How to Process an Edit Letter (with spreadsheets)

In On Writing, Tech Support, Writing Tools by BronwenLeave a Comment

At some point in your writing career you’re going to be given an edit letter. Edit letters are what a publisher, editor, agent, or even a critique partner or beta reader, give you in addition to any notes they’ve made on the manuscript itself. It’s the prose where this person lays out the things they think are or aren’t working in your manuscript.

Edit letters can be very intimidating. The higher up the publishing food chain you go, the more you’re likely to get a long edit letter. Your beta reader pal may give you a page, because they rather liked it or aren’t super sure how to articulate their thoughts. A publishing pro has money riding on your book so they may give you several pages. Like, a dozen. Single-spaced.

Starting to sweat yet? Take a towel and a knee.

Edit letters don’t have to be scary. In fact, after my initial ‘oh dear god’ reaction, my next instinct is, ‘YES.’ Because an edit letter means the person writing it has read your work, digested it, and then crafted their thoughts for you. Edit letters distill and prioritize. They’re immensely helpful.

If you know how to handle them.

Here’s how I’ve been handling my revision process, particularly when it comes to interpreting edit letters. As promised, there will be spreadsheets, because I like my information dynamic and sortable.


1) Plunge in and read the whole thing. Get emotional.

There isn’t really an easy way to do this. Some letters will be more painful than others. But you can all but guarantee, especially in the beginning, that it’s going to hurt to some degree. In fact, you may find yourself going through the Stages of Grief, because it is like a little death. Your manuscript as you last finalized it–the latest version you approved–is dead now. It’s no longer the shiniest version. It’s tarnished. You may not be able to look at it again without seeing the seemingly massive flaws the edit letter points to. DO NOT STRESS ABOUT STRESSING. It’s totally normal.

The best way to handle this is to wallow. Find a private place to read the letter and mutter and rant to yourself as much as you need to. Cry. Scoff. Bargain with the editing gods for mercy. It’s okay. Feel all the feels.

2) Put it away for a few days, minimum. Rant, cry, do whatever to get it out of your system.

Do not touch that red pen yet! Put the letter away. You are not to touch it again for at least three days (assuming you’re not on deadline). The letter is going in a box. Put a lock on it.

In the meantime, continue to wallow. Get it all out of your system. Crack open a bottle of something strong, grab some chocolate or other drug of choice, and ramble to the people who love you most about how unfair this whole industry is, how your book is amazing but terrible but better than this surely, and the person who wrote the edit letter is a nincompoop. The most important part of this stage is that it is a private, intimate time. You talk to your spouse at home, not via Twitter. You call your bestie, you don’t write a lengthy blast on Facebook. Public wallowing is not cool, professional, or advisable. Commiserate, but do so responsibly. You’ll be glad you didn’t spill your emotional mess all over the internet later.

3) Reread the whole thing. Be more objective this time.

When you’re feeling fortified, open the letter again. Reread it, still without a pen. This time your job is to look at it like an objective third party. Pretend it is someone else’s manuscript. Try to see the wisdom between the words. There’s a good chance that in your imagination and memory some things have been exaggerated. Recalibrate accordingly.

Because let’s be clear, here. Your reader, whether a total newbie or a publishing giant, is not going to be right about everything. Some of what they say will be wholly subjective and you can disregard it. Remember that you’re looking at one person’s opinion. Later you’ll compare it to the opinions of others, but for now this is just one. If you don’t like what they have to say, comfort yourself knowing that they could be wrong.

Ways The Letter Could Be “Wrong”

  • Vagueness–an opinion without substantiation. “I didn’t like it” is not helpful. What exactly is ‘it’? What sort of dislike? What about it triggered the dislike?
  • Subjectivity–the MC’s tic got under your reader’s skin. This is clearly an opinion, and it is only an issue if you get multiple readers with similar opinions and this is not the reaction you were going for.
  • Prescriptiveness–the letter tells you how to fix things. Suggestions are one thing, that’s your reader spit-balling to give you some idea of what they’re thinking. Orders are another, and orders are frequently wrong. The reader shouldn’t be telling you how to fix things. They should be saying, “This part doesn’t work for me because XYZ.” It’s YOUR job as the author to figure out a solution. And your solution, O creative mastermind that you are, is almost certainly going to be better than what the reader suggests. They don’t know this world as intimately as you do. It shows.

Filter out all of the above.

3a) Now print* that thing out. It’s time to get messy.

  • Okay, you don’t have to print it, but I find it very helpful to do so. The longer it is, the better it is to have a printed copy. You can accomplish the same effects in Word or a tablet app that lets you draw on the page.

4) Grab a highlighter and look for comments about what’s not working.

Use a bright, eye-catching color so you won’t miss it or misread. Go through the letter again, focusing closely on the phrases used. Highlight anything that is a) an actual problem, b) fixable, or c) provides insight into what the reader was thinking/feeling.

The goal here is to turn a mass of prose into easily digestible, easily spottable, words and phrases. First of all, looking at it will make you feel better, because you’re starting to conquer it. Secondly, you’ll be grateful when you go back later to find the exact wording and you can skim.

Here’s an example, from one of my edit letters:

For a teenager girl I found it completely believable. She comes off a little too confrontational, even when she met her mother after years of not seeing her. She lets her feelings rule before she thinks things through, and though that may fit for a teenager girl, it was off-putting at times.

A quick read reminds me of how my MC is being perceived, and how she’s making the reader feel.

Don’t highlight suggestions or fixes unless you absolutely agree with them.

5) Grab a pen and look for praise.

It is not ALL doom and gloom! You may think you have a document that is 100% criticism, but there will be phrases that are positive. (If you do this step and can’t find any praise, you need to reconsider whether or not you want to work with this person again in the future. A good partner, a good professional, knows to provide both.)

Look for things that are a) being interpreted the way you wanted or b) downright praising. Be generous!

In this example, instead of circling, I’ve used bold and color to show the praise.

For a teenager girl I found it completely believable. She comes off a little too confrontational, even when she met her mother after years of not seeing her. She lets her feelings rule before she thinks things through, and though that may fit for a teenager girl, it was off-putting at times.

I wanted my MC to come off as a believable teenager, so this counts as praise.

Remember, the positive may be at a minimum (this is a work letter, after all) but it IS THERE and you should acknowledge it and be proud!

6) Pull back and get a bird’s eye view.

This is where being able to zoom out or lay out your pages side by side is helpful. Flip through your pages and don’t focus on the words, but on the marks you’ve made. Is there a lot of highlighting? A big clump of praise? Is it evenly distributed?

You’re getting a feel for how much work you’re going to have to do.

It’s a lot, isn’t it?

Deep breaths, Padawan. It’s going to be okay.

6a) Pull quotes.

If you’re feeling low at this point, it’s time for a pick-me-up. Grab some post-its or a piece of paper, and go back through the praise you’ve circled. Write down words and phrases that stick out, things that you’re happy to see.

I did that with my recent feedback and I came away with a half page of keywords of encouragement. They’re now on my wall.

It’s important to acknowledge victories along the path. Even if there’s only one compliment in the entire edit letter, you should be proud of it.

7) Spreadsheet time! Log the comments.

I promised you spreadsheets, and here they are!

First, why on earth am I dragging spreadsheets into this messy creative process? Because I like to be able to move and splice data. There’s a bunch of data to be mined here!

Your spreadsheet should have the following columns (or you can grab a copy here):

  • Name of the person providing feedback. Over time you can aggregate and compare!
  • The document, the edit letter, itself. Something like, “Agent Edit Letter Email 3/5/18.” You want to be able to track it down again later.
  • Page number within the edit letter.
  • Section of the edit letter, if headers or numbers were provided. Your reader might group similar items into a list. THANK THEM.
  • Page number in the manuscript (if provided). This is more useful when addressing in-line notes.
  • Category of content the comment is referring to. For instance, my categories are Beginning, Ending, Character, Dialogue, Emotions, Mystery, Pacing, etc.
  • Quotes from the edit letter. It’s okay to paraphrase or combine. The point is to get the reader’s message across.
  • Brainstorming Notes–see Step 8.
  • Changes to be made–see Step 9.
  • Accomplished, for checking off what you’ve already addressed.

As you fill it in, you’ll get a sense for how these are useful. I can sort by reader to get a sense of how one person felt compared to another person. (For instance, I felt like three readers all had strong reactions to my MC. Turns out it was just one person repeating themselves a lot.) I can sort by category and use everyone’s comments to get a holistic sense of what my readers felt. I can sort by page number and use it as a checklist.

Don’t try to cram more than one category onto a line. Break it into two. If it really is about two categories, duplicate.

Did you finish? It’s a lot, isn’t it? But don’t be scared! You’re on your way to making positive changes in your manuscript!

8) Brainstorm changes.

Go comment by comment, line by line, and start coming up with ideas. Or, define the problem more neatly than the comment does. My brainstorm column includes the following:

  • Give [character] flaws.
  • Lengthen emotional scenes.
  • MC selfish.
  • Plant more clues.

They’re deliberately broad. I’m not brainstorming an absolute solution right now, I’m just getting ideas down. Bonus points if you can repeat phrases and sort this column or search for phrases. That will help you compare all the comments that have similar solutions in store.

9) Make decisions.

Now that you have prescriptions like “plant more clues” it’s time to haul out your manuscript, outline, synopsis or whatever else may be useful, and start identifying specific changes. Don’t worry about actually putting them in the manuscript just yet. You’re going to use your spreadsheet to keep track.

What happens if “Plant more clues” leads to three changes and you only have one line? Just duplicate the relevant parts and add a new line at the bottom. Chances are you’ll want to sort by MS Page Number at this point, not one of the earlier columns.

10) Go forth and input changes!

Use your spreadsheet as a checklist. It’s probably most useful to sort by manuscript page number so you can work in order. But the great thing about a spreadsheet is about you can re-sort it again and again and again. Do so as many times as is helpful.

Bonus tip: Remember that sorts are cumulative. If you have five items for MS Page 10, the categories may start out in a random-seeming order like this:

  • Character is a wuss
  • No setting description
  • Character is a wuss
  • Holy adverbs, Batman!
  • No setting description

That’s not terribly helpful. Sort first by Categories, then by MS Page #. Your categories will stay sorted, but grouped by page number, resulting in neat sets like this:

  • Character is a wuss
  • Character is a wuss
  • Holy adverbs, Batman!
  • No setting description
  • No setting description

When you’ve made a change, mark it with an X in the Accomplished column. If you want to get fancy, you can set up your own code in this column, such as O for “I’ll get back to this” or ? “Not sure I really want to make this change.”

11) Take a long break, you’ve earned it.

That-all is a LOT of work. I should know, I’ve been repeating this process for months now. But I can’t deny that it’s effective with the bonus of keeping records.

The next time someone mentions adverbs to you, you can look on the spreadsheet for how you addressed that last time. Maybe you didn’t go far enough. Maybe you fixed that spot and another is now looking like the sore thumb in the haystack. Maybe Critique Partner A is just super sensitive to adverbs and they will pick on every single one. Over time you can compare.


Download

Here, again, is your link to the Spreadsheet. Go to File > Make a Copy to save it to your own Drive, or File > Download As to download an Excel file.

Before you go…

Here’s a quick poll about the future of my email list: https://twitter.com/bronniesway/status/963334700034084865

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