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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 developmental/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 often, 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 offering only negative feedback gives the writer a skewed perspective of their work. It can be just as helpful for the writer to know what is working, as it is to know what isn't.

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, or if the writer requests I only give negative feedback.

Once I've finished reading through the manuscript and taken notes, I sometimes 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 maybe 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, theme, and structure. Other subjects may include subtext, context, audience experience and appeal, relationships, narrative pacing, or any other "big picture" element that needs to be addressed.

(If this is a letter for a line edit, the topics will be a little different. I may address elements like description, dialogue, blocking, and style.)

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. Sometimes if the feedback in a category is short, or I simply find it easier to talk about everything at once, I will combine the strengths and concerns.

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

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 paragraphs I've written that I tweaked or repurposed into a sample letter. The sample is a bit more simplistic and general, but hopefully it will give you an idea of how this goes.

Sample Editorial Letter or Critique Letter


Thanks for choosing me to do a content and line edit on your manuscript! I really enjoyed the story.

Setting & 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 that without info-dumps.

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. . . .  


While I loved the setting overall, I had a lot of questions come up about how the societies and magic system worked. I was expecting to get more information on that by the end of the story, and I never did. This left me wanting. It also made me wonder if everything had been thought through. The opening illustrated how important the Amulet of Darkness was, and I felt like I was promised it would play a key role, and that we would learn more about its costly magic. At the end of the story, I was still left wondering what its point was. I worry that was thrown in as a hook, and then just became an empty promise.

Given the worldbuilding info I did get, it didn't make sense to me why the temple was essentially abandoned. The characters' respect for spirituality made me think the place would have been popular and well taken care of.

In some sections, I wasn't able to picture the setting accurately. I wasn't clear exactly how Stella's mansion looked, and I felt like the lack of description was a missed opportunity. . . .



I love your characters, and I think characters are one of your strengths. 

The key characters felt round and complex, and I sympathized with the protagonist. He was likable and I was definitely rooting for him. He had moments of strength and moments of vulnerability.  His backstory was really intriguing and helped me understand his wants and motives.

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 have, and then conveyed that well. 

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


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

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 wanted a stronger, more defined character arc from him. This may be a helpful resource to look at: https://www.septembercfawkes.com/2022/05/the-4-basic-types-of-character-arcs.html

I felt like Tyler 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 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. . . .



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 inciting incident. 

The beginning of the story had all the most important plot elements: a clear goal, with a powerful antagonistic force, interesting conflict, and significant consequences. The text did a great job of conveying the stakes early, which really hooked me. I got a sense of the direction of the story, and I was able to measure progress and setbacks. . . .


As we got into the middle of the story, I felt like the plot started to disappear. Joseph seemed to lose sight of his goal, and I felt like I was just watching random bad things happen to him. Without a clear goal, it was hard for me to anticipate where the story was going, which made it harder to stay invested in it. There wasn't a strong antagonistic force present in the middle either. Nor was Joseph making any plans to get anywhere. I noticed a lot of the costs he experienced were just random bad luck. It's usually more effective if the costs come out of the conflicts. You might want to check out this article (and the series of posts it's a part of) for some help: https://www.septembercfawkes.com/2022/07/the-secondary-principles-of-plot.html

If we can bring Joseph's goal back to the forefront, or give him a new goal, I think it will really help tighten up the plot through the middle. Once we have a goal, we can think about what sorts of antagonistic forces would oppose that. Here are some suggestions you may want to consider. . . .



As I mentioned above, the beginning was working really well. The story opened with a hook, established a sense of normalcy, and then disrupted it with the inciting incident. It built from there and led us right into the major turning point of Act I--Joseph accepting Sarah's challenge.

We seemed to hit all the right beats for the first quarter, and the text had the proper elements in the proper places.

I saw how the overall story fit into basic story structure. And we hit a key turn right in the middle--the midpoint. . . .


I felt like the middle of the story was lacking strong structure, which made the overall pacing start to drag. I noticed the scenes were no longer following proper scene structure, which weakened the story.

Just as the overall story should follow basic structure, so should most individual scenes. The difference is that the climax (turning point) of a scene will be smaller than that of the whole story. For more explanation on this, check out this article: https://www.septembercfawkes.com/2019/11/scene-vs-sequence-vs-act.html

Another popular approach to scene structure is Swain's approach, which can be overlayed over basic structure. You may want to check it out and see if you prefer that approach: https://www.septembercfawkes.com/2021/09/scene-structure-according-to-dwight-v.html 

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. . . .


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.

Context and Subtext:

Once Joseph was beginning his werewolf transformation, I was feeling more and more of a need for more context and that need continued throughout 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 story well enough to get invested in what's happening. 

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:

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.



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


I love comments :)