This post was originally written for Be Your Own Mentor, a revision-focused blog that aims to help writers revise and get query-ready on their own. You can learn more here!
If you’ve ever received an edit letter, you know how helpful one can be in guiding your revision. For those of you who don’t know, an edit letter typically comes from your editor or agent, and it lays out the specifics of what you need to tackle in your next revision. I received my first edit letter as a Pitch Wars mentee in 2016, and it changed the way I revise. After that, I never wanted to tackle another revision without one. The only problem is that we don’t always have a mentor or editor around to read our manuscript and write one for us.
So I started writing edit letters for myself.
At first I felt ridiculous, writing a letter to myself about all the things I needed to change. But here’s the thing: when you have so many competing priorities in your head about what to revise, it’s easy to lose track of things. The edit letter becomes the document that fuels my entire revision: I use it to decide what order to tackle things, and it becomes a living document throughout the course of the revision. As I revise, undoubtedly other things come up that need fixing as a result of changes I made, and I keep track of all those things in my edit letter.
So, how do you write yourself an edit letter?
The first step is, unsurprisingly, to read your manuscript. Ideally, I’ll let my draft sit for a month before reading it, but I’m an impatient person and usually don’t make it that long. I like to print my manuscript out because I find that I catch different things when I’m reading on paper versus when I’m reading on screen.
Helpful hint: Before I even begin reading, I usually have a few things I know I need to revise for, and I mark those things as I read using color-coded tabs. For example, weather and botany both play large roles in my novel, but I don’t stop to research when I’m drafting because I lose too much momentum, so both aspects needed a lot of work in revisions. As I read through my manuscript, I used the tabs to mark everywhere weather or botany came up, so I could easily find them when I started revising.
Next, most of my edit letters have the same sections, especially for earlier/larger revisions (if you’re unsure of how to revise for any of the sections below, don’t worry! We’ll be covering all these topics in detail through Be Your Own Mentor):
As I read, I keep a notebook next to me and take extensive notes as I go. And I ask myself a ton of questions scene by scene: do I know how my character is feeling in this scene? What does this character want? How does this scene drive the narrative arc forward? What has to happen as a result of this scene? If I’m unable to satisfactorily answer those questions, I make a note and move on.
The read through is one of my best resources for evaluating the pacing specifically. Any time I reach for my cellphone, I mark where I was in the manuscript when I reached for it. Any time I go to the refrigerator looking for a snack, I mark it. Any time I put the pages aside and snuggle with my dog, I mark it. I want to know the areas in my manuscript that are easy to walk away from, and if I get bored at all, I definitely mark it.
Anything I wonder about as I’m reading goes down in my notes as well. Things like: Huh, my main character doesn’t have any friends, or the love interest disappeared for six chapters, or I introduced a character then never mentioned them again, or the stakes aren’t high enough. All of these are examples of things I’ve written down as I’ve been reading, then subsequently went on to fix after putting them in my edit letter.
Once I’m done reading, I ask myself more questions: is the setting vivid? What does the atmosphere of the novel feel like? Can I easily state the character arc of each main character and the change they went through? Do I know what the book is about—not the plot, but the actual story the book is telling. Is it about grief? Loneliness? Longing? Selfishness? What is the story I’m trying to tell, and did this draft address that?
Finally, take note of the things you love about your manuscript. Revisions are hard, and it’s easy to forget why you started. That’s why it’s nice to have a section you can go to that lays out what’s working and why your manuscript is special to you. That way, when you do need reminding, it’s right there. Plus, it helps guide your revision in terms of keeping what you know is working, and building up the things you love.
Now it’s time to write your letter! Compile all your notes and separate your letter into sections. Every note you took for your main character will go in your main character’s section; every time you marked an issue on pacing, put it as a bullet point under your pacing section; if you had a lot of things come up with magic or the rules/systems of your world, note those under worldbuilding; and any small, isolated notes you took that don’t seem to have their own section go under random.
If you have any notes from CPs/beta readers that you know you want to address, grab those as well and incorporate them into the sections of your letter. This is also a great time to incorporate what you wrote down in the “things you want to change” column from last weeks’ post, if you haven’t already.
One final note: I don’t only add things I know need revising, such as “build up the setting more.” I also note how I want my setting to come together, like “I want the reader to feel the salty air and endless gray, and never forget that the roar of the ocean is ever-present.” For me, writing an edit letter is as much about identifying what needs revision, as it is about reminding myself what I want the final product to be like.
Finished? Congratulations! You’ve written yourself an edit letter!
Your edit letter will guide your revisions. I revise for one thing at a time, starting with the hardest/most extensive edits, and work my way through my letter to the smallest. As I go, if I think of anything new or “break” one thing as I revised for another, I add it to the list so I’m sure it gets addressed.
That’s it! Grab a hot beverage, curl up with your manuscript, add tabs, take notes, ask questions, and write that letter!