Ed Letters

Via Elizabeth Bear a discussion of how writers feel about getting editorial letters.

First up, for those who don’t know an editorial letter is pretty much what it sounds like: a letter from your editor about your book, telling you all the things they want you to change in your manuscript. You only get an editorial letter if they’ve already bought your book.

The responses over at Blue Rose Girls are varied and run from love to hate and back again.

Me, I love editorial letters. I will go so far as to say that I find them sexy.

Seriously, imagine receiving a long letter (I’ve had up to ten pages single-spaced) that is all about your book, that totally gets what you were trying to do, and has billions of awesome ideas about how to make it better. I get a yummy shiver every time I receive my latest ed letter.

I’m lucky, of course, I’ve never had a bad ed letter. Mine have been not only full of insight and brilliant structural solutions, but they’ve been well-written and witty as well.

My relationship with my ed letters runs like this:

  1. Nervous anticipation as I wait for the letter to show. Will we agree about how the ms. is broken?
  2. Ecstasy at the ed letter’s arrival and discovery that not only do we agree but my editor has noticed all sorts of other stuff I did not.
  3. Shivery joy as I imagine the fixed book. Magically it has all fallen into place. I can do this, I think. I can!
  4. Despair on the day that I begin the work as I realise that I haven’t in fact rewritten the whole book by osmosis from having read the ed letter multiple times, and that I have to sit down and figure out how to do all those excellent and elegant structural changes.
  5. Despair turns to ecstasy as I work out solutions and back to despair as I come up against the next problem to be fixed. And repeat. A lot.
  6. Ecstatic joy when the ms. is finally whipped into shape and sent back to my editor.
  7. Nervous anticipation as I wait for the second letter to show. Will we agree about how the ms. is broken?
  8. And repeat.

I am a much, much, much better writer now then I was before I was professionally published. Part of that is because I write far more than I did back then, but a larger chunk of it is from being edited by professionals. My ed letters push me much farther than any other criticism I’ve ever received. My editors want my books to be the very best I can write as much as I do. They have a vested interest in them being good—it’s not only their job, but my success is their success, and my failure is their failure.

To sum up: a good ed letter and thus a good editor are worth their weight in mangosteens. There is nothing finer!


  1. bmad on #

    i literally just woke up from a NIGHTMARE about receiving an editorial letter! in the nightmare, the marked-up manuscript was bound up into a galley, and the editorial letter was printed as an appendix at the back.

  2. Steve Buchheit on #

    but wait, no, my words are magical and how dare they think my manuscript is less than perfect. It is my own. My child. My painful birth. My perfect, cuddly, snuggle close child… Wait a sec. Where did this mole come from? And this wart? Hand me the knife.

    Tobias B. says I need to be more nuerotic about my writing. I’m working on it.

  3. maureen on #

    i kiss and hug my ed letters

  4. PJ Hoover on #

    We’re on the exact same page on this issue. I feel like I could have written this post. Receiving my first editorial letter was one of the best experiences of my life. It made me feel totally inspired.

  5. Nichole on #

    Wow, that’s a really healthy way to think about your ed letters. Just another reason that I think you’re awesome. If I ever decide to write (a frightening thought indeed), I’ll try to look at them the same way.

    In college, I edited a lot of people’s papers. I know that I was only trying to help and tried not to just dump on whatever they’d written. My papers never got such treatment. Usually, they were printed out about 5 minutes before they were due. I don’t even dare to think about how much better my work would have been if I’d actually taken some time for proper revision. Not just reading it bleary-eyed at 4am and saying “that’s good enough.” I wish I’d had someone to say, “listen, this is crap. You can do better than this. Why don’t you try _______?”

  6. Dawn on #

    I think that I would probably have some kind of happy emotion toward Ed letters if I were getting any. I don’t want any work with my name on it to go out there as anything less than my best. If I could get paid to have someone help me make my work the best it could be, that would be AMAZING. Seriously. Plus, whenever anyone reads your stuff, you get different and new reactions. Some people see characters in a light that you wouldn’t, and it’s interesting and intriquing to think of what could change because of what other people see. If I ever get to a point in my life where I’m getting ed letters…I’m going to tell you all about it, Justine! I’m only 20, so here’s to hoping. 🙂

  7. bmad on #

    you are all crazy!

  8. jenny davidson on #

    i have only had one real edit letter, and i absolutely loved it. it made my job so much easier–i couldn’t get out of my head the image that it would be like being strapped into a really good corset if you were going to try on a rather small dress from the 19th century!

    an interesting piece on editing at salon, btw, this one (magazine-oriented rather than fiction) from the editor’s pov:


  9. Jaida on #

    The first (and so far only) editorial letter I’ve had was so intimidating in the first moment. It was long! And, of course, it was my first; and I’m prone to being intimidated. However, after I read it for the 29830982393 millionth time, it suddenly started making sense–more sense than I could ever have imagined. I carried that letter everywhere with me for an entire week, and I thought about nothing else but the suggestions that were written there. Soon enough, I couldn’t imagine the story not answering the questions that our editor had raised.

    It may have been long, and it may have been intense, but it was exactly what we needed in order to make the book better and stronger. The reason we were even able to do the edits was because of how incredible that editorial letter was. And we definitely needed it. So, I guess the answer to this was: it was a lot of work, but we loved it.

    I’ve kept the letter. I only hope I’m so lucky as to get more just like the first one in the future.

  10. Rebecca on #

    “Not just reading it bleary-eyed at 4am and saying “that’s good enough.””

    at least you did that much. hehe.

    yes, i as well would love to have an ed letter. they’d be scary, i’m sure, but it’s that good kind of scary. scary like meeting a famous actor or writer or whathaveyou. you’re so nervous you want to barf but at the same time, you’ve been eagerly anticipating it for months.

  11. Mary Elizabeth S. on #

    I know exactly how you feel! Which is a bit odd, really, because I’ve never gotten an ed letter, seeing as I’ve yet to get anything but short stories published…

    but, I still know how you feel. My very best friend in all the world also happens to have been a professional editor in the past, and has acquired the use of that most strange and wonderful portion of the brain that editors have access to. We read and critique each other’s writing all the time, and I loves it because she always shows me all kinds of amazing things about my writing that I didn’t know. For example, she showed me that there was a gaping hole in one of my plots, and then proceeded to point me down the road of fixy-ness, with all kinds of genius ideas on how to get there.

    Really, if it weren’t for what she teaches me through her editing, I would not be able to write at all. Or at least, I wouldn’t be able to write anything that anybody else could stand to read.


  12. Maggie on #

    “Seriously, imagine receiving a long letter (I’ve had up to ten pages single-spaced) that is all about your book, that totally gets what you were trying to do, and has billions of awesome ideas about how to make it better. I get a yummy shiver every time I receive my latest ed letter.”

    That’s *exactly* how I feel!

  13. Penni on #

    Love getting them. writing is like a game, right, a ‘let’s pretend’, ‘let’s say’ game and getting an ed letter is them speaking excitedly over the top of you, saying, ‘yeah yeah yeah and then what if…?’ just like when you were kids.

    And on the other side of the fence, I love writing editorial reports. I love living with someone else’s book in my head and coming up with these amazing ways to help them fix their broken bits. I love being privy to the raw material of someone else’s imaginative life and playing their game with them for a while.

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