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The Crafting of an Editorial Letter
If you're in the query trenches you've probably heard the words "editorial agent" floating around. These are agents who work with their clients to edit and revise a manuscript before submitting it to editors (who will then edit the manuscript even further if they end up acquiring it!) I am an editorial agent and believe strongly in sending out the most polished manuscript possible to editors. The market is competitive, and I think it’s vital these days to go out with your very best work. I've just finished (I mean just finished--it's open in another window) an editorial letter for a client. The second one I've written since becoming an agent. And while I can't speak for all editors and editorial agents as to how they do things, I thought I'd talk a little bit about my editing process so that writers can get a glimpse of what goes on behind the scenes.
How Long? For both of my clients I quoted about a month (give or take) to get them their editorial letter. I was late both times. *headdesk* A much more realistic timeline for me personally is probably two months. If I was able to put absolutely everything else in my life and work on hold I could probably get an edit done in a week. But alas, the power to stop time does not belong to me. Two months it is! (And I'll never overpromise on a deadline again. The guilt consumed me).
In the Margins When editing for a client I go through the manuscript and insert comments into the margins. I do some light line editing, but the bulk of my commentary is big picture stuff. I like to ask a lot of questions, point out inconsistencies, and highlight areas of the manuscript that either need to be fleshed out or cut down. I also put in a loooooooot of hearts (<3) and exclamation points (!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!) and do a fair amount of fangirling. One of my favorite things to do is point out the exact moments in the manuscript when I knew I was going to request the full, and when I knew I was going to offer representation.
Notes While I’m doing this critical read-through and inserting comments for the author, I also keep a pad of paper on hand and jot down notes for myself. I note page numbers for reference, quotes, keep a running list of various things, try to track the emotional arcs of the characters, and do a fair amount of doodling. These notes become the bones of the editorial letter that I write.
The Letter The classic format of an editorial letter is what's lovingly become known as the "Shit Sandwich" meaning heaps and heaps of praise that bookend the pile of crap that exemplifies everything wrong with your manuscript. This is classic for a reason: build up confidence, hit 'em with the issues, and then buck 'em up again before you go. It's a really effective way of giving critical feedback, and...I don't use it.
Instead, I usually break my edit letters into sections, focusing on big picture elements like plot, character development, world-building, and structure, and then further divide into specific subsections. This helps me organize my thoughts in a coherent way, but I also prefer this format because I can balance both the things I love and the things that need work within each section. In addition to pointing out the weaknesses of a manuscript, I also use edit letters to really gush about the things I love. Reading a manuscript through a second time, with a close, critical eye for edits reminds me why I fell in love with the book in the first place.
Marinating I like to give my authors a couple of days to absorb my notes before we discuss revisions. Even if the edits are light, it can still be overwhelming to receive an onslaught of feedback, and I think that giving authors a few days to read through both the letter and the notes in the manuscript and sit with everything helps bring defenses down and let the creative juices start flowing. I like to schedule a call for a few days out so we can talk through everything together and determine how to proceed.
The Call When we do have the follow up call, I usually start by inviting the author to respond to the overall feedback and just get a sense of how they're feeling. I encourage them to ask lots of questions because this is an opportunity for me to clarify or elaborate on things that were unclear. I also like to lead with questions, as I find they're more effective than direct suggestions (although sometimes I give those, too). The call is basically a big brainstorming session: how can we build on what's already working here? How can we tighten and strengthen this story overall? This is a collaborative effort, but at the end of the day, the author is the one who needs to take the feedback and run with it.
Creative Control And that's why although I feel confident that the suggestions I make will lead to a better book, I always make sure my clients know that they retain creative control over their work. It’s not my book—it’s theirs. And if I make a suggestion that doesn’t ring true to them I always want them to be comfortable telling me so. We’ll work together to find another solution that feels right.
So that's my editorial process! It takes a lot of time and energy, but it's one of the most rewarding parts of my job. And there's something incredible about reading a book you've already fallen in love with hard and fast, and reading it slowly, and deliberately, with an eye toward making it the best it can be. Each time I end up falling in love all over again.