Before I had an editor, I had no idea what an "edit letter" was. I'd written several manuscripts and gone through many revisions on my own, so I thought I had a basic handle on the editorial process. I'd thought I was proceeding in some kind of logical way, rewriting each draft straight through based on my "writerly intuition." I was fairly sure that the manuscripts got better, draft after draft. But still, insecurity lingered. Was I doing this right? Did I have a single clue what I was actually doing?
Nope. No I did not.
As it turns out, editors are pretty systematic about what they do (at least editors of commercial, plot-driven novels, my only area of experience, limited though it is). Every editor has his or her own style, maybe even a signature method, but they don't solely proceed on "intuition" or hope or vague advice they got from Stephen King. I'm by no means an expert yet--I've only known a small handful of professional editors, all of them wonderful to work with. But it seems to me that all editors do have one essential tool in common: the edit letter.
The edit letter is the master plan to your rewrite. Even if you don't have an editor yet (and you can't afford to hire a freelance pro), you can still revise like you do. There's nothing wrong with DIY: just get crafty and make your own.
The Good News
By now, you should have read through your manuscript as quickly and objectively as possible (see last week's Part I on Revising Like a Pro). You've been taking notes, and now you have a general sense of what's working, and what's not. Some big categories will have emerged--characters, story structure, themes, recurring sentence-level problems; maybe a few miscellaneous odds and ends. You'll be addressing each of these essential elements in turn in your edit letter.
But first, the good news: every edit letter starts with some love! It helps soften the blow of what's to come. When you're a writer creating your own edit letter, this self-love can be a challenging exercise. Usually we're so focused on the crippling doubt and insecurity and all that great stuff. But it's worthwhile. Part of being honest with yourself is not only seeing what's lacking, but knowing your own strengths. Maybe you'll find out you're better at certain things than you thought. Perhaps narrative voice turns out to be your strong suit, instead of dialogue. Work with it.
Now that you've given yourself a little pat on the back, you're ready to start the hard part: all the stuff that needs to change.
Order of Essentials
Your edit letter will look different if it's a first rewrite versus a later polish. Its contents will obviously vary depending on what needs the most work at that stage. But generally, it'll follow roughly the same structure.
After you rave about the things you love about the manuscript, it's time to get down to business. First, some introductory comments. This is just a paragraph or two providing a main focus for this round of revisions. You can't efficiently change everything all at once--at least I can't--so this provides a target to have in the back of your mind as you're slugging through the rewrite. Perhaps this draft needs to focus on plot structure; maybe it's the main character's arc; or the glacial pacing of the middle. Whatever really stuck out as the biggest issue as you read (staying in your current role as objective, merciless editor-extraordinaire, of course).
Then, you'll get into the specifics. Include as much detail as you feel the category merits for your manuscript. Again, these are big-picture comments that you'll then address throughout your rewrite. These are some categories that you'll probably want to address, in no particular order:
Voice & Point of View
Writing (i.e. recurrent sentence-level problems)
Odds-and-ends (i.e. any other issues big enough to mention)
As you can see, pretty much anything can (and will!) come up in an edit letter. So have at it. Play editor, and dream up all the things that would make this manuscript better. Is it fun to receive that edit letter by e-mail, see pages and pages of single-spaced details on all the major suckage in your manuscript? Uh, no. But if you want to be a writer you just have to get used to it. The editor's job is not to make things easy for the writer. So, as you draft your own edit letter, don't think about how hard it will be to fix these problems. Right now, that's not your job.
Rinse and Repeat
Once you have your edit letter, allow a day or two for despair and panic. Call your mom or your best friend and lament that you can't be a writer. What gave you the audacity to think you could do this??
Now, with that out of the way, your rewrite can begin.
Start with the most difficult, problematic issues first--such as changing up the story structure or revamping the point of view--and then work your way down to the smaller pieces. I usually prefer to get things roughly in the right place, and then work through chapter by chapter. Feel free to do multiple passes with a different focus each time: maybe one on your main character's inner narrative, and then another pass to sort out those little writing tics...etcetera.
Refer back to your edit letter often. That's the true beauty of the edit letter: it's there for you whenever you lose focus during your revision, whenever you feel completely lost in the weeds. Oh, right. That's what I'm supposed to be doing.
Once you've addressed everything, you can finally set that edit letter aside...and begin the process all over again. Give your manuscript some breathing room; get comments from your lovely critique partners; adopt your own ruthless editor persona; and draft yourself a new, personalized letter from the editor. Eventually, you'll feel ready for a detailed line-edit, and then submission to the real professionals!
And when you get your first letter from your editor at that big publishing house of your dreams, you'll know exactly how to handle it: with minimal crying, only a short bought of hyperventilating, and then laser-like focus. Just like a pro.