The Art of the Editorial Letter

By John Gilstrap
I believe that the editorial letter is an art form unto itself. This is the missive that a writer’s editor sends ahead of the marked-up manuscript to give a general sense of direction, and to pass along thoughts for ironing out rough patches in a story.

I’ve had a lot of editors over the years. One in particular loved to hear himself write, producing a 9 page editorial letter for me, single-spaced in 10-point Times New Roman. These were the days when you received an actual letter—you know, the kind with an envelope and postage. It was excruciating to read, and a nightmare to decipher.

For an editor, I imagine that the letter is a balancing act.  It’s tough to offer enough input without being too bruising to the writer’s ego. It also means knowing how sensitive your author is to such bruising.

My current editor is Michaela Hamilton of Kensington Publishing—truly the best in the business—and she has granted permission for me to share her letter regarding my next novel, Threat Warning (July, 2011) with our dear Killzoners. Her text is italicized here only as a means to keep her comments separate from mine. (I have omitted sections of the letter that might serve as spoilers to the book.)

I think it’s interesting to note how much of her input to my work parrots what we’ve been discussing in this space over the past year. Here we go:

Dear John,

I have greatly enjoyed rereading the ms of THREAT WARNING. It is an outstanding thriller.

Note to the sensitive among you: This is the last purely positive statement in the letter, and that’s the way it should be. “Outstanding thriller” is plenty enough affirmation from a big honkin’ New York editor. Hearing what works is pleasing, but in this context, it’s a waste of time. This is a repair mission, not a teaching moment.

Cuts are needed for pace throughout. Don’t over-explain. Your action and dialogue speak brilliantly for themselves. Keep pace moving.

I can hear Jim Bell shouting, “You go, girl!” Like authors everywhere, I have a tendency to over-indulge on explanation. She’s not telling me anything I don’t know in principle, but I can’t wait to see the sections she’s talking about. I thought it was pretty damn tight already.

Jonathan’s dialogue and internal monologues sometimes sound pompous. I understand that he’s a thinking reader’s action hero, but I don’t think he should talk or think like a Ph. D. candidate, especially in the middle of an action scene.

Translation: Quit slowing down your own story, Gilstrap! The reader will get it!

Some names struck me as odd or inappropriate.

She goes on to list the names that she thought were difficult, but I cut that section because the discussion gives away too much. The bottom line is that names need to be pronounceable, even when they are read.

Don’t resort to overused gestures such as shrugged, nodded, sighed, shook his head. These are ok occasionally, but in general, seek more vivid gestures that tell more about a character, help set a mood, and create visual dimension in the scene.

Guilty as charged. My problem here is that the ones she notes are the only conversational gestures that I know of. I stipulate that I overuse them, but if anyone has other gesture arrows that I can add to the quiver, feel free to speak up.

You know how I feel about adverbs. I’ve crossed out enough for a small country. Keep them to a minimum.

Comments like this make me smile. They show that my editor likes me enough to make fun outright.

I am also something of a nut about “moment.” It should not be overused. “Long moment” hits the same raw nerve with me as “very unique.” Use it if you want, but not too often, ok?

Again, I know I do this. I just have a hard time stopping myself.

Scenes in . . . need to move much faster. I don’t think thriller fans will want to sit through . . .; and the static scenes of . . . need to be kept short and punchy.

I know that’s a lot of truncation, but there was a lot of spoiler material in there. Note the emphasis on pacing, pacing, pacing. In a thriller, the phrase “static scenes” is synonymous with “scenes that suck.” Also, Joe, note her use of the semicolon. I’m just sayin’ . . .

Some other scenes also got too preachy for my taste. I’ve marked suggestions for cuts.

Pacing again.

Language: I suggest deleting the F-word and “Jesus” when used as an exclamation. I was surprised at how often the F-word appears in the ms . . . My advice is not to use it. Some people will object to it. But no one will object if it does not appear in the book. I’ve never seen a reader letter or email saying the book would have been better if it had a few more F-words.

Truthfully, this one surprises me a little. First off, I’m surprised that the F-bomb appears as much as it apparently does, and secondly, Michaela has never objected to it before. I think it’s a point well-taken. Clearly, I’ve got some crossing out to do.

Thank you for taking these comments into consideration. After you’ve had a chance to think about them, and to review the edited ms, please send me a new Word document incorporating all changes. I look forward to turning it in for production as well as rights submissions.

Okay, here’s the thing: I don’t have to make any of these changes. My name is on the cover, after all, and the things we’re talking about in the editorial letter are not of the magnitude that would cause the manuscript to be rejected. I will make the changes, however, because they’re all valid comments. Folks, there is nothing more valuable to a professional writer than a professional editor.

If possible, I would love to receive the revised ms the week of Nov. 29.

Well . . . I’ll try.

18 thoughts on “The Art of the Editorial Letter

  1. Wow! Even though I’m miles and miles away from this step (and working on the assumption that I find someone who wants to publish my story!) I really appreciate that you posted this.

    Are all editors this nice?

  2. This was very helpful. What struck me is that the substance of these letters is exactly what you receive by a good critiquer or give as feedback to a writer before even making it to this phase of the publishing process.

    I too, get too attached to using “long moment”. Sounds like there needs to be an alcoholics anonymous for pet phrases.

    And as a reader who is turned off by F-bombs, I personally was glad to see that an editor pays attention to that stuff.

  3. John, Great post. By this stage in my career I’ve received a few editorial letters, and once I stopped sucking my thumb and sticking out my lower lip, I found that they were on the mark. It’s nice to see that a well-respected writer like you still goes through that experience as well.

    And I really agree with the comments about leaving out the F word. True, some people (myself included) would be offended if it appears in the work, but I can’t think of anyone who’d complain if it didn’t.

  4. Hey John, thanks for sharing this. A wealth of info, especially for those that have never seen this stage of the process. Like you said, your editor echos so many of the points we keep writing about at TKZ. Must be something to that. 🙂

    “The bottom line is that names need to be pronounceable, even when they are read.”

    This is an area that constantly amazes me. So often, even with top flight authors, I see multiple character names all beginning with the same letter or sounding similar. Or there are the unique character names where the author was obviously trying to be original and clever. For me, it’s stops the eye. My wife has an even worse time with it. There have been many times when she would abandon a book, telling me that the story was fine but she couldn’t put up with the stupid or unpronounceable names.

    But when it comes to thrillers, your editor nailed it: pacing, pacing, pacing. Great, helpful post.

  5. There are writers who are “taker outers” and writers who are “putter inners.” You, John, are a taker outer, as the letter implies. That’s not a bad thing to be. You know what you want and can then cut for pace, which is always a good practice.

    Michaela is obviously the real deal, too. Great pieces of advice here. RUE (resist the urge to explain) is one of the best. I will say, however, that I like “long moment.” But maybe only once per book, as Michaela indicates.

    And the use of the semi-colon in a LETTER is terrific; just the sort of place where it should remain!

  6. I have only argued with an editor’s corrections on rare occasions. I have gotten comments from my editor like: “Re-read this sentence as many times as you like, and I defy you to find meaning in it.” or “I was tempted to add a note to the postman:Please forgive the additional weight my pencil marks have added to this package.”

  7. RE: Unpronouncable names–this isn’t as easy to do as it sounds. Depending on a person’s nationality, or even regions of the same country, some people have very hard to pronounce names.

    I struggle with this because I DON’T want a name that’s too hard to pronounce in reading or writing, but it doesn’t seem any better to me to lose the flavor of their background by being too simplistic or plain.

  8. If you’re looking to expand your repertoire of gestures, read a few chapters from any James Lee Burke novel. He can reveal character with a pair of nostrils.

    Sometimes it feels overdone, but he’s pretty darn creative with body parts and skin folds.

  9. Hey John,
    Thanks for this. I’m completing the first edits on my first book to be published. As a newbie I wondered: do I accept all the recommendations without question? Do I only try to explain why I think something absolutely has to remain? Or because it’s the first time I’ve had an editor is it just plain stupid to question anything?

    I think I have a great editor but I’m inexperienced. What did you do when you had your first editor’s feedback?

  10. Great post.

    Encouraging to hear that a successful author has some of the same tendencies i have(I am a member of Overexplainers Anonymous).

    I likewise share a desire to find a cache of vivid gestures(some drafts I have more head nods than a shakey head doll) . I’ve read everything that James Lee Burke has written(he is incredible imo) and somehow i’ve not plundered his armamentarium. Will review(thanks for the tip PH).

    A few common gestures submitted for consideration :
    furrowing his brow, waving a hand in the air,appearing pained, blushing, averting his eyes,blanching, blinking, squinting, wincing

  11. I have always truly loved James Lee Burke’s novels. It seems as though every other scene takes place during a storm of one sort or another, and even though he has those darned Confederate ghosts marching forever through Louisiana and engaging Robicheaux. Who else can describe settings so effectively using so such gritty floweritudes?

    I read his latest, and I was saddened by the ending-ending chapter. Don’t want to spoil it, so read it. Burke is a true master at so many aspects of the craft, that I will read him as long as he writes. Burke, like fine wine, just gets better as he ages.

  12. Phil, thanks for the James Lee Burke suggestion.

    Jillian, I think it’s important to keep in close contact with your editor. If she has suggested changes that you’re not comfortable with, I think you should give her a call. Even if you don’t like the porposed fix, at least you’ll understand the root of the problem.

    In nine books, I can think of only a handful of changes that I rejected, and in every case, it was because of style issues. If an editor tells you that the pacing sags, or that a character isn’t working for one reason or another, she’s stating a fact, at least in her world view.

    I suggest you make a phone call.


  13. A good editor is one of the greatest assets any writer can have. I’ve been very fortunate with my editors – all gifted and wise. I’m so close to my manuscripts by the time I’ve completed umpteen rewrites that I can no longer see the flaws. I need someone with clear eyes.

    Thank you for sharing the letter!

  14. Saw this on Twitter and I’m glad I stopped in. I got a comment from an agant on pacing, so I’m trying to get to the point faster and looking for those semmingly necessary scenes that aren’t. Thanks for sharing!

  15. Love this post. What really struck me as true was the over-indulging on explanation. My editor tells me I need to stop treating my readers like they’re stupid and cut back on the explanation – it’s a hard thing to do. Again, very helpful post.

  16. Sometimes I learn a lot on this blog. Sometimes I get to say things to make folks laugh.
    Sometimes I think I can join the smart conversation.
    Sometimes I realize that if I go that extra mile, and trust another set of eyes, maybe I can make it.

    Thanks for the insight John.

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