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How to Approach an Editorial Letter

by Andrea Robb

As fun and rewarding as the writing process can be, there’s no denying that it’s hard work. Reaching the last word of a manuscript often feels akin to finishing a marathon . . . only unlike running a race, completing the first draft of a manuscript is often just the beginning.

In 2010, I published a young adult novel with HarperTEEN. I had written it on a whim, revised it a few times after sharing with a few friends who were sharp and savvy readers, and found an agent who helped land me a spot on a plum list. I knew that they expected me to make some changes, but I figured that they would be mostly superficial.

Then I received my first editorial letter. It was ten pages long, and requested that, among many, many other things, I trim the total word count from 96,000 to somewhere in the 75,000-80,000 range. Oh, but I should also think about adding new scenes to flesh out these particular parts of the story.

“She’s crazy!” I thought, and then promptly started to panic. It seemed impossible. Here I had already sunk hours of my life into this project, and yet suddenly there was another hurdle. Would they cancel my contract if I didn’t do all of these things? Did my editor hate me? Was I actually a terrible writer?

The answers were no, no, and no. After that first rush of literary dismay wore off, I read the letter again, and realized that she had not only made numerous good points, we also had the same goal: we wanted my book to be the best that it could be.

Still, I remember the shock of that first letter. I’ve since heard from other authors, all who look upon the editorial letter as something to anticipate and dread. On one hand, it’s exciting to hear ideas from someone so invested in your work; on the other, it usually spells another round of hard work and pulling at your hair in front of the computer.

After a decade of collaborating with authors at all stages of the publication rodeo, I’ve come to recognize that a willingness to buckle down and do that hard work is really what separates published and unpublished authors. A professional author knows how to revise. It’s such an important part of the process, that I even know agents who will ask prospective clients for a small revision as a test to make sure that an author can and will take constructive criticism.

With that in mind, I’ve come up with a few tips for how to approach an editorial letter in a way that is rewarding for both your project and your sanity as a writer.

Read the letter once, and then several times again in the days that follow.

The first time you read your editorial letter, your heart will be pounding. It’s going to be difficult to not have an emotional response, so go ahead and let yourself. There will be suggestions that inspire kneejerk defensiveness, and that’s natural. After all, you’ve poured your heart and soul into something, and now this person has the nerve to poke holes in it.

However, make sure to read it again the following day. And then the day after that. Suddenly, ideas that seemed preposterous will start to click into place. A revision plan will take shape, and inspiration will take hold. You might even get excited to dive in all over again.

Focus on the good as well as the bad.

It’s important to remember that a competent editor will not only point out places for improvement, they will make a point of highlighting what they see as your strengths as writer. Make sure to pay as much attention to the words of praise as the words of criticism. In addition to helping keep your spirits up, it will help you focus on elements that can be brought forward. If you know you’re good at dialogue and shaky when it comes to settings and detail, you may be able to frame your story in a way that supports the strengths while hiding the weaknesses. 

You don’t have to do everything the editorial letter suggests.

Whenever I’m working with debut authors, I always make sure to attach a note to that first editorial letter that says something along the lines of: “Hey. I know this is overwhelming, but I don’t expect you to do all of this. My job is to throw as many thoughts and ideas at you as possible so that you have a sturdy red toolbox from which to draw inspiration. Shoot for addressing seventy percent of what’s here, and we’ll see what happens. If I still think something isn’t working, you’ll hear from me again in the next letter.”

You can solve problems in different ways.

My editorial philosophy is that I can’t tell an author to fix something if I’m unable to come up with a way of fixing it myself. I won’t point out a problem without also offering a potential solution. However, I want my authors to always know that there’s a lot of flexibility when it comes to how they rewrite. Sometimes my solutions aren’t going to jive with their vision. But perhaps they will give an author a launching point to come up with something better.

Remember this is part of the process, not something that’s getting in the way of the process.

It’s often easy to think of an editorial process as a stumbling block in the road to publication. It’s not. It’s just a step, and one that every author goes through (often more than once). If you take it seriously, you’re guaranteed to come out of it as a stronger writer.

Andrea Robb is an experienced editor who can help you deal with your editorial letter revisions.


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