When a book gets acquired, it goes through several rounds of editing. This process goes beyond proofreading and copyediting—an acquisitions editor will go through the entire manuscript and look at plot, character development, pacing, and all kinds of other big-picture elements. This is called a developmental edit or a macro edit, depending on the publisher. And when the acquisitions editor is done, the author gets an edit(orial) letter.
Edit letters can be scary! Authors get a document telling them all things they need to do make their book better after spending months—maybe even years—writing and editing and polishing a manuscript. Yikes!
Now, I can’t speak to how each individual editor creates their edit letter since everyone edits differently and every book needs a different kind of attention. Some edit letters are three pages long, some are twenty-three. Some letters focus on a particular subject (like voice or plot line), some talk about lots of different issues. But for me, there are five key pieces to this kind of letter:
1. Defining ownership. I think almost all of my edit letters start of end with some version of the phrase “this is your book—not mine.” While I generally consider myself to be an expert editor, I want the author to know that they are also an expert author. When editors make suggestions, those suggestions are intended to improve the book and make it the best possible experience for a reader. But—and this is an important but—this is not my book, and my opinion may not resonate with an author. At the end of the day, I want an author to be proud of, comfortable with, and happy about their work. So if an author feels like a change isn’t true to the story or to a character, I am always willing to have that discussion and see where it leads. Debates do happen, but in the end we can reach a good place that appeases both parties and strengthens the book.
2. What’s working. Strange as it seems, sometimes listing the positive attributes of a novel is more difficult than listing the negative attributes. I mean, I loved the book enough to acquire it, right? Of course I think it’s awesome! But if I don’t tell the author that—with specific examples—they are basically getting a “honey-do” list from me. No one wants that! Plus, by pointing out the good, the author can see what’s working well and can apply that success to scenes or characters that need tweaks.
3. What’s not working. Yes, well, this is the crux of the edit letter, I suppose. My job is literally to bust out the metaphorical red pen and talk about the strengths and weaknesses of a manuscript. Here’s how I generally structure my letters:
- Plot: From big to small, I list out the elements of the plot that need development, changes, or to be cut entirely.
- Characters: Our heroines and heroes and villainesses and villains are just as important as the sequence of events that moves the story along. When it comes to characters, I talk both about individuals and relationships between key people.
- Voice/Style: Talking about voice and style can be tricky—an editor can’t make an author write in a way that doesn’t feel natural or genuine. But sometimes there are small changes that can make a big difference, like combining choppy sentences to give more variation in structure or removing writing ticks like overusing the word “just” (guilty!) or trimming the number of times two characters stare longingly into each other’s eyes.
- Random details: Every book has a few inconsistencies that just don’t add up. A character can have blue eyes on one page and hazel eyes on another. Someone goes outside in one scene, but we find out the door was locked in the next, raising major questions like: Can this character walk through walls?! Is this character a ghost?! These little details can get overlooked when you’re writing a 50, 60, 70, 80, 90,000 word manuscript, so that’s what your editor is for!
4. How we’re going to tackle the changes. It would be super unhelpful if I wrote a letter that said, “Your main character is boring. You should make her less boring.” Whenever I request a change, I give an option or two of how to make that change happen. Authors can interpret and adjust those suggestions as they see fit, but I always try to give some direction rather than providing pure criticism. Nobody wants that!
5. A markup. In addition to my edit letter, I send along a marked-up manuscript (the MS Word document with Track Changes). For the most part, this markup includes structural and grammatical changes or highlights passages that are addressed in the edit letter. This helps me work through some of the quick and easy tweaks and gives the author context for upcoming changes.
Like I said, everyone edits differently, so your edit letter may end up looking different from what I’ve just described. If you want to learn more about edit letters (and authors’ experiences with them), check out the links below!