Editorial letters: what are they?

Photo by Markus Winkler on Unsplash

Despite the mixed intent with the term “letters to the editor,” an editorial letter means something utterly different to a creative writer.

Professional copy editors – like me – should be sending you an editorial letter when completing an editing project.

It’s like receiving a critique from a group workshop in an MFA program.

What are editorial letters?

An editorial letter evaluates a manuscript highlighting the editor’s questions and concerns regarding the project’s content. The letter lets your editor flesh out any creative concerns or issues they saw as they consumed your work during editing.

The tone is like a snail mail letter to a friend: casual, conversational, and to the point.

The document should exist separately from any marked-up manuscript you received from the editor. Sometimes, editors will attach the letter to your manuscript at the beginning or the end so you can read them together.

Some creative issues they may pinpoint might be tone, pacing, characterization, show, don’t tell, glaring plot holes, over-reliance on a particular phrase or word, etc.

Expectations from an editorial letter

When I send my authors the editorial letter, I always include knee-jerk reactions to the project. Sometimes it’s as simple as the overall vibe or as in-depth as your dependence on passive voice.

Some editors might not include their knee-jerk reactions, but I always look at your work as a reader first. If I don’t understand something as the reader, I’m confident that other beta readers will also notice it and bring it to your attention.

The letter should provide constructive criticism but also not be prescriptive at all. You should be wary of anyone who tries to impose such control on your work in that way. You should expect suggestions but not outright demands of “you should do this instead of that.”

Everything you do is a choice of craft; you alone should decide what stays on the page and what goes.

What happens upon receiving an editorial letter?

Whatever you want. Keep it, toss it, read it, don’t read it.

That sounds counterproductive to what you probably thought you would read, but it’s true. I’ve received editorial letters and felt they missed the point. I don’t see that as a bad thing, of course.

The letter is an excellent starting point for revisions. I often use the editorial letters I receive to fine-tune my manuscript for the next round. I might build on their suggestions by drawing out specific images, deleting or adding dialogue, or toning down metaphors.

Maybe your editorial letter is pointing out the lack of an active voice. Comb through the manuscript line-by-line and fix those instances of passive voice unless it was a craft choice.

The thing is, claiming something as a craft choice isn’t the crutch you think it is!

Reader perception is essential when writing something for an audience. That’s why you do what you do: you want people to read your work.

Indeed, sometimes the person reading your manuscript isn’t your target audience, and that’s okay! But you should trust that they’re seeing something there.

There’s value in their opinions. They wouldn’t have brought it to your attention if they didn’t think it was relevant to improving your manuscript.

Ready to improve your literary citizenship?


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