect when receiving one? And how might you go about writing your own edit letter?
What is an edit letter?
An edit letter is a revision tool used during developmental or content edits. It can come from an editor, agent, mentor, or other critique partner. Basically, it’s a reference document for the revision process. It summarizes issues that should or could be addressed in revisions, from big ticket items like character arcs and plot holes to small quirks that crop up repeatedly in the manuscript.
An edit letter isn’t a formal business document with a set format. It’s also not a set of orders that the writer has to comply with. It’s one person’s opinion and input on how to improve and fine-tune the manuscript.
Okay, yes, often that person is an experienced professional with an opinion worth considering. If you have a book deal and are working with your publisher’s editor, you should address every issue they raise in their letter. But you don’t always have to do things exactly as your editor prescribes – it’s still your book and you are the ultimate arbiter of any changes.
What does a standard edit letter look like?
This is a trick question! The short answer is that there is no such thing as a standard edit letter. I actually looked for a template on how to write one when I started down the road to offering mentorship and found there isn’t much out there.
I did like this one from Tracy C. Gold, who does, bless her, include a template, as does September C. Fawkes. However, in practice, the edit letter is as individual as the editor, the manuscript, and the author. Really, despite my desire for scripts in all things, it should be tailored in this way rather than a one-size-fits-all process.
So what should you expect when you open your edit letter? The letter might look like a numbered list of items to work on or it might have sections for different aspects of the manuscript, like characters, plot, worldbuilding, etc. When I’m writing a letter for someone else, I try to organize it into sections so it’s not too chaotic, but when I’m writing one for myself, I tend to be a bit more brief and bullet-pointy.
This means that a long edit letter isn’t a bad thing. I look back fondly on my 14-page edit letter from my mentor, because its length reflected her passion for my book. The book also did need and benefit from an intense developmental edit, so the long letter also reflected the nature of our mentorship relationship and the needs of the manuscript. In addition, we had discussed many of the points she made previously, so it didn’t come as such a big surprise.
On the other hand, a short edit letter isn’t a bad thing. It doesn’t mean your editor or feedback partner doesn’t care about the book. It likely just means there aren’t that many issues to address. However, it doesn’t necessarily mean you won’t have much work to do: one or two large global issues may take as much work as many small tweaks.
What an edit letter should include: the good, the bad, and the ugly.
One thing I do think most if not all edit letters should include is plenty of positive feedback. This isn’t just to soften the criticism or coddle the author. It’s part of a truly complete critique experience.
Of course, if you’re in the role of providing feedback, it’s tempting to focus on the issues that seem most glaring. But it’s just as important to the author to know what is working for their edit partner as well as what isn’t working. You don’t want to accidently fix something that isn’t broken while you revise!
Edits are hard, getting feedback is emotional, and for many of us a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down. If you’re working with a professional agent or editor, or a peer mentor, they picked your work because they believe in it. Hopefully your betas and critique partners also get what you are trying to do and are a fan of that thing.
Michelle Hazen addresses this in her post on ways to write a better edit letter. She points out that an editor has a role similar to that of a counselor, in the sense that their job isn’t just to diagnose the problem but to inspire positive change. “See if you can locate the soul of the book,” she says, “and use that to guide all of your feedback.”
Writers usually get their best ideas when they’re relaxed, and do their best writing when they’re confident. If your edits get clients excited and energized, they can jump right into revisions, instead of spending a lot of time and energy convincing themselves not to quit, and going through the stages of grieving about their edit letter.Michelle Hazen, 5 Ways to Write a Better Edit Letter
If someone isn’t into what you’re doing on a basic level, they probably aren’t the right person to give you feedback. There has to be some kind of shared vision for the feedback relationship to work out. And if feedback from a certain person has a severe negative impact on your confidence, their feedback style and/or vision for your manuscript is probably not a good fit.
You need time to emotionally process your edit letter.
When you receive an edit letter and read it for the first time, its contents may overwhelm you. You might feel defensive, angry, discouraged, or hurt at some of the comments made in the feedback. This is normal!
As writers, we pour so much of ourselves into our work. It’s hard not to identify with the words on the page so deeply that feedback feels like burning coals heaped upon our tender egos. If you’re neurodivergent and have rejection sensitive dysphoria, for instance, the experience of receiving critique can be even more excruciating.
It’s important to give those feelings time and space before you dig into revisions. Open the letter, read it, or even better, skim it. Try to get an idea of the main points, but don’t do anything else yet.
Don’t angrily email your feedback partner or editor back to explain to them what you really meant in chapter three. Don’t subtweet them. Don’t make any big decisions, like deleting your manuscript, giving up writing, and running away to live on top of a mountain with only goats for company. (The primary benefit of goat companionship is, of course, that they don’t give a whole lot of feedback as long as you feed them.)
Also, do NOT open your manuscript and start making changes. Save the edit letter and put it away. Go do something else, preferably something fun. Water the plants, pet your cats, feed your goats, feed your soul.
This will give your emotional reactions time to run their course. Feelings aren’t facts and they aren’t forever, either. They fade with time and perspective.
Once you’re done being upset that your favorite plot twist didn’t land with your reader, your brain will be free to think about why that might be and generate solutions. But don’t force it while you’re still raw about it. Doing so can damage you and your manuscript—or it can lead to rejecting suggestions that might benefit both.
Working through an edit letter: make a plan of attack.
Once you’ve processed your feelings about the edit letter and you no longer want to quit or yell at anyone (do NOT yell at your editor!) it’s time to dig in. Read the edit letter again, this time more slowly, and start making an action plan.
This might be when you make a bullet point list for yourself, print it out and make notes in the margin, get out your highlighters, whatever is right for you. Some people will tell you to prioritize the issues to address by starting with the most global and working down to small changes. I just work on the ones I know how to fix first while letting the harder ones percolate. Your mileage may vary.
I mentioned this above, but one important thing to remember when absorbing the feedback in an edit letter is who owns the story. It’s yours, the writer’s, first and foremost, and you should feel empowered to reject any critiques that don’t fit your vision for your manuscript.
It’s one thing for a reader to identify where a problem exists in someone else’s work, where they got confused or lost interest. But dictating exactly HOW they should fix something often treads dangerously close to imposing your own style and preferences on the author. It’s ok to make suggestions but it’s also ok for the author to consider those suggestions and dismiss them as flatly wrong.
When people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.Neil Gaiman
In my edit letters to others, I do sometimes make suggestions on how to fix problems. I try to make it clear that it is ultimately up to the author to decide what to do with those suggestions, however. The author is always the final authority on their own work.
An edit letter should empower the author.
This is not to devalue the work of an editor or critique partner. I can’t count the number of times my editor has caught an inconsistency, poor character development, or something I just plain forgot to take out of my draft when I revised it. And when she identifies an issue, 99.99% of the time I’ve improved my book by addressing it.
I say 99.99% only because I don’t like dealing in absolutes, but I literally can’t think of an example for that 0.01%. A great example of this is my most recent book, in which she found one of my favorite characters unlikeable. At first, I bristled, but then as I thought about it more I realized I hadn’t done the best job of explaining why that character was, in fact, loveable.
I don’t think I took every suggestion she made about how to fix this issue. But I do know that the changes I made in response to her feedback improved the book. A good editor will do their best to support your creative agency and empower you to make the final decisions about revision.
You can write an edit letter to yourself.
So we’ve established that an edit letter, while occasionally terrifying, is often useful. But let’s say you don’t have an editor, a mentor, or a critique partner. What then?
Well, first off, definitely seek critique partners, though not all of them will give you edit letters. (Don’t be afraid to ask for feedback in a certain format!) But you can use an edit letter to support your own solo revision process too, even without another set of eyes.
I started doing this once I realized how incredibly helpful it was to have all my action items in one place. Much of the time, certain issues crop up repeatedly or affect multiple scenes, so it saves time to have a big picture plan on hand. Be Your Own Mentor has a great post on this (I highly recommend this website overall for revision tips) and the steps I follow are similar.
The first step when I start a new revision is reading through the entire manuscript, usually after printing it out to help me bring fresh eyes to the pages. I make notes to myself in the margins while I read. BYOM has some great recommendations of questions to ask as you do your read through.
I used to work through these notes page by page immediately in the manuscript after I finished my read-through. Now, though, I take some time to write it up in an edit letter first. My last self-written edit letter had sections for plot, pacing, worldbuilding/setting, and characterization/arcs.
Plot addresses global issues like stakes and causation. In the section on pacing, I note any points I felt bored with the story. Within the characterization section I also have sections for external and internal goals, motivations, and conflicts, along with the characters’ “false beliefs.”
I won’t lie, I also drag myself a little. What’s the fun in writing your own edit letter if you can’t give yourself a hard time? But, you know, constructively.
Then, as I complete revisions, I get the additional reward of marking them as done in the edit document. This is extremely satisfying and usually done with great gusto. I use strikethrough for instant visual gratification.
The nice thing about writing your own edit letter, besides mercilessly reading yourself for filth (if you’re into that), is that you can tailor it exactly to your needs and preferences. It is a little extra work when you’re diving into a revision, but it’s worth it to have a map to help navigate and hold yourself accountable.
Don’t fear the edit letter!
I know, I know. It’s easier said than done. Especially if you’ve never gotten an edit letter before, the prospect can feel extremely daunting.
And even if you have been through this process, it can still feel pretty nerve-wracking in the moment. I have yet to open an edit letter for the first time without my stomach in my throat or my heart in my stomach or some other form of major organ disorganization. Because oh god what if they actually hated it oh god oh god.
At times, the publishing process and particularly the process of receiving feedback on the manuscript into which you’ve poured blood, sweat, and tears can feel dark and full of terrors. In the end, though, the writer of the edit letter does so with the goal of helping your work fulfill its best potential. And once the initial jump scare is over, you’ll probably find that it’s not so terrifying, after all.
In fact, at its best, the edit letter is a map to guide you through the thorny maze of revisions and out the other side with a book that’s leveled up and ready for its next step. I hope this post helped demystify the process and make it a little less scary. Let me know your thoughts and questions in the comments!