Monday, July 23, 2007

How do authors feel about receiving editorial letters?

Last week, there was a very interesting but short-lived blog post over at Fuse #8 that some of you may have read. It involved how an author felt to receive editorial comments. I believe he/she (from now on I'll just assume the author is a man, although I really have no reason to assume this) said something to the effect that it made him feel as if he was "disintegrating like a kicked mushroom." Then there was a parody of an editorial letter, as if written for Goldilocks and the Three Bears. It including points such as, "I'm not sure how realistic the scene with the porridge is. Why would mama bear's porridge be 'too cold' while papa bear's porridge was 'too hot'? Describe more the physics of the shape of the bowls that could explain this further" and "You mention the color of the heroine's hair at the beginning of the book, but then not much later on. What is the significance of this? Maybe include more examples throughout?" etc. etc. It was actually very well done and entertaining (I'm not doing it justice), but my reaction was also to say "ouch" because it was a little too accurate, and also one of an editor's greatest fears that authors feel this way when they receive our letters.

Well, the post was taken down, because Fuse said that the author feared that his editor would recognize herself in the letter, which I thought was a bit amusing, because every editor I spoke to recognized herself in the letter, including me. I think most editors have similar styles, in part because of Dear Genius, in part because as I've mentioned before, becoming an editor is an apprenticeship, and we all learn from those who have come before us.

I'm disappointed that the post was taken down, because I think it brings up a good topic of conversation. When I read the post, there were four or five comments, all reflecting a similar opinion that the letter was entertaining but a bit unfair, and a few authors commented that they welcome editorial letters.

So, let me pose the question here. How do you authors/illustrators feel about receiving editorial comments? Please, be honest and as candid as you'd like. Editors want to know the truth!


Unknown said...


I'm glad you blogged about this. I wish I could have read the original post to which you were referring.

I am a published author, and I was working with one publishing house whose editor gave me some really solid feedback. I loved that. Then the manuscript went to the readers and came back with absolutely useless information (they sent me back the forms the readers had filled out.) The publishing house wanted me to make those changes too.

I was so excited to receive feedback that would give me ways to make the manuscript more solid. I was so disappointed when that didn't turn out to be (the editor didn't give me much initially.) So I went out and formed my own readers group of twenty (all walks of life, ages, and sex), created my own feedback form (honestly, I it bastardized from the original publishing house) and went to work.

Here's the sad part about the original publishing house, they began editing my book into absolute banality. It was very sad. I ended up backing away from that deal and being published by another publishing house. I took them everything the first publishing house had said and they threw it out the window, worked with me on the manuscript and it was published in December of 2004.

So all in all, what I'm really trying to say, is if the feedback is solid, helpful and really shapes that manuscript into a better story . . . we authors love it. So keep up the good work.

alvinaling said...

Thanks for your comments! And you raise a good point--I should ammend my question to say, "How do you feel about receiving, on the whole, GOOD editorial comments?" Not necessarily comments that you agree with, but thoughtful comments where you can see that the editor has taken the time to really understand what you are trying to say. Although if you rarely receive these kinds of comments, that would be helpful to know, too.

Anonymous said...

Great topic. I missed the initial post on Fuse 8--shoot.

I love editorial letters.

First, I'm always happy that an editor took time to tell me what worked for them and what didn't. I think that's a gift of the editor's time and am grateful for it.

Second, it's great to see other people's visions of my ms., whether I agree with those visions or not. A good letter always gives me things to think about and consider. They make me see my manuscript in a new way, and that's always the first step toward a fantastic revision.

Sure, it can be a bit annoying if I submit a whimsical, unrealistic (on purpose) ms. and I get back a point-by-point dissection of why it couldn't happen--and this has happened. To me, that means one of two things: 1) that ms. is not right for that particular editor, and it's time for more marketing research; or 2) my whimsy missed its mark, and maybe I didn't go far enough with it. Then I rely on my gut feeling and my crit groups to help me figure out which.


Meghan McCarthy said...

Ha! I forgot to tell you Alvina that the letter sounded really funny.

Sometimes comments can be helpful and at other times they're not. I have one editor who never wrote editorial letters, and that was just fine by me. It's all about give and take. I rather like the letters because then I get to see the formal side of my editors. It's like seeing someone in jeans all the time and then having them walk in wearing a gown.


Anna Alter said...

Honestly, my first reaction when I get back editorial comments is to want to tear up the letter and declare that clearly they have no idea what they're talking about, how dare they criticize my baby! But that doesn't last too long.

I usually put down the letter when I'm feeling like that, go do something else, and when the sting of criticism is gone I can read the letter again and really process the suggestions. I'd say 95% of the time the editor's suggestions make the book better, or at least prompt me to go in a new direction that addresses whatever problem they were pointng out.

Can they be sometimes overly analytical? Yes, sure. Sometimes rediculously so. But I see it as my job to weed through all of the suggestions and find the ones that strike at the heart of the story. After all the editor is just giving feedback the way that authors brainstorm.

One important lesson it took me awhile to learn is that I didn't have to do everything I was told in editorial letters, that the editors were pointing out things that needed attention, but really the suggestions are just prompts to rethink a particular point.

Barbara O'Connor said...

Great topic! I am blessed with a wise and wonderful editor. She respects the creative process. She is open-minded. She has a sense of humor. She’s not afraid to admit she might have been wrong about something. And she always listens and is willing to compromise. She is also almost always right – and I, thank goodness, am smart enough to listen.

That said, I confess that my first reaction to editorial letters is an overall sense of disappointment that my story wasn’t perfect. Once I get over that, I usually try to wait a day or so before going back and digesting editorial comments. It’s always interesting to me how suggestions that seemed huge and daunting and this-is-way-more-work-than-I-want-to-do turn out to be not so big. My wise and wonderful editor has taught me that little changes can make a big difference.

My editor’s approach to revision is usually in the form of question-asking, and she is a master at it. She asks questions that force me to think about my work in deeper ways or different ways – questions about motivation or credibility or logic or whatever. I love that. It feels respectful of the creative process.

AND, she rarely offers specific suggestions for a fix. She’s quick to use the words, “perhaps” and “maybe” – that leave the door open for me to fix problems in my own way and with my own voice and vision.

So, while I wish my stories were perfect the first time around, they aren’t and never will be. I’m grateful for an editor who helps draw my best work out of me.

Anonymous said...

Yes! Questions are the best comments.

JenFW said...

Thoughtful editorial letters are great. Any feedback that encourages further exploration of an idea or manuscript is good.

What's better, however, is the opportunity to discuss editorial comments. Active exchanges allow the ideas from both editor and writer to mix together better and yield something new.

We see it in book club and critique group discussions. Unfortunately, very few writers/editors have the luxury of interacting in this way, so we do the best we can with editorial letters.

I'm sorry the Fuse post was taken down. It was an exaggeration of the truth, and that's *funny!*

Lisa Yee said...

I love editorial letters. But then, I love and respect my editors. I don't necessarily do follow the letters to the letter (snort!), but I really, really, think about everything that's in them and revise accordingly.

Anonymous said...

Yeah, I love (good) editorial letters, too. My whole writing process is about revision--I write messy first drafts, then revise them into a real story through many passes--so I never expect my book to be perfect as written. And I welcome anything that can make the book stronger. I've done so many passes by the time the book goes out, I'm up for a couple more--expect them, even.

The new perspective is nice, too--by the time a book sells, I've spent a long time alone in my head (and the heads of my critique group members) with the book, and can use a new view/take.

Which isn't to say I'll agree with every last editorial comment, and if something really doesn't make sense to me I'll give it some thought, and decide whether I agree after all; whether I disagree but think making the change won't hurt the story; or whether it's actually a change I'm uncomfortable with. (And any muttering or stamping I do in the process of deciding this is kept strictly to the privacy of my own home. :-))

But overall, I look forward to getting editorial letters and diving back into the story. I would worry if I didn't get one, because anyone who thinks there isn't room for improvement can't have been paying much attention! :-)

Anonymous said...

I have never had a manuscript acquired, but have received numerous personal letters with comments about my manuscripts from editors. I like to get these editorial comments, especially comments which point out the flaws in my work. I wouldn't have sent the manuscript to an editor if I didn't think it was near perfect, and I want to know how it can be improved, or if it can't be improved, if the concept just isn't commercially marketable for what ever reason, I need to know that too so I can spend my time and energy working on something else.

A friend recently recommended Thomas McCormack's book The Fiction Editor, the Novel, and the Novelist, which addressed the function of editors in the creative process. Although his tone is sometimes annoying, I found his analysis of how editors approach editing and what makes a novel work useful.

Even if a particular editor might not be an "apt" reader of my work, if she has taken the time to not only read my work, but to make comments or suggestions, I'd be a fool to ignore that input. Yes, it hurts to hear that my work has flaws, but it doesn't trim the editors' slush piles or help my career or my reputation to keep sending out manuscripts that are going to be rejected.

ddpattison said...

I've written about this in my article, "I Don't Want an Honest Critique," partly reprinted here:

Basically, I take three days for emotions, and then put emotions aside and get busy working.


Anonymous said...

I seem to have had similar experiences to Barbara O'Connor, as she states above.

The two editors that I've primarily worked with have been wise masters of "question asking" as well, and much of the time the questions have been in my own head anyways, and have been ignored because it would take a lot more work to answer them! Their asking forces me to face the issues with my ms. or artwork that I often know are there and am too lazy to tackle.

When I do disagree with a comment or criticism, I've found that (at least in my experience so far) as long as I have a solid/valid reason behind my argument, editors seem to respect that and go with the creator's intentions. It goes both ways -- for me, the editorial letter is just a part of the necessary process in making a book.

Anonymous said...

I heart editorial letters, and from the comments you've received, it appears I'm not the only one.

I love getting concrete feedback that I can use to make my manuscript the best it can be. After I sold my YA novel, the letter from my editor became a checklist, and I literally made check marks down the side of the letter.

We have so many things we are juggling when writing a book, as you know! Story, plot, subplot characters, setting, description, etc. etc. It's impossible to get it all exactly right!

There have been a couple of times when an editor wanted me to take a book a different way than I envisioned. One editor, for example, wanted my YA to be darker, scarier. I thought about it, and even tried writing some pages. Ultimately, it wasn't the story I wanted to tell. In that case, I still respected the editor's opinion, and the letter contained other helpful comments I did incorporate, but I just couldn't do everything she wanted. Obviously, I didn't sell the book to her. But that's okay.

More than anything, I think an editorial letter can be overwhelming. I've heard of some authors getting 8-page letters. Mine was 3 pages long. I wonder what the average length is?

Anonymous said...

I've never been sent an editorial letter that asked for revisions, but I have received many with bits of editorial comments on them. And I'm thrilled when I get them. I like to see how an editor's mind works.

David Macinnis Gill said...

What's the point of having an editor if you're not going to get an editorial letter? I didn't know editors were just rubber stamps.

For me, the letter is an opening to the discussion of how to make the story stronger. I'm too close to the work; I see all drafts on that page, not just the current text; there is a story in my head that may not have made to the page.

If I have questions, I ask for clarification. If it appears that editor and I are talking about two different stories--mine and hers, then there's some negotiation that has to happen.

Copy editors, they're a different story...:-)

Janette Rallison said...

The only thing worse than getting a very long editorial letter with many suggestions is getting a very short letter with few suggestions. That, for me, is like writing without a safety net. I know I'm making mistakes and I want the editor to catch them.

Still, those letters always remind me of that scene in the 80's movie about Mozart--the one where the Emperor tells Mozart his piece has too many notes.

Sometimes it seems that editors want you to do the impossible with your story and then you have to beat your head into the computer trying to figure out how to do it.

Emily Jiang said...

I'm with anonymous. The goal is to craft the best story possible. We writers need good editors providing constructive feedback to take our stories to the next level.

Anonymous said...

I deeply appreciate my editorial letters and look forward to getting them. I am grateful for the one other person on the planet who will go over this project with a fine tooth comb and know it inside and out, taking each detail as seriously as I do.

Meghan McCarthy said...

Too many people seem to like editorial letters. what are we going to do to change this? Alvina, you should start a new trend. Make the authors cry!


Meghan McCarthy said...

... and I don't mean in a heartfelt, teary-eyed, I love my editor way.

alvinaling said...

Believe me, it's great to hear all this--I want to keep my job!

Anonymous said...

For my first book, I got a marked up manuscript returned to me, which I really liked. It was totally doable and I didn't cry. Ha.

My second book brought a five page revision letter and no marked up copy. I was kind of like, "What the heck is this?" (you asked for honesty - LOL) Keep in mind, this is for a 120 page NF book. It was a bit duanting but after I chopped it into parts and got to work, it wasn't so bad after all. (just sent it in a Monday - yay)

My newly acquired agent just sent a revision letter for my YA and it's only a half of a page. Nice.

All three of my revision requests have been different but each serves the same purpose. I've learned to read, digest, ponder and then get to work for the good of the project. I've learned to love revising.

Sara Z. said...

It's a love/hate thing for me. Or maybe hate/love, because my first reaction is always, "Why does Jennifer hate me so much? Why is she trying to ruin my life? What have I ever done to her?" I usually cry, question my career choice, and curl up into a frightened ball. But then! I get started on the revision and am grateful for the guiding force of the letter. Even when there are things I disagree with, the friction of that forces me to refine my vision and points me toward what it is I'm really trying to do. And when it's all over, I see how vastly better my work is for her guidance...especially just the push of what usually boils down to, "I know you can do better."

It's kind of the same thing I am currently experiencing with my fitness boot camp. Without the trainer there I wouldn't be working half as hard, and it's really annoying when he's standing there telling me stuff about my form and not letting me stop before I am truly exhausted. But the results are all worth it.

Anonymous said...

I consider it a badge of honor.
Editors don't have time. When
they do give of their precious time, it's worth noting and it
means you are worth something.


Kidlitjunkie said...

I don't know if I'm allowed to comment in here (from the editorial side of things) but as a new editorial assistant, the editorial letter is one of my favorite parts of the job.

I love the chance to work with writers who I respect, to look at their work and find snags and things that don't make sense to me, and instead of slamming it in a book review, to be able to discuss it with the author and ask them if that's really what they meant, if they can make it more clear.

That is one of the most enjoyable parts of my job. Even (and sometimes especially) when the writer responds that she wants to keep things just exactly as they are, and here's way - and opens my eyes to something I hadn't noticed before.