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Seeing the Forest for the Trees: How to Approach an Editorial Letter

You’ve sent your manuscript to an editor for a developmental review and have just received your editorial letter back. You’re staring at sixteen pages of advice and aren’t sure where to start. HELP!

The first thing to remember is that, no matter how tactful, friendly, and supportive your editor is, you are likely to feel some defensiveness when you first read their suggestions. Presumably, you hired an editor because you wanted feedback, but we still all secretly hope that our editor will tell us we’re brilliant and everything looks great. But even best-selling authors get suggestions from their editors, so you’re in good company.

Your first step is to read through the letter, acknowledge your desire to push back, and then step away. Don’t make any decisions about whether you agree or disagree with your editor at this time. Once you’ve gained some distance from those emotions, give the letter another read. Hopefully this time you can read the recommendations with fewer knee-jerk reactions. I often find that some of the things I deemed ridiculous! stupid! idiotic! on my first read make more sense this time around. That doesn’t mean you have to agree with everything your editor has said. It’s your book, so you have the final say. Once you can read the suggestions with some detachment, you can decide which changes you want to make in your next draft.

And how do you decide this? It might seem obvious, but start with the recommendations that will have the biggest overall impact. I frequently tell my clients that X, Y, and Z are the things really holding the book back. Then I will also point out smaller issues they can address as well. Many independent authors don’t have the budget for several rounds of developmental editing, so this may be the only time they’ll get story-level feedback. If there’s a timeline issue that needs fixing or a confusing plot point, I’ll bring them to the author’s attention so they can fix them if those storylines survive to the next draft. But even though I am clear that these are smaller issues, and that those issues might no longer exist if they rewrite to fix the bigger problems, I frequently get manuscripts back for a line edit that have addressed all of the little stuff but none of the big issues.

I get it. Hearing that your character needs a stronger motivation or higher stakes for their actions can be overwhelming. Realizing that you need to completely rewrite the second half of your book can feel daunting. It’s much easier to clarify an existing plot point than to craft a new plot. You’ll feel like you’re making more progress if you can scratch five small items off your to-do list in a week than if you take a few months to scratch off a big one. But if your plot has no forward momentum or your character is unlikeable, fixing a bunch of smaller issues won’t save the story.

This is one reason that I recommend writers don’t wait too long before getting a developmental edit. (See Not a Moment Too Soon: When is the best time for a developmental edit? for more on this.) It is much easier to make major changes to your manuscript when you haven’t spent ten years working on it. Write a few drafts so that you feel you know what you’re trying to accomplish and have the strongest story you can write at that time, but don’t wait so long that the thought of doing more exhausts you. The recommendations in an editorial letter will frequently be more intensive than adding a page here to clear something up or moving a few chapters around to improve flow. They may require eliminating a character or rewriting a plot point to more closely match the protagonist’s motivation. Some authors start from scratch, using what they learned from writing the early draft and from the editorial letter to write a completely new story! If you go into a developmental edit expecting that big changes might be recommended, you’re less likely to feel overwhelmed by them. And if you get lucky and your manuscript only needs minor fixes, you haven’t lost anything.

But what if you’re thinking, “There’s no way I’m going to let an editor tell me I have to change my plot or reimagine my character!”? First of all, an editor won’t tell you that you have to do anything. They will use their education and experience to provide guidance to help you reach your goals for your book. If you disagree with some of their suggestions, that’s just fine. Your name is on the book, so you get to decide what goes in it. But if you’re not looking to make significant changes to your book, then a developmental edit might not be what you’re looking for. In that case, you might be better off getting a line edit to address the flow and readability of the prose.

A long editorial letter can be daunting. Give yourself some time to absorb the recommendations without feeling defensive, then decide which ones will help you write the story you want to write. Make big changes first, then fix any smaller issues that still remain. Try not to think of it as throwing away your hard work but rather as building on the foundation you’ve created. The final result will be the book you always knew you could write


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