The Revision Letter

Last week, guest blogger Camille Eide wrote about her first experience with a Revision Letter. Some of you may wonder, what exactly does that letter address? Simply put, it addresses whatever your particular book needs to make it the best it can be. But to be a little more specific, here is a rundown of SOME of the things your editor may look at.

Story issues:
Does the plot makes sense? Is there a strong narrative structure? (Exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, denouement… but there are numerous ways to describe dramatic structure). Is there an identifiable conflict and pressing story question? Is the reader engaged from the very first scene? Does the action flow naturally and does the pacing keep the reader turning the page? Are the setting and time period well-established? Is there a strong sense of place, culture or environment (suitable to the story)?

Does each character have a purpose for being in the story? Is character defined through dialogue and action (rather than narrative)? Are characters’ feelings shown rather than described? Are the characters explained on a need-to-know basis throughout the story rather than all at once at the beginning? Does the reader have strong rooting interest in the protagonist? Is the main character likable or at least sympathetic? If you have an ensemble cast, is each individual clearly delineated with unique mannerisms, speech patterns and traits? Does your protagonist have a goal and an arc – do they end up somehow different from when they started?

Is dialogue believable (which can be different from “realistic”) and does it seem to flow naturally? Does each character speak in their own unique voice? Is dialogue used to move the story forward and reveal character (as opposed to simply convey information to the reader)? Is there a comfortable balance between dialogue and narrative summary? Are speaker attributions used when needed, and only when needed? Is dialogue paragraphed appropriately?

Does each scene contain the three necessary elements – a location in time and space, action, and dialogue? Does every scene contain tension and drive the reader into the next scene? Is the point of view consistent and easily recognized by the reader? Do you have the right number of beats to maintain the pacing and steer the reader’s imagination?

General Fiction Crafting:
Is there appropriate narrative intimacy or distance? Do you resist the urge to explain too much to the reader, allowing the reader discoveries of their own throughout the book? Do you primarily “show” us your characters and their actions, rather than “telling” us about them? Are you keeping details proportionate to their importance in the story? Are you using an appropriate amount of interior monologue?

Of course, there can be other considerations besides these, but this gives you a pretty good overview. In the revision letter, we’re primarily looking at big-picture issues, although we may point out patterns and weaknesses in grammar, punctuation, sentence structure, and similarly “micro” issues.

It’s important to understand that an editor is NOT asking themselves all these questions while reading your manuscript. Rather, they’re paying attention to whether they’re engaged in the story, whether they care about your characters, and whether they’re interested in finding out how your story ends. Wherever there’s a problem with engagement or interest, the editor then attempts to identify why. That’s when all the above questions become useful. They’re a means of identifying the root of the issue.

One more thing. Sometimes people ask how it could be that an agent or editor would believe in a project enough to take it on, yet request so many editorial changes. The answer is twofold. First, we specialize in seeing potential – reading between the lines, as it were. Second, we might love a manuscript, but we almost always know some ways to make it even better. It’s just what we do.

Any questions on how a Revision Letter works? Any stories of your own?

(c) 2010 Rachelle Gardner, Literary Agent

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!


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  3. Victoria Mixon on August 23, 2010 at 3:20 PM

    >I'm reading the comments by writers feeling nervous about Revision Letters, and I want to let you all know that good editors are fully aware of your fears and skilled at handling them. It's part of the job.

    Anyone can say, "You"re doing it all wrong." And most of us can tell you why in excruciating—often unfortunately accurate—detail.

    A real pro knows how to say, "What you've done with this part, in this section and with this particular technique, is lovely. You've obviously worked hard on this skill, and it shows. Now, I'm going to suggest you do another thing with this other part in this other way, and I'll tell you exactly why, in terms of how stories are constructed and what readers need from them."

    You don't help a writer do their best work by throwing them off the roof. That just gets you an ex-writer with a broken head.

    You do it by gently and compassionately leading them by the hand up the steps you know every writer must climb in order to achieve whatever potential is highest in them.

  4. kangaroobee on August 18, 2010 at 3:13 PM

    >Thanks Rachelle, this is something to hang up on the wall next to the pc. I love how your posts apply to all writers and not just those you represent.

  5. wordsareforwriting on August 17, 2010 at 8:16 PM

    >Fantastic post.

    There is always a strong urge to write and write, getting more carried away in your work while drifting further away from the key questions that should be answered.

    Like flying a kite, sometimes you have to pull on the string to get where you want to go.

  6. LaylaF on August 17, 2010 at 4:14 PM


    Thank you so much for this post. It's a great synopsis on all the major points needed for good writing and story telling.

    Very helpful!!! Thanks again. 🙂

  7. Suzannah on August 17, 2010 at 9:35 AM

    >This is so helpful, Camille! I've just turned your prompts into a bulleted list so I can print it out and use it as a guide while I"m writing and revising.

    All the best with your book!

  8. saltysnapfiction on August 17, 2010 at 7:42 AM

    >Camille, thanks for writing this post. It is most helpful, as I am in the middle of writing my first novel and feeling a bit queasy about the edits/rewriting that is yet needed before even submitting to an agent! -Kind Regards, Epae

  9. Susie Shaw on August 16, 2010 at 11:25 PM

    >just had a gal who's learning to be an editor look over some of my manuscript…i was excited for the help but nervous about her response/ feedback. i opened it and peaked…waiting to see the red marker everywhere…but….she had great feedback and simple suggestions that made me feel like, hey this is possible…not easy…but possible. and someone else liked it. i totally lose perspective and it all sounds like baby garble these days. but it wasn't that bad…i know there are a whole lotta other steps ahead but little by little, bird by bird…she is being birthed!

  10. Laura Pauling on August 16, 2010 at 7:09 PM

    >I've never received an editorial letter. I'm sure its disheartening. But at the same time, to have a professional guide my story to publication would be pretty cool.

  11. M.banks on August 16, 2010 at 5:10 PM

    >Very informative!

  12. shawn smucker on August 16, 2010 at 3:21 PM

    >The editors out there these days really know their stuff. I received a revision letter that was about 20 pages long, and after picking my jaw up off the ground and getting to work, the book ended up about 231 times better than the draft.

    embrace the revision letter. love the revision letter. let the revision letter wash over you in waves.

  13. Brad Jaeger on August 16, 2010 at 3:13 PM

    >Fantastic post. I've saved this, and plan to refer to it many times during my writing process.

  14. SWK on August 16, 2010 at 1:52 PM

    >Great post. I recently received the revision letter for my first novel. It took me a couple of days to find the courage to read it BUT when I did, it was truly more exciting than terrifying (okay, a little terrifying). It was wonderful to realize how smart my editor is and to see the possibilities she opened up for making my ms better. Revision is tough, whether you're doing it on your own or working toward publication. But it's also essential. Looking at the breakdown you describe is a nice way to get your head around editorial points. – Stasia

  15. Anna Zagar on August 16, 2010 at 1:31 PM

    >I have a question. What if you strongly disagree with an editor on a certain revision? Are you allowed to say no? I can't think of an example, but I was just wondering what happens in that case…

  16. Karen Carr on August 16, 2010 at 12:12 PM

    >I actually just blogged about working with a revision letter from a freelance editor. I broke the editorial letter down into the smallest parts possible and then opened up Excel. I entered each part as a line on my spreadsheet. I ranked them by order of complexity with number one being the easiest to fix and number six being the hardest. I tackled the easy ones first and then the hardest. For a more detailed account, any one can visit my blog.

  17. Rosslyn Elliott on August 16, 2010 at 11:11 AM

    >Rachelle, you already know this, but in case it encourages anyone, I want to repeat in microcosm here what I've said on my blog over the last couple of weeks.

    I was terrified before I received my revision letter. As a debut author, I had no idea what to expect, but I had heard scary-sounding stories.

    It was such a relief and a pleasure to discover that just as Rachelle reassured me beforehand, my editors are expert in what they do. Their suggestions have been extremely helpful and actually fun and rewarding to implement. They were very open-minded and encouraging in our discussion, like the best critique partners I could ever want. Critique partners on expertise steroids! (And I have pretty awesome critique partners already, so that's saying something.)

    So take heart, if you're a knock-kneed ninny like me before you get your first letter. Revision letter stories do have happy endings.

  18. Mesmerix on August 16, 2010 at 10:42 AM

    >Rachelle: This will servce as an excellent check-list. Thanks so much!

  19. Deb on August 16, 2010 at 10:20 AM

    >I was psyched when I saw Camille's post last week and your follow up today. For all of the complaints about "writing today", I'm actually more concerned about the editing process once signed, whether it's via an editor or an agent. To read what some agents have to say, you get the impression that you need to have achieved perfection before you're signed with anyone. I would LOVE to receive a revision letter after being signed- it would show that someone was paying the close attention a good book requires.

  20. Sarah Forgrave on August 16, 2010 at 10:06 AM

    >Very interesting, especially the explanation of how editors approach a manuscript. Thanks!

  21. T. Anne on August 16, 2010 at 9:44 AM

    >Great post! I've had some experience with Beta's and personal editor's (Tiffany Colter). So far so good. I don't mine changing and rearranging my novels until they sing.

    I'd be remiss if I didn't leave you with Lara Zielin's youtube edition of "Editing Letter." If major revisions are half as fun as Lara makes them look, I'm all in.

  22. Cyrennia on August 16, 2010 at 9:39 AM

    >Thank you for this very helpful list! It's so interesting to see what's in a Revision Letter… ^_^

    I'm sure the revisions vary by author, but how long on average does a client take to make these revisions? One month? Three? As long as it takes?

    Thanks again 🙂

  23. Camille Eide on August 16, 2010 at 9:30 AM

    >As I read over this list, I began asking myself these questions about the story I'm currently planning/writing. While most of these things are covered at length in our craft books, this concentrated list of questions will be very handy to go over as we plot and plan. How much better the answers (and novel) will be if we keep these things in mind as we write.

    Thank you!

  24. Silver the Wanderer on August 16, 2010 at 9:10 AM

    >Wow, this is such a helpful post! Thank you for putting so many questions right there in black and white. I'm going to bookmark this post and use it as a checklist for my editing.

    Thanks so much! I love your blog, by the way. 🙂


  25. Cheryl Linn Martin on August 16, 2010 at 8:39 AM

    >Great things to think about. Thanks for sharing!

  26. Heather Sunseri on August 16, 2010 at 8:06 AM

    >Very useful post, Rachelle. Perfect list to use when editing a story. Thanks!

  27. BK on August 16, 2010 at 8:03 AM

    >This was extremely helpful to me b/c it gives hope to perfectionists. Despite the urgings of others, it took several years before I showed my manuscript to someone on the publishing side.

    The main reason was perfectionism. Yes, of course, you want your novel to be the absolute best it can be and I would never say otherwise. But you can also revise and rework a novel till the end of time and still not be satisfied.

    So while in the business they may call it a revision letter, I read that and say it is a Letter of Potential. If an editor can see the potential in a story and STILL come up with a laundry list like that, then I need to have faith in the process. And not rework my story to death.

  28. June G on August 16, 2010 at 8:02 AM

    >With the rather arduous task of acquiring an agent and getting a book published, I often wondered about the extensive revisions and edits even many well received books have gone through.

    The ability to see potential…ah…that's it. Nice to know you don't really have to have a "perfect" manuscript, which seems next to impossible anyway (for most of us!). This post was informative as well as encouraging. Thanks so much for your time spent putting this together.

  29. Susan Bourgeois on August 16, 2010 at 7:39 AM

    >All of this is in a book I just purchased on writing fiction. It's great to see all of it again on your post!

    It makes me realize the importance of starting out on the right foot instead of having to backtrack to figure out what I could have done better from the start.

    Most everyone expects revisions from an agent or editor but it's nice to know you've done your homework by gathering invaluable information before you get started.

    I'm going to keep this great post and read it over and over and add it to my research for my book on fiction.

    Thank you!

  30. Judy on August 16, 2010 at 7:37 AM

    >This is so helpful, Rachelle, especially since my task today is to eliminate 5,000 words from my manuscript. My work is nonfiction, but many of your suggestions still apply as I seek to move my story forward more purposefully. Thanks!

  31. Richard Mabry on August 16, 2010 at 7:14 AM

    >Rachelle, I was at a book signing at our local public library yesterday and answered numerous questions about how one goes about writing a novel. I'm going to print this post and hand it to anyone who asks me that in the future! "Just consider all these things, and it'll be a snap."

    Thanks for sharing. Your blog posts would make a great textbook for writers at all stages.

  32. Amy Sue Nathan on August 16, 2010 at 7:13 AM

    >I don't have an editor but there is an agent interested enough in my manuscript to do this for me, and to wait for my revisions (of course I hope it leads to an offer of representation). The letter was several pages long, accompanied by my entire manuscript "marked up" not with line edits (there were a few) but with thoughts and comments and ideas to fill-in, flesh-out and improve the novel.

    It was the best thing I ever received as an aspiring author. I'd think that something like this – from an agent or editor – means he or she really believes in your work. What could be better than that?

  33. Wendy Paine Miller on August 16, 2010 at 6:03 AM

    >Bookmarked it like Daniel. Such a great checklist.
    ~ Wendy

  34. Pen on August 16, 2010 at 5:46 AM

    >Wonderfully helpful post Rachel thanks for sharing.

  35. Daniel on August 16, 2010 at 3:41 AM

    >Great post, Rachelle.

    I'm bookmarking this as a short list for the revision of my WIP 🙂

  36. Marja on August 16, 2010 at 1:13 AM

    >Thank you Rachelle, for your useful information. I really enjoyed Camille's post too!