How to Write a Good Edit Letter for a Book (Plus a Template!)

25 May

Critiquing an entire book can be daunting. I remember how nervous I was about the first full novel I ever critiqued. I wanted so badly to get to the heart of the novel and help the author figure out how to make it better. Even now that I am a full-time freelance editor who has worked with many published authors, I still look for ways to improve my edit letters so that they are inspiring, kind, honest, and thorough, but not overwhelming. 

Recently, I’ve seen a few people ask on social media about how to write better critiques. I’m not saying I have a magic formula figured out, but I write a lot of edit letters, and I’ve developed a template and system so that I am not reinventing the wheel each time I write a letter. Of course, I customize these as needed, especially when I work on a memoir or non-fiction book instead of fiction.

Why should you trust me? Well, for one, my clients say they love me. You can read testimonials and reviews from them on Reedsy. For another, many of my clients have been traditionally published, I have my Masters of Fine Arts, and I worked for literary agent Carrie Pestritto, who is now my agent. I am always open and learning, though, and would love to see your comments about how you approach edit letters!

So, here is how I approach writing edit letters for my editing clients. 

The Emotional Angle
Before I get into the nitty gritty, a note about the emotion of writing edit letters. My end goal is not to show off how good I am at critiquing someone (see: Guy in Your MFA). My end goal is to inspire an author to improve their work. It’s hard to be inspired when you’re crying, so I always endeavor to make my edit letters positive. I’m not going to go too deeply into the emotional element because this would get even longer, but I loved this post from Michelle Hazen on the topic. In the explanation of my process and template, I’ll briefly touch on the ways that I make sure I am being positive and thoughtful. 

The Process

Part of writing an edit letter is figuring out how to read to make the process thorough and efficient. 

I now have two processes that I use. 

When I Leave Line Notes

For a developmental edit, in which I leave a line note every few pages (who am I kidding, I normally leave a note on almost every page), I open up my edit letter template and save it as my “notes” file. As I read, I make line notes, copy over the most significant line notes into the appropriate category, and include the page number from the manuscript. If I’m going to mention a pattern or problem in the edit letter, I always try to have a specific example from the text that I can refer to. This is the same for positive notes. If a writer is funny, or has a knack for description, I always try to copy over one or two examples into my notes document. Personally, I tend to not believe nice comments unless they’re backed up with specific examples, so that’s why I try to include them for my clients! This often means that my line notes are heavier in the beginning of a manuscript, because after I’ve found the main strengths and issues I want to talk about in my edit letter, I ease off on the comments. 

I also write down all of the character and place names in the notes document so I don’t have to go back to the manuscript to check on spelling. Having all of these notes in one file helps me when I sit down and write the edit letter because it saves me from having to search back through the manuscript. 

When I start the actual edit letter, I save it as a new file. I normally only end up writing about a third of the notes I copied because I try to focus on issues that can’t be explained within line notes. If I save a separate file for the edit letter, I can delete my notes and then easily add them back if I change my mind. I write the edit letter—this normally takes several hours, spread out over a few days. Then I try to let it sit overnight and read it over one last time to make sure my comments are clear, specific, and kind. Then, the edit letter, and the manuscript, are off to the client!

When I Don’t Leave Line Notes

When I do an editorial assessment, or I’m reading for a critique partner who wants a quick take or a focus on only certain issues, I don’t leave line notes in the manuscript. Sometimes I will read in much the same way as a developmental edit, except in this case, I normally copy over more notes. My edit letters without line notes tend to be longer because I know my clients don’t have line comments to show additional examples. Sometimes, though, I will email the book to my Kindle, and only take notes and highlight passages on my Kindle. Then, when I write the edit letter, I scroll through the notes, writing down each note that is worthy of mentioning in the appropriate category. I then write the edit letter, let it sit, reread, and send.

The Template

Ah ha, what you’ve been waiting for! My edit letter template! Here it is! 

Message to Send with Attachments

You might call it overthinking, but I call it considerate—I have a plan and a template even for the message I send my clients when I am attaching their manuscript and edit letter. I talk a bit about how it can take a few days to digest feedback, and how it’s normal to feel emotional and defensive. I also include my favorite quote about revising, from Neil Gaiman: “Remember: when people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.” 

I tell my clients to start with the edit letter, and then read the line notes. I also clarify that I normally leave line notes as I make them, rather than going back and changing them. That way my clients can see where my head was as a reader. For example, if I’m convinced that Sadie and Sarah fall in love, but I’m wrong and actually Sadie and Sarah are straight and in love with Ben and Joe, I will leave all my squealing about their relationship, so the author can see exactly which parts of the text led me to think they were developing a romance. 

Edit Letter Introduction

I include an introduction where I give an overview of what I love about the book and what I think the writer should work on. My goal for this section is to give the writer something to reread if the whole edit letter gets overwhelming. It goes like this:

I really loved XYZ about your book. ABC was particularly compelling. I will start with my overall thoughts, and then dive deep into detail. [IF APPLICABLE: You can, of course, also see line notes on the manuscript.]

What I loved

I include a paragraph or two with more details about what I really loved. I often include the book’s theme, message, or vision here. What was the author trying to say? What will readers most take away from the book? A message about how love beats family differences? A mood that’s like hot chocolate on a cold winter day? If I nail this section, I hear from my clients that I got their book. Sometimes, I also see a message in a book that the author didn’t even know they were sending. Normally they’re delighted and approach their revisions with new clarity. Sometimes, though, they realize that they lost focus and recalibrate accordingly. 

What to work on 

I include the one or two elements of the book that need to be rethought the most. If the author does nothing else with my feedback, I want them to pay attention to this section. Here is where I address foundational issues with the plot, character, or target market that need to be addressed before any smaller issues.

Edit Letter Body

In the main body of the edit letter, I address the following categories. For each category, I try to include both elements I loved and elements to work on. 

Plot, or, for non-fiction, structure

Here is where I talk about what I loved about the plot and what needs work. Does the plot follow Matt Stone and Trey Parker’s “But/therefore” logic, unfolding in a cause/effect manner rather than by coincidence/chance? What elements are most compelling? What elements were confusing? Is the climax exciting? Does the book start in the right place? Does the protagonist drive the plot? Does the pacing flag anywhere? My general sense of plotting is informed by Larry Brooks’ excellent “Story Engineering” and the “Save the Cat” method, but I don’t generally map out a book’s plot in either system, because that would be frustrating for an author who hasn’t read those books. Instead, I use those methods of thinking to pinpoint areas for improvement.

Character

Here is where I list all of the character names as I am reading. In this section, I include a few sentences of overall thoughts about characterization, including both positives and constructive criticism. Then, I dive deep and do the same for each major character and some notable minor characters.

Worldbuilding

This section is most significant for fantasy/science fiction novels, but certainly understanding the setting and culture of a contemporary novel or memoir is important too. Here is where I list all place names as I read, just to help me keep them straight. I normally cut that list out when I reach this section in my edit letter, though, as I don’t generally find it necessary to include feedback about each specific place in a book. Here is where I approach any questions I have about cultural norms, politics, magic systems, and settings. I also include what I loved about the world of the book, whether it’s simply being able to smell grandma’s cooking, or being intrigued by the elaborate magic system of a fantasy world. 

Romance

I use this section to talk about the romance in a book, and, yes, I do sometimes end up cutting this section if the book has no significant romantic subplot. By this point, I’ve likely covered a lot of the romance in the plot/character sections, so I go into a little more detail, but generally keep it short. 

Target Market

Many, if not most of my editing clients, come to me confused about where their book fits in the market. Is it young adult? Middle grade? For adults? Fantasy? Science fiction? A weird mix? If the answer to that question is easy, this section quickly confirms my thoughts and includes a few recommendations for possible comp titles. However, I often find that a client needs to rethink where their book should fit in the market, and that can mean major revisions. In this section, I help them think through their options and list a few titles they can read to help them decide what to do.

Title

I have to be honest, I added this section to my template because I kept forgetting to think about the title, and clients would always write to me and ask about it. Oops! Well, now I don’t have that problem. This section is my reminder to think about whether the title is working for the book. If I think it might be a good idea to change the title, I include a few ideas.

Style 

I use this section to address the book’s overall voice as well as any patterns of line level issues that come up. If there are multiple points of view, is it easy to distinguish them? Does the voice fit the target market? Do the characters need more interiority? How is the dialogue? Those are a few of the areas I consider. In a developmental edit, this section tends to be shorter, because my line notes address these issues.

Edit Letter Conclusion

Those are my main sections! I end the edit letter with a short positive note about the book and an offer to talk through questions with the author.

That’s it! From the length of this post, you can probably imagine that my edit letters are quite long too. It’s not unusual for them to be 5-10 single spaced pages for a full manuscript. Some editors lean toward the shorter side, but honestly, I can’t help myself. If you want a really long edit letter from me, you can always contact me at tracycgold@gmail.com to book an edit!

What would you add, cut, or change about this edit letter template? Tell me in the comments! 

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