The Editorial Letter

Red editing penWe’ve discussed editing before, and it can be confusing that the word “edit” can mean so many different things. In publishing, there are three basic types of edit that a book might go through (although the lines can be blurry):

The copyedit:

Detailed editing including the nitty gritty of grammar, punctuation, typos, word choice, even fact-checking.

The line edit:

More concerned with the clear expression of your ideas; internal consistency; word choices; believable dialogue; and other mechanics of the craft.

The substantive edit:

Sometimes known as the content edit, the developmental edit, or the macro edit, it deals with big-picture issues of story crafting, plot, and character development. For non-fiction, it’s concerned with the clear and logical flow of your ideas, your clarity and consistency, and the overall impact of your book and whether it reaches its goal. The substantive edit usually comes to the author in the form of…


The Editorial Letter

I know many authors tremble at the thought of receiving an editorial letter and I think it might be because you don’t know what to expect. So today I’ve lifted a bunch of actual sentences from editorial letters I’ve written in the past… just to give you an idea of what it looks like. (I’ve removed identifying details and changed character names.)

» After reading 1/3 of the book, I’m still not quite engaged with the story. I’m not sure what the major conflict is; I don’t know what’s at stake for these characters; I’m not clear on who the antagonist is and what he wants. Consequently, I haven’t begun to feel an excitement to see what happens.

» POV: The manuscript seems to be a cross between omniscient and deep third person POV. It confuses the reader. It’s not exactly objective, and yet we never get to connect deeply with characters. Connection with characters is what makes a story enjoyable for a reader.

» The writing is wordy—too many adjectives and adverbs. Add to that unnecessarily-fancy verbs, and it makes for an awkward read sometimes. There’s a fine line between being appropriately visual and overwriting it.

» You know how Elmore Leonard says in his “Rules of Writing” that we should try to avoid writing the parts readers tend to skip? Unfortunately, the hero’s dreams are the weakest piece of the book, and I found myself wanting to skip them.

» Setting and storyworld: This is a wonderful story that isn’t grounded in any particular place or time. Most of the time I felt confused about the location as well as the time period. I can’t tell if we’re in the real world or a world of your making; are we in present day or the past or the future?

» Secondary characters: As often happens with secondary characters who are similar to one another, I had a hard time differentiating between these two women. As I was reading, I found myself asking if one of them should be eliminated because they both seem to serve the same purpose—simply being friends with your heroine.

» This opening is overwritten, almost to the point of obscuring your meaning. If you cut half the adjectives, the problem would be fixed. Strong nouns and verbs are always more powerful than adjectives.

» This comparison doesn’t do anything for me. Be careful to use metaphors only when they expand on what you’re saying—when they help the reader visualize or understand. If there’s a chance the metaphor will cloud your meaning rather than illuminate it, don’t use it.

» These five long paragraphs are too much backstory in one place. They impede the forward movement of the story. You can get across what the reader needs to know right now in one paragraph, and drop other bits later, if and when the reader needs it.

» Watch for repetitiveness in both ideas and wording. Characters don’t need to repeat the same idea in dialogue in two or three different ways. Paring it down, tightening the writing, makes it stronger.

» Use contractions. Make sure your dialogue sounds like talking, not writing. You want to use contractions in prose also, not just dialogue, to help your writing sound more natural.

» I’d like you to examine your characters’ motivations in everything they decide to do. It’s really important that they do things out of motivations that make sense—not just because you need them to do something for the sake of your storyline. Your protagonist’s motivation has to be burning, and deep, and drive her and the reader through the book.

» What’s at stake for Lauren if she doesn’t reach her goal? And along with that, what’s at stake for others? For the world? If there’s nothing to lose by not reaching her goal, then there’s no motivation for the reader to follow Lauren through this journey.

» I’m struggling with Harley’s voice being not unique enough, being a bit generic, so that even though there is a ton of internal monologue about her background, I still feel she is a bit cardboard. I can classify her as “spunky heroine who overcomes all odds” and there is nothing about her that would make me want to avoid stereotyping her like that.

» Is the romance too predictable? Is there anything we can do about it given the storyline? Right now, it’s a given from the first chapter that Ben is our hero and we want Angie to fall for him, but nothing really serious interrupts that or gets in the way except for Angie’s internal demons. Should we add a little spice by having Harrison or one of the other guys show some interest in her? It would be fun if there were a hint of doubt that Ben and Angie would end up together.

I hope that gives you an idea of what an editorial letter might look like.

Does this make it sound more manageable? Or more scary? Tell us your own editorial letter experience!



Rachelle Gardner

Literary agent at Gardner Literary. Coffee & wine enthusiast (not at the same time) and dark chocolate connoisseur. I've worked in publishing since 1995 and I love talking about books!


  1. Sara Qondomon on April 15, 2015 at 1:46 PM

    As I read, certain times looked like was my history, especially about the POV and the period where the characters are.

    Thanks a lot for this editorial letter!

  2. […] a manuscript to be acceptable to the editor. (More discussion of the editorial letter and an example here ) The editorial letter reflects the major first pass of editing and defines the focal areas for the […]

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  8. Michelle on July 9, 2011 at 1:25 PM

    I’m new to reading your blog but I am very impressed with what you’ve composed and put out there. I definitely look foward to reading more of your insight!

  9. Sarah Honeysuckle on July 8, 2011 at 11:40 PM

    Your editorial examples are wonderful, rather than scary. They actually helped figure out to fix a story that has needed major adjustment. Thanks 🙂

  10. Paul on July 8, 2011 at 10:23 PM

    I’ve been reading your blog for a couple of years, and I’ve strongly disagreed with some points you’ve made. However, you are the best provider of solid, useable information of any of the agent bloggers. This post is an excellent example. Nice work.

    • Rachelle Gardner on July 8, 2011 at 10:33 PM

      Paul, thanks for writing. I appreciate the words of encouragement. I’m also dying to know all the things you disagree with. 🙂

      • Paul on July 9, 2011 at 12:39 AM

        >>Paul, thanks for writing. I appreciate the words of encouragement. I’m also dying to know all the things you disagree with.<<

        Rachelle, nothing too serious I should add. Points of editing style and expression — likes and dislikes, things that work and don't work etc in fiction. BTW, the new blog design is stunning.

        • Rachelle Gardner on July 9, 2011 at 10:11 AM

          Thanks for the compliment on the blog design! I suppose you’re allowed to disagree with me every once in awhile. *wink*

  11. Rachel Dillon on July 8, 2011 at 7:48 PM

    Wow! Wonderful information. Thanks so much.

  12. Friday Finds on July 8, 2011 at 11:25 AM

    […] Agent Rachelle Gardner provides some useful definitions of the levels of editing, as well as an example of an editorial letter. My manuscript evaluation […]

  13. Naomi Musch on July 7, 2011 at 8:46 PM

    I received such a letter just a few days ago. Reading these just makes me sigh with relief. “Whew. I’m not alone. It’s not so bad.”

  14. Mary on July 7, 2011 at 4:12 PM

    This is my first trip to your blog and I clicked through because I saw someone link it on twitter. I’m nowhere near even thinking about getting editorial letters but your post helped make it less scary! Thank you for this post!

    It also gives me some notes on things I can look out for now while I’m writing my book.

  15. Barbara Lindberg on July 7, 2011 at 12:39 PM

    I’d love to have a scary editorial letter. You can send me one any time 🙂

    The clips are great advice too. Thanks.

  16. Krista Phillips on July 7, 2011 at 1:09 AM

    On a very small level… I’m excited about the thought of someday getting a letter like that. Up until now, I’ve gotten critiques from fellow writers (mostly unpublished) and contest judges. It would be exciting to get feedback from an actual publishing house editor.

    That said… those kind of changes (especially the 1/3 of the way in one!) WOULD be hard to hear. It is one of those “put on your big girl pants” times though, I think. (emphasis on big… given my chocolate-stress-eater bad habit!)

  17. Rebecca Boschee on July 6, 2011 at 11:34 PM

    I’ve received editorial letters before and often wondered what types of things others are hearing. It’s kind of like having a great (and honest) critique partner. Thanks for sharing!

  18. otin on July 6, 2011 at 8:00 PM

    After reading that letter I can honestly say that ninety percent of that criticism would not apply to my story. 🙂

  19. Arlene Prunkl on July 6, 2011 at 6:14 PM

    You’ve done a great service by posting this, Rachelle. And to all of you here who have posted how much you would like to receive a letter such as the one Rachelle put together:

    Hire a freelance editor. Do your homework and ensure the person you hire is skilled at fiction editing, which is quite different from nonfiction. A good freelance editor will do substantive editing, stylistic editing, and copy editing, and will also do a critique or evaluation if it is deemed necessary.

    If you wait until you find a publisher or agent, you could be waiting a long time. In the meantime, engage a freelance editor to help polish your work and give you the kind of feedback Rachelle sets out in her letter. This may greatly improve your chances of finding an agent.

  20. Valerie Brooks on July 6, 2011 at 4:53 PM

    As an independent editor, each of these comments feel so familiar! The jewel here is that most of these authors were agented and published. I will share this on Twitter and elsewhere. Thanks for this, Rachelle.

  21. Layla Fiske on July 6, 2011 at 4:46 PM

    Thank you so much Rachelle. It is amazing how much insight a professional in the field can add to an m.s. A set of fresh eyes that come with an applied clarity of exactly what is needed to make the story flow.

  22. Pen and Ink on July 6, 2011 at 4:20 PM

    Reading this post made me shiver. I know all of these things can be dealt with, but at times, they seem overwhelming. Thanks for sharing.

  23. Flower Patch Farmgirl on July 6, 2011 at 3:43 PM

    Impeccable timing! I just had a phone call with a beta last night and her feedback was eye-opening. I walked away with a clearer understanding of what wasn’t working (honestly, I already had a hunch) and encouragement to press on.

    Thank you for taking the time to guide us along!

  24. Kristin Laughtin on July 6, 2011 at 3:23 PM

    It seems comforting to me, except that I would hope I or my readers would pick up on most of these issues before the book made it to an editor. (I’m assuming these examples don’t come from one letter, though. ;-)) There’s comfort in the fact that though these edits will require substantive changes, they are all concrete things that can be addressed, rather than vague “something’s missing” comments. It’s easier to fix things you can identify.

  25. Lori Benton on July 6, 2011 at 3:20 PM

    My initial reaction after reading those excerpts is a longing for the day an editor finally takes such a careful look at one of my manuscripts and gives me that sort of helpful feedback and direction, because though they are all issues I try to address myself with my work, I’m sure I’m blind to much that other trained and objective eyes would catch. Like others have said, just reading these issues addressed to other writers causes me to take another look at my WIP and give all these story aspects deeper thought. I want this!

    I think my next reaction would be a brief period of feeling overwhelmed at the amount of work needing to be done. Then would come the determination to Just Do It, because it’s going to be so worth it in the end.

  26. Katie Ganshert on July 6, 2011 at 3:19 PM

    Love this post, Rachelle! Especially since I’m in the trenches right now, having received my first editorial letter last week. Am I weird to love this stage in the writing process??

    • Sarah Thomas on July 6, 2011 at 4:35 PM

      Umm, you probably are. But good weird!

  27. Stephanie Scott on July 6, 2011 at 2:22 PM

    This was great. Maybe I’m weird here but I would love to get feedback like that! It makes me want to instantly run to my WIP and find places to edit and strengthen.

  28. Jessica on July 6, 2011 at 2:16 PM

    Hhahaaa, I’m dealing with a revision letter right now too. It’s not scary. Sometimes overwhelming because I’m not sure what the editors mean, but now I think I’ve got it figured out and am almost done.
    Thanks for sharing details! I think revision letters are wonderful because they’re concrete and that means I can fix something.

  29. Laila on July 6, 2011 at 12:17 PM

    I enjoyed this peek into the world of editing. It’s wonderful, and I don’t feel threatened by it at all. Right now I’m going through my manuscript and following some of these suggestions on my own. I would love to have that second voice in the background telling me what does or doesn’t work.

  30. Loree Huebner on July 6, 2011 at 12:15 PM

    Thank you Richard Mabry…I dreaded having a root canal once, but it wasn’t too bad.

    Rachelle, thanks for showing us that it’s not soooooooo scary afterall.

    Great post.

  31. Drusilla Mott on July 6, 2011 at 12:03 PM

    Thanks so much for this. My first Inspirational Romance is right now going through the review process at a publisher. Even as I sent it, I found myself wondering about some of the things you have covered here, as far as it being too wordy and having too much backstory and narrative in spots. I added my thoughts and questions to the email that I sent the manuscript in, asking her to notice those areas and let me know if they could be made better. She thanked me for my input and said she would keep it in mind. I would hope I could take the criticism and suggestions as helpful advise and not as a personal attack…I am the newcomer, afterall, and can use all the help I can get.

    The information in this post will also help me with the story I am now working on because now I have some idea of what to keep in mind as I write. Thank you.

  32. Kerry on July 6, 2011 at 11:17 AM

    Your examples have relaxed the butterflies! None were too shocking or scary. Perhaps my skin is thicker from working with a critique group. Plus, with an earlier draft of my novel, I paid for a professional edit. It was the most eye-opening experience. With all the changes and revisions under my belt, what’s a few more? (lol) Good to know the pros (published authors) still get those letters and comments. It’s all part of the process, I guess. Thanks for the peek inside the editing world.

  33. Richard on July 6, 2011 at 11:01 AM

    I enjoy writing a post on my blog, but i really hate the editing part. But i know it must be done. Richard from the Amish settlement of Lebanon,Pa

  34. Lisa R on July 6, 2011 at 11:00 AM

    These sound more like what you’d find in a rejection letter. I can’t believe someone with such large problems in their manuscript (i.e. you’re 1/3 of the way through the book and not engaged) would even make it past the agent, much less an editor.

  35. David Todd on July 6, 2011 at 10:57 AM

    I look forward to the day when I might receive such a letter from an editor. Surely that day is not that far away.

  36. V.V. Denman on July 6, 2011 at 10:32 AM

    This is interesting! I’ve always wondered what the scary editorial letter might include. I had envisioned a nightmare like, “Could you please re-write the entire book by Wednesday?”

    Even though, these examples are substantial edits, they’re do-able. I know I’m weird, but some of them even sound fun.

    This post also gives me hope for my own writing. I can see that every manuscript is not absolutely perfect when it goes to the agent/editor. That takes a teeny bit of pressure off.

  37. Cathy Gohlke on July 6, 2011 at 10:27 AM

    This is great, Rachelle! it always helps to know what to anticipate, and especially to know that these are normal questions, comments and issues for an agent or editor to raise. That helps remove some of the sting when we get letters showing our work is less than perfect. In my experience editorial letters have enabled me to step outside myself and see my book as a first time reader would–a reader who not only reads, but knows how to make a book better. Sometimes I need a couple of days to digest the issues and questions, but once I’ve gained a little distance I’m thrilled to know the problems and go back to the writing board. Who but our agents and editors will so invest themselves in helping to make our books the best they can be? It’s wonderful to work with a committed team!

  38. Cassandra on July 6, 2011 at 10:27 AM

    This is exactly how I handle writing critiques for my students (I teach freshman composition at a community college). Perhaps I need a career change…

  39. Mary Ruth Pursselley on July 6, 2011 at 10:08 AM

    This was a truly helpful post, Rachelle. Especially now, as I’m in the midst of the final polishing up of my WIP and about to start looking for representation/publication. Knowing a bit about what to expect always takes some of the scariness out of things, and besides that these excerpts were great editorial advice too. Now I can check my MS and make sure it doesn’t have these problems before I send it off.
    Thanks so much for always having such straightforward advice and helpful information!

  40. Sarah Thomas on July 6, 2011 at 9:58 AM

    The examples are fantastic! It’s incredibily encouraging to know that if the story is great and the writing is strong, agents and editors will take on the book and “fix” it. I also think it helps immensely to have been critqued by peers before you get to the editorial letter. I had to give up thinking my manuscript was perfect “as-is” long ago!

  41. Zan Marie on July 6, 2011 at 9:52 AM

    Some of these are big jobs of revision, but the instructions are crystal clear. That’s exactly what I’d want as the writer.

  42. Addie Zierman on July 6, 2011 at 9:51 AM

    One of the benefits of being part of a great MFA program was that I learned to really appreciate this kind of deep critique. It stings at first, but when you’re able to get beyond that initial reaction, the advice is usually invaluable. No matter how much you work and rework your story, someone with a fresh perspective is bound to see the strengths and weaknesses more clearly. And it’s much easier to handle when this person approaches your work with the kind of gentleness that Rachelle shows in these excerpts. I hope most editors are this thoughtful!

    In the end, you want your manuscript to be the best it possibly can be, and if that means reworking some stuff along the way, I think it’s well worth the pain.

  43. Susan on July 6, 2011 at 9:38 AM

    Thank you for this information. It’s loaded with great examples.

  44. John Waverly on July 6, 2011 at 9:34 AM

    Great post. I have a love-hate relationship with this kind of feedback. I love that it can make my stories so much better, but I don’t like the amount of work one or two simple sentences can cause. It’s like a conductor who moves the wand a couple inches and the entire orchestra reacts.

  45. Richard Mabry on July 6, 2011 at 9:14 AM

    Rachelle, Thanks for shedding some light on the subject. I can attest from my own experience that an editorial letter, like a colonoscopy or root canal, is worse in the contemplation beforehand than in actual fact.
    Appreciate your openness in this blog.

    • Rachelle Gardner on July 6, 2011 at 9:47 AM

      Thank you, Richard, for the lovely medical visuals this morning!

  46. Peter DeHaan on July 6, 2011 at 9:06 AM

    Although criticism of my writing is emotionally unwelcome, getting honest feedback like this would be invaluable and help me to improve as a writer.

    I have occasionally plied my copy editors and proofreaders for advice on how I can improve. While I would like to believe their accolades, I wonder if they are just trying to insure ongoing work from me by telling me how much they enjoy my work!

  47. David Lascelles on July 6, 2011 at 9:05 AM

    Oddly enough,I have always been told that the line edit was what you describe as a ‘copy edit’. But that is minor semantics. A lot of good advice in here and definitely my experience of substantive edits… am expecting a letter like that sometime in September…

    • Rachelle Gardner on July 6, 2011 at 9:49 AM

      You’re right – people refer to the different levels of editing in all different ways. And besides semantics, the edits themselves don’t really fit into neat categories. This makes it difficult for writers trying to hire a freelancer.

      • Arlene Prunkl on July 6, 2011 at 5:18 PM

        Rachelle, this is a great example of an editorial letter. However, I take exception to your comment that it’s difficult to hire a freelance editor because there are so many different levels of editing.

        In fact, it’s easy to hire a freelance editor. A good freelance editor needs only a sample of the writing and a synopsis from which to determine what levels of editing are needed. And even if this changes as the editing progresses (for example, if three chapters in it’s evident that more than a copy edit is needed), a good editor will know when to switch gears and how to handle it. In my editing business, deal with this kind of thing all the time.

        • Rachelle Gardner on July 6, 2011 at 5:22 PM

          Arlene, I hear you. I just meant that if a writer doesn’t know what s/he needs, they could end up paying for the wrong kind of editing. It has happened countless times with authors I’ve come in contact with. I hear they’ve paid for a freelance editor and I can’t figure out what the editor did, because structurally the book needs so much work. Turns out they paid for more of a copyedit or line edit, when they needed a substantive edit. They paid to have the Titanic’s deck chairs rearranged, as it were.

  48. Twilla on July 6, 2011 at 9:04 AM

    Forgot to say thanks, Rachelle, for doing what you do. You are AMAZING!

  49. Wendy on July 6, 2011 at 8:54 AM

    Yep, I want this kind of letter.
    ~ Wendy

  50. Twilla on July 6, 2011 at 8:49 AM

    Problem is that I love my story. Really, really love it, just the way it is. I’m hoping my new editor won’t send back a letter requesting a lot of changes. But I’ve heard of other writers getting request for mega changes from him, stuff like switching the pov from third to first. I don’t know how you move from being so in love with your book to taking your pen to it again and rewriting what you love. But maybe that’s the difference between a writer and an author.

  51. Lisa Jordan on July 6, 2011 at 8:31 AM

    I had my first editorial letter experience in January while I was high on the excitement of getting “the call.” I think what made the letter easier to handle was knowing my editor was enthusiastic about the story. She loved the characters, the theme, and the writing. Her suggestions for changes made the story stronger and gave me a deeper insight into what that house looks for. I will admit my letter was an exception, not the norm, for the few changes that were suggested. I know it won’t be that way every time.

  52. Sharon A Lavy on July 6, 2011 at 8:09 AM

    How exciting! I love to edit, if I have direction. And I can only go so far on my own. Love it, thanks.

  53. Leigh Caron on July 6, 2011 at 8:09 AM

    This is great. May I copy this so I can use it as a reference?

  54. Sherri on July 6, 2011 at 7:48 AM

    My critique group has helped me so much with this as they are able to let me know how my story comes across to them. When I read their comments sometimes I think, “yes, they got it!” and sometimes I think, “where did that come from?” It’s a great reality check for me: am I telling the story I want to tell, and am I doing it well? What I know and think in my head doesn’t always translate to my story, and as much as I try not to, sometimes I realize that I’ve made an assumption about what my readers will understand. The is a great post, Rachelle. I hope to get an editorial letter one day! 🙂 Thank you.

  55. Jo on July 6, 2011 at 5:12 AM

    Thanks for the real excerpts from editorial letters, Rachelle. It definitely makes them less scary. I’m one of those people who takes criticism seriously and would appreciate an editor pointing out weaknesses like “this opening is too long” and “use contractions to make dialogue sound like talking and not writing”. Last night I received a mail from an editor to whom I’d submitted two article queries earlier this week. My heart jumped into my throat and I opened his mail with great trepidation. However, he wrote to say he accepts both my magazine article queries and could I send them asap! I was thrilled and am working on the articles and photos this morning. What a welcome editorial letter! Regards, Jo Hedges, East Africa.

  56. Sudama Chandra Panigrahi on July 6, 2011 at 5:10 AM

    Useful post once again. Rachelle, thanks.

  57. Neil Ansell on July 6, 2011 at 5:06 AM

    From discussions over the structural edit of my book – I think perhaps this demonstrates how a good editor can get you to make major structural changes while still feeling good about yourself!

    ‘It is full of unique observations — of both nature and landscape — phrased with careful, clear-eyed yet often lyrical intensity. It is a both a portrait of a place and an exploration of human character — as well as a completely original study of the art of solitude, and of staying still. It deserves a very wide readership.

    In terms of editorial notes, I have made some very small suggestions throughout the manuscript, which I will pass on to J to consider and discuss with you, but I also have one important structural suggestion to get over a slight jerkiness in the narrative at the start of the book. These changes will allow the book to flow more naturally and to avoid the awkwardness of time shifts, while also hooking the reader more effectively into the narrative.

    • Maril Hazlett on July 6, 2011 at 11:47 AM

      Wow. (a) your editor is a tactful genius, and (b) how wonderful s/he is so responsive to the overall music on your page.

  58. Rosemary Gemmell on July 6, 2011 at 5:04 AM

    That was very useful and encouraging, Rachelle. It’s reassuring to know that these types of letters also go out to the writers worth working with!

  59. Claude Nougat on July 6, 2011 at 4:28 AM

    Very useful post, thanks! I’m AMAZED that letters like this actually go out from an editor! So publishers actually take manuscripts that need THAT MUCH editing?? It really amounts to a total rewrite!

    Wow! I’m very encouraged! Maybe a publisher will actually give me a contract someday! Of course, I need to get an agent first…

  60. Aimee L. Salter on July 6, 2011 at 4:07 AM

    These are exactly the kinds of notes my Agent gives me, so I’m glad I’m not the only one who needed this kind of substantive input. It gives me hope that I’m not a lost cause.

    Woot 🙂

  61. Mike on July 6, 2011 at 3:35 AM

    I really like this “behind-the-scenes” glimpse you’ve given us here on the editorial letters. It’s nice to know that publishers take their work very seriously once they’ve chosen to stand behind an author.

  62. Adam Heine on July 6, 2011 at 3:16 AM

    Scary as heck! But, man, would I love to get this kind of advice from a professional of that level 🙂

  63. Jenny Lee Sulpizio on July 6, 2011 at 2:10 AM

    …to receive this letter from an agent would be just as exciting because what would that mean? Representation. Woot-Woot! 🙂

    Ok, I am lame. 🙂

  64. Jenny Lee Sulpizio on July 6, 2011 at 2:08 AM

    This may sound lame, but I would love to receive a letter like this because it would mean that I was a contracted author working with a publishing house. 🙂

    Are rewrites and changes fun? Of course not but the constructive criticism would be unbelievably helpful to me and so beneficial to my WIP.

  65. Maril Hazlett on July 6, 2011 at 1:45 AM

    I think your comments sound exactly like the substantive feedback I value from an editor.

    One of my personal favorite editors in my freelance life is a super-busy guy who never emails, he calls instead. I write on some very geeky topics for him and he is not a geek. We will have a little small talk, then he will start with my lead… aaaaand work down the story, editing out loud as he goes…. aaand if I’m lucky, by the end of the convo he will say:

    “Now THAT’S it, hon. Now THAT’S your story!”

  66. Crafty Mama on July 6, 2011 at 1:44 AM

    Kind of a weird question here, but are agents the only ones who write these letters? I love critiquing books and would love to have a job of doing so. I must admit, sometimes I’m a little confused as to where the job of an editor starts and the job of the agent ends.

    • Rachelle Gardner on July 6, 2011 at 8:58 AM

      No, editors are the ones who write these letters. You may get one from the editor at your publishing house, but long before you even have an agent or a publisher, you could hire a freelance editor (if you wanted to) to do this kind of editorial review on your book.

      Just fyi, the going rate if you want an experienced editor is about $1500 (but varies widely). So if you have an agent who gives you this kind of review, be aware of the value of what they’ve given you.

      • Crafty Mama on July 6, 2011 at 3:11 PM

        Ahh, I see. I thought you had written those letters as an agent. 🙂 I was a bit cornfuzzled.

        I’m actually on the freelance editor end of things here. However, I’d eventually like to work in the publishing industry and am still learning about how things work. I guess I’m just not always clear on what agents do.

  67. Beth K. Vogt on July 6, 2011 at 1:41 AM

    Before my first editorial letter (or revision letter) I’d attended a workshop by author Colleen Coble. She encouraged writers to embrace their revision letters–and that’s what I did when I received mine. I celebrated! Before I made any changes, I read through the letter twice and mulled over it for a few days, as my agent suggested. And then I decided to tackle the minor changes first and save the more challenging changes so I had more time to ponder how to tackle them. My revisions covered everything from clarifying what my character’s did for a living to detailing the setting a bit more to (surprise!) creating a third POV in my book. That change alone added depth and tension to my story.

  68. Rachelle Gardner on July 6, 2011 at 1:23 AM

    Whenever I discuss revisions and editing, people invariably ask, why would you take on a project that clearly needs so much work?

    I’ve addresed that in this post.

    • 1000th.monkey on July 6, 2011 at 2:43 AM

      I read the other article you linked and found this especially fascinating:

      “…10 pages of notes indicates that I believe the author is worth this kind of time and effort; that with work she can become great; and furthermore, that she’s capable of handling this intense level of rewrite. Rather than a put-down, the big revision letter is a vote of confidence.”

      I know when I beta-read for someone else, the more notes I make, the more into the story I am. It’s always a sign of boredom when I let pages go by without inserting some kind of comment.

      The samples you provided are exactly the kind of thing I hope my critique partners will provide, and try to offer the same thing in return. If I am taking their stories seriously, I expect them to do the same. The thought of receiving this kind of feedback excites me, but not because it would mean representation… rather, I am always eager to improve my writing in any way I can.

  69. Melissa Jagears on July 6, 2011 at 1:21 AM

    Thanks for putting up actual sentences from the letters, Rachelle. What’s wonderful is this just sounds like my crit group–they’re awesome (even though sometimes I wish they weren’t so awesome and just loved everything I wrote to begin with! ;P )I get these kind of comments sporadically in my crit group already, so I shouldn’t have too much of a knee-jerk/depressed reaction to see such things in an agent/editor letter. 2 of my crit partners are published (well, one will be in April) and I’ve given them such comments, so I know that the good writers need these kind of comments no matter how many books they’ve written–which is comforting.

  70. Natalie on July 6, 2011 at 12:51 AM

    I wanted to respond to Amber and Sarah. I am an editor, not an agent, so there isn’t usually the same issue of whether I will chose to accept an author/maunuscript. However, I think you might be surprised how few books just need a touch up on their spelling and punctuation. Even the best works usually need some help here and there. If it has sufficient potential, the flaws can be worked on.

    Authors see their MS as their polished, finished creation. Editors see it as the starting point. There are almost always substantive problems that need to be addressed. Writing groups, critique groups, and professional editors all help to get the story to publishable quality.

  71. Olivia Newport on July 6, 2011 at 12:49 AM

    It’s important to think of the editorial letter as a conversation, and collaboration. I’ve been on both the editorial and writer sides of shaping a book, and I know editors really are trying to bring out the best in the writer in a way that satisfies the reader.

  72. Kathryn Roberts on July 6, 2011 at 12:48 AM

    These are always things I try to keep in mind while writing/editing, so I hope that they wouldn’t shock me too much when someone else, whether agent or editor suggests them to me (unless I think I’ve already covered them!) =) But I think it’s always good to go back through each scene and try to visualize at least three ways for things to turn out, and then pick the best way (when talking about things being predictable).

  73. Sarah on July 6, 2011 at 12:34 AM

    My reaction was similar to Amber’s. Many of those seem like pretty big issues. Would you take on a project with those kinds of concerns or rewrites required?

    • Rachelle Gardner on July 6, 2011 at 1:10 AM

      Sometimes, yes.

  74. Cory on July 6, 2011 at 12:24 AM

    Now this was helpful. Would you get one from your agent, when you’re getting the MS ready for submission, or your editor? Or both?

    • Rachelle Gardner on July 6, 2011 at 1:09 AM

      It’s possible to get this letter from either agent or editor. It’s more common coming from the editor at your publishing house, though.

  75. Carol J. Garvin on July 6, 2011 at 12:22 AM

    Love the simplicity of your explanations. Thanks for spelling it out so clearly. I’m not at the point of anticipating editorial letters yet, but it’s reassuring to see what I can expect when that day comes.

  76. Amber on July 6, 2011 at 12:16 AM

    These sound pretty scary to me, in that it seems like they all will require substantial changes. I could see these happening where you had an existing client who was writing a second or third book. But what about new clients? Would it make sense to take on a new client/book if it had such large problems as these, or is that pretty much par for the course?

    • Rachelle Gardner on July 6, 2011 at 1:07 AM

      The notes I’ve included here were mostly for books that were not only agented, but contracted with publishers. That’s the point — I’m trying to show you that even very talented multi-published authors get editorial letters! Actually several of the notes here were for authors who have 5+ successful books out.

      • R.J. Anderson on July 6, 2011 at 10:28 AM

        I second this. I’m on my fifth commercially published book, having enjoyed very good success in at least one market, and I still anticipate a letter from my editor filled with comments very similar to these ones. The day they stop coming will not be a day I celebrate because I think I’ve finally attained perfection, it’s the day I will start to suspect my editor is no longer doing her job.

        It usually smarts for about 24-48 hours, which I like to describe as the grieving process (in which I mourn the beautiful, lyrical book I thought I had written and come to terms with the rather ugly mess that I actually did write). Then I get excited about making the book better and dive in.

        • Veronica Rossi on July 9, 2011 at 12:39 AM

          Yes! Listen to RJ. She speaks the truth.

  77. Kim Kasch on July 6, 2011 at 12:13 AM

    Thanks for making the scary seem not so intimidating 😀