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Monday, March 4, 2019

How I Write an Editorial Letter or Critique Letter

Hey friends!

As a lot of you know, I work as a freelance editor and part of the job is writing editorial letters or critique letters. This may not be included in all types of editing (such as copyediting), but it plays an important role with content or developmental or substantive edits or manuscript evaluations (depending on the definition of each of those, because you will find variations within the industry). If you don't know what any of those edits are, relax. The letter is essentially what it sounds like, a document full of feedback from the editor.

There are a lot of editors in the world and each one likely has his or her own approach to editing. Today I want to share mine.

I always do an editorial letter for a content edit (which is about what the story is) and I often do one for a line edit (which is how the story is told). So let's get started.

First, when reading through the manuscript, I keep another document open to take notes on anything that I suspect might need to be in the editorial letter. Depending on how deep of an edit and what kind of edit the author wants, I may also be putting in comments on the actual manuscript for specific parts of the story. I watch for repeating problems (and repeating strengths).

My advice: If you're an editor, make sure you are paying attention to the writer's strengths in addition to weaknesses.

Some people have the school of thought that the only helpful feedback is negative feedback. But I strongly, strongly believe in also giving positive feedback. Only giving negative feedback gives the writer a skewed perspective of their work.

With that said, there are a few occasions where I might give only negative feedback--such as a piece that has already been edited multiple times and is already at a professional level and just needs some tightening up.

For more on my take on positive feedback, you can see my post, "The Real Reason You Need to Give Positive Feedback."

Once I've finished reading through the manuscript and taken notes, I usually go back and look at the (email) conversation I had with the writer about what they wanted. For example, if one writer told me they were worried they had problems with info-dumps, I would double check to make sure I took notes on that. At this point, I may email the writer and ask any follow-up questions I have.

Now it's time for the letter.

Some editors believe in being brutal in their honesty.

I don't.

It's not that I'm sugar-coating, it's that I don't believe being "brutally honest" is the most accurate or helpful form of communication. True, refined communication comes from being honest and clear without becoming antagonistic. After all, as the editor, I'm on the writer's side. I'm helping them.

So I like to address the positives and negatives as clearly as possible.

Depending on how long and comprehensive the letter is, it can be rather overwhelming to the writer initially. This is because I'm speaking to an entire manuscript in one document. Some writers may want to read through it bits at a time.

The shortest critique letter I've done for a novel was 4.2k words. Most I've done are between 8k and 11k. I have done some that were over 17k.

Every letter I write is written to that specific writer. I don't use generic paragraphs that I copy and paste into the document. I might have similar passages or similar greetings that I've tweaked here and there, but overall I'm writing fresh.

Now, it's important to know that this doesn't mean that editors who copy and paste paragraphs in are bad. They might be explaining the exact same thing to multiple writers. The reason I don't need to do this, is because if I need to explain something generally, I usually have an article on my site I can send them to. This means I can use those for reference and then in the letter talk about how that article applies specifically to their story. (Just as a note, if I didn't do this, most of my letters would be longer.)

In the letter, I almost always make sure I address these elements: setting, character, plot & structure, and theme. Other subjects may include subtext, context, audience experience and appeal, relationships, narrative pacing, or any other "big picture" element that needs to be addressed.

UPDATE: I also have this list of evaluation questions I ask, which is broken down into categories.

In the letter, I typically like to separate the "strengths" from the "concerns"--mainly because this was how I was taught, and I think it's easier on the writer, because they know what to expect.

Worth noting is that the "concerns" almost always take up more space than the "strengths" because they naturally require more explaining.

Now, here is a short sample letter (remember how I said these can go up to 11k words or more? Yeah, I'm not going to post a full sample in here because of that). It's a conglomerate of actual paragraphs I've written that I tweaked or repurposed into a sample letter.

Sample Editorial Letter or Critique Letter


Thanks for choosing me to do a content and line edit on your manuscript! Through all of my notes and comments, please remember that this is your story, not mine, so ultimately your choices should be yours, and the story should reflect your vision. I also try to watch for ways the author can take their writing to the next level in general. These are things that you may want to work on in this particular story, or they may be things you decide to work on in future projects. The feedback is rather comprehensive, which can sometimes be overwhelming to people. Remember, it’s impossible to fix everything at once. That's why we call them “drafts.” 


Setting and Worldbuilding

This was great overall. One of the things I noticed in particular is that you did a really good job of balancing the feelings of wonder and wish-fulfillment (which are important in most fantasy stories), with the feelings of horror and darkness, which makes each one feel more powerful because of the contrast. Like probably most people, I’ve heard of amulets before, but this was hands down the best I’ve ever seen anyone do with the concept. During the trip to the enchanted forest, you really captured the wonder and awe of that landscape. 

You brought a sense of history and culture to both our world and the fantasy world, and you did all this while keeping the pacing perfect. 

I also really appreciated that you found ways in the plot to allow the protagonist to experience different “set pieces” and worldbuilding elements, like having him go to the satyrs' temple, so that as a reader, I could know and experience what that was like. . . .  


Throughout the novel, I got a good sense of the characters, even the side characters. The details and the information you told about them were choice and specific. You took time to individualize them and really consider how they would view the world.

You also did a good job of considering the sorts of relationships these characters would have, and then conveyed that well. 

[Usually I'll go through and talk specifically about which characters I thought were strongest]


I really feel like the strongest part of the plot of this book, is the beginning. Everything in the beginning felt so on point, which I was impressed with because for most writers the beginning is usually the most difficult part to write. I liked how I was introduced to all the characters and I cared about them. I got a good sense of Joseph’s typical day-to-day life, the difficulties he was dealing with, which prepared me for the big change that came with the first plot point.

How the romance between Joseph and Olivia developed was just about perfect. Once I got further into the story, I had some problems, mainly with the middle, which I'll talk about more below, but I loved how Joseph was slowly turning into a werewolf but was forbidden from telling her. . . .


You have a gift (whether natural or obtained) for writing conversations. I felt like almost every conversation I read had what I call “dialogue circuitry”—where the characters’ lines are building off each other’s, instead of simply responding and reacting to each other. I marked some of these, but there were so many great instances that I stopped. There was some really clever dialogue.



Even though I enjoyed aspects of the characters and appreciated how you took time to individualize them, I had a problem with a few.

Joseph – While I thought some of the aspects of Joseph were cool and interesting, other parts were lacking. Even though he was technically the main character, he didn’t really seem to function as a main character, more of just a viewpoint character. It felt like Marcus was really the main character to me. So Joseph is going to need some work to take this book to the next level. 

I also felt like he acted younger than his age throughout the novel. I know it would require some reworking, but I’m actually wondering if he should be aged down. . . .

Melanie – Melanie felt like a caricature to me rather than a character. Caricatures are actually okay if you are writing a sort of “unreality” story, where the story has its own boundaries and realms of what is acceptable reality (think Series of Unfortunate Events or Matilda). But the thing is, Melanie was too exaggerated in comparison to the rest of the cast, and it didn't fit the tone of the story. Maybe look at making her feel a bit more human—in fact, playing with that contrast might actually make her more interesting to work with.


Denouement - The denouement felt too quick. The battle felt like it suddenly ended, and then we were suddenly repairing things. As a reader, I felt like I needed a smoother transition. Even though I talked a lot about cutting elsewhere, the denouement is where I think you could add more words.

Usually the denouement takes time to validate changes that happened over the course of the story. The love interests get married. We see proof the world is better now that the villain has been vanquished. The hero gets to live in peace. That sort of thing.

I also felt like the epilogue didn’t contribute much to the story. . . .

Context and Subtext

Once Joseph was beginning his transformation, I was feeling more and more of a need for more context and that need continued out through the rest of the book. This is a fairly common problem and can stem from a few different things, such as trying to follow the “show, don’t tell” rule too religiously, trying to create tension, or trying to turn context into subtext. 

Context is different than subtext. Context is the information the audience needs in order to follow and understand the story. For example, I didn’t know enough about Clans Werewolves to understand why it was a bad thing if Joseph turned into that kind. I marked spots that I didn’t have enough info or understanding. A lack of context leads to the story and its elements feeling vague. Vagueness is a problem because when the story is vague, the audience doesn’t feel tension. It might sound like it should be the opposite—by withholding information, we make the audience want to keep reading it to get it (which relates more to subtext)—but if the audience doesn’t have enough context, they can’t follow and understand the dynamics of the story well enough to feel any tension, because they don’t have a firm enough grasp on it to anticipate what’s going to happen. 

Rather than rewriting and re-explaining everything I mean, I have some articles that will explain this all in more depth that would probably be worth studying to get what I’m saying:


This is a common problem. Info-dumps are paragraphs of information dumped into the story to help the audience understand what is going on. They can be about anything—characters, items, but most commonly in speculative fiction, they are about something magical or otherworldly. It’s better to only tell the audience what they absolutely need to know about the subject and to hand out the information a bit at a time so they aren’t getting a huge chunk of exposition. The information should be weaved into the story. The story shouldn’t come to a halt to deliver the information to the audience. 

I hope you now have a lot of ideas of how to take this story and your writing to the next level. If I missed anything you would like me to address or if you have questions, please feel free to email me.



UPDATE: I now prefer to put "strengths" and "concerns" under the same topic. For example, I'll put the topic--say "Characters"--and then put a "strengths" section and a "concerns" section under it (each still clearly designated with a subheading). It's the same idea, just organized a little differently.


I have not always categorized my feedback with headings, but it's something I've started doing more often because it's easier for the writer to navigate. It's not unusual for me to use bullet points in feedback, especially when I have multiple "little" things.

But I love editing writers' novels! 

Hope this post has been helpful to you in some way.

You can also learn more about my editing approaches at FawkesEditing.com


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