Friday, June 11, 2010

Letter to a Client

The Editing Process, the Revision Process, and the Final Editing Process

Many have asked about my focus as editor, so I thought it might be helpful to share a letter I recently sent to one of my clients (name withheld). While the issues I address with [client] are specific to [client's] piece, much of what I say is universal, and helps to explain my editorial approach.

Dear [client],

I wanted to mention a few things as I prepare to finish the edit of your "First Draft."

First, regarding your comment:
"WITHOUT YOU, THIS STORY might never have been told. The writing group helps me a lot, but you're the one who has made the writers in this group think I am a good writer. I told them that without you, I would not have had a chance."

Thank you for that, [client], but I imagine you may be feeling a bit frustrated by the long process. What you must know is that this is all... well, part of the process.

Anytime I start a project with a client, the first question I ask myself is this: How much work does the prose need? In other words, how much time needs to go into fixing basic spelling and grammar, structure, and the writing fundamentals? If the answer is, "A lot," that changes—or I should say directs—my editorial focus. To be a writer, you must first know how to write.

Sound silly? It's not. There's a whole world full of storytellers, but there are precious few writers.

The second question is simple: Has the author completed the novel? If the answer is, "Yes," then we can focus a lot of energy on fixing story elements (plot, characterization, setting, etc.) as we go. However, if the answer is, "No," then it is dangerous to do so—at least, to do so too much. Why? Too many writers bog themselves down in an attempt to make their first 5, 6, 10 or 15 chapters PERFECT before moving on. Far too often, writers get angry, frustrated and depressed about their lack of real forward progress, and... well, they often set it aside and never FINISH the novel.

I did not want to risk that happening with you. Thus, because the answer to the first question above was, "A lot," and the answer to the second question was, "No," I let some issues related to those elements wait. The time to address them is in the rewriting/revision process, where you're now focused.

Your writing fundamentals needed... er... um... well, a whole lot of work. I don't think you're finished with that process yet, but that's okay—I don't think I'm finished with that process either. Writers seldom finish the process. It's an ongoing, evolutionary one as we attempt to first find our voice, and then to refine it. You've made real progress on that front. In the beginning, I couldn't get through one of your sentences without fixing something—often the entire sentence. Now, the fixes are much less involved, often minor (such as simple punctuation), and less frequent. You have a ways to go, but you're on track.

That means you can now focus, in the revision process, on the essential story elements, and not bog yourself down with matters of prose. As I like to say, "We can now see the forest through the trees." However, please be vigilant to maintain the level and efficacy of your prose as you make revisions.

Also, as you move forward, ask yourself the tough question about each and every character you introduce: Do I really need this NEW character, or can I use an existing one, or even vague references such as "many women" or "one of the elders," etc, in lieu of extremely minor characters that I introduce and use only once or twice?

In my opinion, you can cut at least 2-3 of your current minor characters, and probably more. The fewer character names readers have to remember, especially when those names are so lengthy and unusual (non-traditional) for most readers, the less likely readers are to get lost in the middle of your story because they can't keep track of who is who.

Finally, remember that the heart of any story has many chambers. Key among those is CONFLICT. Without conflict, there is no tension, no suspense, no need of resolution. Without conflict, there is no STORY. You must develop that conflict and bring it into your story early and often. You hint at it throughout, but you never really bring it to the surface. Your characters are charming and engaging, the true strength of your story (I'm speaking now as a reader, not your editor). You've brought an entire culture to life through those characters, and I've developed a real attachment to many of them. I care for them. Now, give me a reason to be concerned/excited/frightened/proud/happy/alarmed for them. Give me CONFLICT, which will raise my emotional involvement. Then, of course, you must give me RESOLUTION—a satisfying ending.

Then you'll have a great novel.

You've nailed Setting and Characterization. And I mean NAILED. Your characters are fantastic! And I can see their setting as though I'm right there with them. Strong stuff! Now, you must fix the one critical element still lacking: Plot. Yep, that's a biggy, but don’t get discouraged. That's why we revise, and revise, and revise some more. That's the process.

ONE WARNING: Do not lose your characters underneath the emerging plot. One does not replace the other; the two must work together.



  1. Great letter! Through many portions of it I almost felt as though you spoke to me personally, as we've had some of the same discussions throughout my own process.

    I hope the writer/client is able to implement your suggestions.

  2. Thanks Dan. If it sounds familiar, it's because I have similar discussions with all of my clients. A common thread amongst those who come to me is fundamentally weak or improper prose. They have a story to tell, but the words don't come easy. Hey, that's why they came to me, right?