Emily K. Thiede

Fast-talker, kitten-tamer, book-lover, author

With PitchWars gearing up (and my final edits due soon! Eeep!) it’s a great time to talk about edit letters–what they are, how to handle one, and what steps to take when you get one! (Disclaimer: This is all just my opinion, based on my experiences. YMMV.)

In the years since I began writing towards publication, I’ve received edit letters from freelance editors, mentors, my agent, and the acquiring editor for my upcoming debut novel. They’ve ranged from a page of big-picture thoughts to 17 pages of notes broken down by scene. If you assumed the 17-page one was when I was a newbie writer and had the most to learn and that they got shorter as I gained experience, you’d be completely wrong! The length of an edit letter depends on a whole host of factors, especially the editor’s style. A short edit letter can lead to a massive rewrite, while a lengthy edit letter can simply mean a bunch of smaller, page-level adjustments. It all depends! So, don’t judge your worth or your book’s quality by the length of an edit letter, because that’s not the point. The point of an edit letter is to provide constructive critique intended to help you, the author, improve your manuscript.

For example, I tend to give extensive feedback! (I blame my mother’s english teacher/editorial genes.) As my critique partners will tell you, I send pages and pages and pages of notes, which often seems intimidating at first but is rarely as daunting as it looks. I do this because I don’t like pointing out issues without mentioning specific examples so I know the person understands what I mean, and I like to provide potential solutions along with my critique. I’m also wordy in general. That’s just my style. So, anyone who gets a long edit letter from me should know that it’s a reflection of my feedback style, not the quality of their work!

Anyway. Enough about me. Let’s get back to you. So. You got an edit letter. Hooray!!! But also, oh no.

You start reading it. You feel dizzy. You want to lie down. Maybe you’re a little disgruntled. Doesn’t this person realize how hard you worked on this book? Can’t they see how rude it is to point out a million “flaws?” Who does this person think they are, anyway, and what right do they have to pick apart your precious manuscript? And that note about Char A? Totally off base! You’re going to email them right back and tell them the hundred ways they’re wrong, and why their suggestions are impossible. I mean, why did they even say they liked your book if they were just going to critique everything in it? Did they actually like anything? What’s this person’s problem???

Stop! Breathe.

First, send a brief, calm response. Something like: “Thanks for the feedback. I’m going to take a few days to gather my thoughts, and I’ll touch base when I’m ready to discuss.”

Good job! Now, it’s time to decide how you’re going to process and handle this feedback!

A Very Important Note: Sometimes, feedback feels “wrong.” That doesn’t mean it is, or the feedback giver is evil or that they will be mad if you (politely) push back after you’ve taken the time to calm down and give it careful thought. PLEASE READ THAT PART AGAIN. No matter what, it is almost always a bad idea to fire back an angry or defensive email right after you get an edit letter.

So, again. Breathe. Let’s walk through this, nice and slow. We’ll get there.

Step 1: Read through the feedback. Do this in stages if you get overwhelmed. Take your time. Jot down some notes. Whatever gets you through it. Step away from the email. Away! If you must, draft an email but do not send it! Take your finger off the send button right now, I mean it!
Step 2: Sulk. Eat some ice cream, pour some wine, go for a long run. Whatever you need to do while consumed by your feelings.
Step 3: Reread it. Still grumpy? Go to step 4. Feeling better? Go to step 5.
Step 4: Vent. To someone OTHER than the feedback-giver. Call a trusted CP and whine. Use expletives if needed. Write in your diary, “My mentor/agent/editor is a big doodoo head who wouldn’t recognize a good book if it flew through an open window and landed in their lap!” if you need to. Make a big stack of books that did that thing you were told to change and they were allowed to! Good. Feel any better yet?
Step 5: Organize your thoughts. My favorite trick is to sort feedback/suggestions into lists:
-That’s a good point AND I know how to fix it! 🙂
-That’s a good point, but I don’t know how to fix it. 😐
-I’m not sure about this/I’m not ready to deal with this yet. Save for later. :-/
-Things I need to discuss further and might have to push back on. 🙁

Step 6: Touch base. Set up a call or send an email and let the person know where you are, in terms of processing the feedback. Need more time? Let them know. Ready to chat? Same.
Step 7: Brainstorm/Collaborate. This can be really fun! This is the part where you realize you have someone on your side who cares about your book and wants to help you make it even better! so exchange virtual high fives about the stuff you know how to fix and are excited to do. Brainstorm solutions for the stuff you want to fix but you’re stuck on. If there’s stuff you still don’t feel confident about, you can broach the topic now, or let them know that you want to discuss it later, once you’ve tackled the other tasks. (We’ll discuss ways to handle that sort of feedback below.)
Step 7: Get to work. (Repeat previous steps as needed!)

Okay, now let’s talk about the feedback that hurts and/or just doesn’t feel right, even after you’ve cooled off. There are a few possibilities here.

1. The feedback may be “correct”, but you still aren’t ready.
Sometimes, feedback that feels wrong or “mean” is actually spot on and usually kinder than you realize, but you just aren’t ready to process it yet. Often because it means a lot of work or because you’re unsure how to fix the issues. You also may have skimmed right over all the praise and fixated on the tough stuff, and you need to step away for a bit longer, then re-read it again when you aren’t so raw. I’ve been guilty of this. Most authors have.

“Everything they suggested is impossible and wrong, plus they clearly hate my book and they probably hate me, too!” is a fairly normal writer response, but it’s almost never true. Usually, once we let it sit for a while, we see things more clearly. When I’m in this position, I often stew and angst until a brilliant solution wakes me up at 3am. Then, I promptly forget all my gloomy musing and decide the feedback giver was actually a magical book wizard all along.

2. The feedback is “correct”, but the suggested fix(es) aren’t right for you.
Let’s say your edit letter criticizes the pacing for being too slow and recommends you cut a bunch of scenes (hey, been there!) “But wait!” you say. “I need those scenes for character development. I can’t cut those!”

(Wait, is this you… or it is actually me? Um… *nervous laughter*)

Anyway. You could ignore that feedback entirely, but maybe, just maybe, you suspect, deep down, that it might actually be very true. So, now what? Well, maybe you can add more tension to the current scenes, or merge two scenes into one, or change the setting more frequently to add a sense of forward movement, or break up that rambling dialogue into smaller chunks and work it into a few active scenes. Or, maybe you need new scenes to break up the current arrangement, or you could raise the stakes, or add more conflict, or or or or…..

See where I’m going? The feedback may be spot on, but the suggested remedy doesn’t feel true to your vision, so it’s up to you (and maybe the feedback-giver, too, depending on how collaborative you are) to figure out a solution that addresses the problem so it’s satisfying for everyone.

3. The critique is actually “wrong.”
I put this one last for a reason, because we writers have a tendency to jump right to this option whenever critique stings. It’s understandable, because your book is your baby, and it can hurt to have someone suggest your baby isn’t perfect, but the fact is, no one makes it very far in publishing if they dismiss any and all feedback they don’t like. So, please test out the first two options before you land on this one.

That said, sometimes even after you’ve let it percolate, vented to a trusted confidant, talked with the feedback-giver and spitballed some possibilities, that one bit of feedback still feels wrong.

This is when you get to be a professional and professionally (read: politely, but firmly) explain your objection and be prepared to stand your ground. This is the opposite of throwing a tantrum. It means telling the other person, “I’ve given this a lot of thought and I understand why you suggested X, but I feel that doing so would change a fundamental aspect of this book in a way I’m not comfortable with for the following reasons. I appreciate the time and thought you put into this, though, and I’m excited to see how my other edits turn out based on your insight.”

Think of this as a “get out of jail free” card and use it sparingly. If you respond to 75% of feedback with, “You’re wrong and I’m not doing that,” agents or editors may eventually get tired of working with you, and that’s… kind of fair, honestly. Agents/editors (and mentors, to a lesser extent) have a vested interest in your book and they want a partnership based on mutual respect. They aren’t your boss, per se, but you also aren’t theirs. If you can’t respect their professional opinion and aren’t open to considering edits they genuinely feel will improve your book’s chances of selling, then the relationship may be a poor fit for both parties.

I can honestly say I’ve run into at least one non-negotiable in most edit letters I’ve received, and every time, I worked myself into a stress panic before working up the courage to tell the other person how I felt. And you know what?

It was always fine!

Most times, they responded with some version of “Okay, well, it’s your book!” and that was it! Sometimes, the response was closer to, “Hmm. I still have concerns, but I understand where you’re coming from. Let’s see how it feels once the rest of this revision is complete.”

My point? No one got angry. No one was rude. No one burned bridges or steamrolled the other person into doing it their way. Remember, you have the same goal, to make your book as good as possible. An editorial relationship shouldn’t be adversarial, and it generally won’t be as long as both parties treat the other with respect.

Okay, I’ll wrap this up, because it’s getting long (See, I told you I’m wordy!) but I hope this was helpful or can be helpful in the future.

Final Thoughts:

Writing is an act of courage, and opening yourself to feedback is an act of courageous vulnerability. Be gentle with yourself, respectful to those who seek to help you, and try to treat your book like a phoenix, not an egg. As long as you save those drafts, you can’t shatter your book beyond repair. You can, however, fuel that creative fire until a more beautiful version of it rises from the ashes.

Happy editing!