It’s here, and by God, you wish it wasn’t. It’s like Christmas morning, if what Santa dropped off was a point-by-point list of everything you’d done last year that he liked and disliked, with special emphasis on the things you weren’t sure were good or bad but decided to take a stab at anyway, because why do we live if not to take risks, right?
It’s your edit letter.
I’ve been on both sides of these things. As a freelance editor, I’ve written them for traditionally published, self-published, and unpublished clients, focusing on whatever I’ve been told to. Specific plot points, marketability, genre elements, grammar and mechanics, you name it. As an indie author, I’ve paid money I barely had to have someone else edit my novels and tell me everything that went wrong with them.
So I know this topic pretty well. I know what editors want you to do with their letters, and I know what you probably want to do with their letters. Everybody’s creative process is different, and eventually you’ll find what works best for you when your edits come in. But I’m going to give you a basic framework that should keep you on the rails your first time through.
1.) Read the letter.
No-brainer, right? Go ahead and let yourself be excited and nervous and scared and angry and exhausted and frustrated and whatever else you need to be. If you’ve got a good editor, there’s going to be a mixture of praise and criticism in your edit letter. Bask in the praise, and take the criticism however it best suits you. If you need to rage, do it now (privately). If you need to cry, do it now (also privately). Later, you’re going to have to get to work, and a little catharsis might help you do that.
2.) Let it simmer.
Take a walk. Have dinner. Go watch TV. Sleep. This is your time to come down from whatever highs (“She said she couldn’t put it down!”) or lows (“‘Main character felt flat’? IT’S THE END OF MY CAREER!”) you hit when reading through the letter. The back of your mind does a really good job of crunching difficult problems. This is its time to lay the groundwork for what the front of your mind will do later.
3.) Re-read the letter, more calmly this time.
You’re moving from reaction into action. Focus on the feedback you find difficult, and do your best to see your book as your editor saw it. Ask yourself whether any solutions the editor presented will fit your vision for the book. If not, start to formulate your own.
4.) Make a punch list for revisions.
I always start with the easy things—the suggestions my editor made that I completely agree with and find unintimidating. Character motivation unclear to the reader at the end of Chapter 12? I’ll just be a little more blunt about it. Sex scene in Chapter 7 feel out of place and unnecessary? Cut that sucker; I never liked it anyway! Anachronistic weapons in Chapter 16? I’ll just replace them with ones that do fit the time period.
I sometimes make use of the strikethrough function in my word processor to cross out feedback in the edit letter as I distill it into revisions.
5.) Evaluate what’s left.
Now that the easy stuff’s out of the way, you’re left with the hard feedback: the points your editor made that you either disagree with or don’t know how to fix. I deal with this in smaller steps.
a.) Separate the two.
Things you disagree with need to be handled differently than things you agree with but don’t know how to fix, so make sure you’re clear on which is which.
b.) Brainstorm solutions to things you don’t know how to fix.
Sometimes I need to work my way through four or five bad ideas to get to one good one. Sometimes those bad ideas become useful later as well. In my latest novel, I sketched out a subplot that would make a minor character into a major one after hearing that my female characters needed more agency. That subplot didn’t make it into the book, but it ended up affecting the subplot I did use to tackle that problem.
c.) Attempt solutions to things you disagree with.
This is painful, but it often takes less time to attempt a solution than to argue with the editor over the feedback you disagree with. If you try it and it doesn’t work, you’re in a stronger position to explain why you don’t like it.
If you’re self-publishing (or unpublished), you can always just ignore your editor’s feedback, though I don’t suggest it. If you’re traditionally published, you don’t have this option, because if you do, your editor will ask why after they get your revisions back.
d.) Add any good solutions to the revision punch list.
6.) Draft a response to your editor.
Asking your editor for help on sticky issues is one of the best ways to solve problems. I often find solutions just by trying to explain my thoughts. But timing is key. Only now do you want to respond with anything more substantive than “Got it! Thanks! Getting to work, will probably have questions later.”
Your editor’s time for you is limited (unless you’re paying a freelancer by the hour on an unlimited budget, in which case call me), so make sure you only ask them to help you with problems you can’t solve yourself.
7.) Let your response simmer.
More of this, I know, but it’s important, even if you’re on a tight deadline. You can begin hitting easy items on your punch list while you do this.
8.) Revise your response to your editor.
The better (and less defensive) your response to your editor, the happier they’ll be to get it. We like solving problems in novels, and we want to help you do it. It’s why we took this job. We don’t like getting e-mails from authors assuming we only asked them to change something because we didn’t grasp their genius (even though that’s occasionally true).
If you feel like your editor didn’t grasp your genius, try this phrasing: “I was trying to do X here, and it looks like it didn’t work. Can you help me find a way to make it work, or do you think it’s a bad idea?”
9.) Send your response to your editor and wait for their thoughts.
Not a ton of fun. Feels like asking Santa for an appeal of your case.
10.) Repeat previous steps as necessary once your editor’s response arrives.
Responses to your concerns will vary. Your editor may say, “Okay, good point. You’ve thought this through and I’m comfortable leaving it unchanged.” Or they may explain to you why they disagree with you, causing your heart to rage-plode and requiring a full repeat of steps 1-9. They may provide solutions that work, or they may not.
Regardless, remember that your editor’s time is limited. You ought to get at least one well-developed response to your concerns out of them. Beyond that, your mileage will vary depending on their workload, your professionalism, how important they think the revisions you’re worrying about are, and a number of other factors.
Ugh. But I was done revising before I sent the manuscript to my editor! I didn’t want to make any more big changes! This stage of revision is my least favorite part of writing a novel, but it’s just as important as all the others. Ask follow-up questions of your editor as necessary during this step.
After you go through this process, you may begin to see new seams in the books you read. Usually a manuscript is pretty tight when it gets sent to an editor (at least, that should be the goal). When you start tearing things out or inserting new things into it, however, you can create moments of visible disjunction. They often manifest as hiccups in voice, tone, and pacing. Do your best to give the new material the same treatment you gave the old. If that means making three revision passes, each focusing on a different thing (my usual revision method), then do it. It will pay off in the long run.
Like I said in the beginning, you’ll get better at this over time and find out what works best for you and your editor (if you’re lucky enough to have the same one for many books). It’s sort of like managing your excitement and disappointment on Christmas. Hard when you’re eight. A lot easier twenty Christmases later. For now, good luck, and remember three things:
– You wanted this feedback, even if you didn’t want this feedback.
– Your editor is doing their best to help you. Also, they’re a human being with feelings, and they have responsibilities other than responding to you.
– Be proud of what you’ve done. You wrote a book. It’s got awesome things in it. No amount of having its weaknesses pointed out will ever change that.
JEFF SEYMOUR has been writing and editing speculative fiction for over a decade. He helped Carina Press build its science fiction and fantasy program and has performed work for other clients including the Nelson Literary Agency Digital Liaison Platform and self- and unpublished authors.
Jeff is also an indie author himself. His first novel, the dark epic fantasy SOULWOVEN, notched over a million reads on Wattpad and was self-published to strong reviews after a 2013 Kickstarter. He specializes in speculative fiction, always puts authors first, and would love to hear from you at www.jeffdoesbooks.com.
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