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Writing a Great Query Letter | Handling Disagreements with an Editor

book editor Adina PortmanAdina Portman

How do I make the best query or pitch to an editor?

Most editors are inundated with queries, so take this first opportunity to set yourself apart from the rest. The type of query letter you write depends on the kind of editor you’re approaching. Are you looking for an independent editor to improve your work before you shop it around for publication? Or are you querying an editor at a publishing house or literary magazine? You’ll work with these types of editors differently, so you’ll want to tailor your letter accordingly.

But in any query, keep it short and sweet and to the point. Be upfront about your experience and your intentions, and don’t beat around the bush when making your official request, whatever that request might be. Just come out and say what you want plainly—most editors will appreciate it.

Describe the details of your project: title, genre, word-count, etc. Either provide a short excerpt, or let the editor know you’re willing to send one if requested. An excerpt can help the editor get a sense of your writing style and editorial needs. If you’re working with an independent editor, describe the level of edit you believe is necessary, as this will help them estimate their workload.

If you’re selling a book-length manuscript to a publisher, imagine you’re a bookseller who only has a sentence or two to persuade a customer to buy it. As you do this, be careful to stay true to the core of the book. It can be tempting to exaggerate or to focus on a peripheral theme if it makes the book sound more appealing. If the editor reads your work and finds that it doesn’t fit your description, he or she may feel misled or frustrated after investing so much time. (If you find yourself only wanting to sell a book you didn’t write, you may need to sit back down at your desk and write THAT book instead.)

Distill your book down to a few key phrases and highlight why it will matter to readers. By doing this, you’ll provide the tools for the editor to turn around and sell it to the publisher, who can sell it to their distributor’s book reps, who can sell it to bookstores, who can sell it to readers, who can then persuade their book club/classroom/great-aunts and second cousins to buy it as well. The query letter is a good place to show you can make your editor’s job just a little bit easier.

What is the best way to handle disagreements with an editor?

Keep a record of every correspondence with your editor. An easy way to get everything in writing (with handy date stamps) is to communicate via email. Even if you correspond by phone, it’s a good idea to send a follow-up email that outlines your discussion and gives you both a chance to confirm what you agreed to. It can also be a useful way to clarify your intentions in writing.

It is so easy for misunderstandings to arise in the writer/editor relationship. Even if you feel silly doing it, keep your correspondences on file, organized in whatever way helps you see the project in your mind. If something throws you for a loop, you can check back in your notes and copy/paste conversation excerpts to illustrate to the editor why your impression is what it is.

That said, it’s wise to set your default approach to a positive one. It’s smart to be skeptical, but if you keep good records and remain forthright, assuming the editor’s intentions are good will probably turn out to be the most effective approach. From this mindset, you can treat the editor with respect and offer an amiable attitude. If the editor also knows that you’re keeping thorough records of your correspondence, he or she will likely try to avoid double speak.

If you realize midway through the project that your editor simply isn’t the right fit, you may benefit from including an extra clause in your contract. This clause can describe what you would do in the case of terminating the relationship before completing the project. Having this clause in the contract also sets a tone for you both. The editor understands that, although you’ve signed a contract, you won’t be locked in to subpar services. Knowing that you have the right to step away can keep the editor on his or her toes.

In the end, it’s your creative work, so stand by it no matter what. I always say to the writers I work with that my number one goal is to bring their writing closer to their ultimate vision. I think that should be the goal of any editor. If an editor claims your publication hinges on changes you don’t feel comfortable with, it’s probably a good idea to find another home for your work.

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