Editing, Snark Alert

What To Do When You Get Your Editorial Memo


An email just arrived. The one you’ve been waiting for. The one you’ve been dreading.

The subject line is three words long.

Your editorial memo!

The exclamation mark almost makes those words seem benign. Cute, even.

But you know what the words are hiding.

Red ink.

Six weeks ago you sent your finished manuscript (the seventh draft, if you don’t count the first five) to your editor. And now it’s back. With notes. Comments. Suggestions. Demands.

What’s a writer to do? Here. I’ll help.

Step 1: Stare at the email without opening it for at least 10 minutes or until just before your hands begin to shake uncontrollably.

Step 2: Get up from your chair, walk to the liquor cabinet, open it and stare for another ten minutes or until you realize it’s not yet five o’clock.

Step 3: Return to your chair. Sit down. Stand up and stretch. Sit down again. Open the email.

Step 4: Save the attached file to your computer without opening it, then start reading the email. If you see phrases such as “There’s a lot of good stuff in here” and “I really like where you’re going with this,” this means the memo is 27 pages long. Briefly consider giving up your dream of being a writer. If necessary, go back to Step 2 until it’s five o’clock. (You know what to do there.)

Step 5: Warn all family members and pets within shouting distance not to bother you for the next three hours. If they’re sensitive to strong language, suggest they go out to dinner.

Step 6: Open the editorial memo. If it’s more than ten pages long, revise your family suggestion from “go out to dinner” to “go out to dinner and a movie and bowling and for that matter maybe you should just find a hotel somewhere for a few days.”

Step 7: Start reading. After one page, pause, take a breath and remind yourself that you really do want to be a better writer and that even the best authors get editorial notes.

Step 8: Continue reading. Somewhere around page seven, pause, take another breath, then go ahead and voice the question that’s been forming in your brain. This one: “Who does [insert editor’s name or more descriptive word in lieu of name here] think she is? What a [insert an even more colorful descriptive word (in gerund form) here] idiot!”

Step 9: Get up from your chair. Pace. Slam at least three doors. Cry. Slam another door. Throw your dog-eared copy of On Writing against the wall.

Step 10: Press the creases out of your dog-eared copy of On Writing. Apologize to Stephen King. Go back to your desk.

Step 11: Finish reading the memo. Close the file. Walk away from your computer. Do not open the file again for at least 24 hours.

Step 12: Liquor cabinet.

Step 13: [At least 24 hours later. More if you spent those 24 hours near the liquor cabinet.] Return to your computer. Pause to remember that your editor is probably a person, too, with a family and maybe even friends. Read the entire memo. Afterward, if you still feel like slamming doors and throwing writing books, shut down the computer and don’t come back for 48 hours. (If you only feel like throwing writing books, you can come back in 24.)

Step 14: Open the file yet again, but only after you tell yourself these four things: 1) yes, you’re still a writer;  2) writing is all about re-writing; 3) your editor is trying to help and her wisdom is worthy of consideration; and 4) your editor isn’t perfect. Now read through the note again…and this time, listen. Listen to your editor’s intent. Listen to your objections. And most of all, listen to your future readers. Will they have reason to wonder why you didn’t listen to your editor?

Step 15: Start making changes to your manuscript. Trust your editor, but don’t be afraid to question her suggestions. A good editor can provide a reasonable explanation for every suggestion. If it’s not clear in the memo, ask.

Step 16: Send an email to your editor, thanking her for the great suggestions. Begin a conversation about concerns or disagreements. Refrain from using any of the descriptive words you used in Step 8.

Step 17: Finish your revisions. Own them. If you’re publishing traditionally, send the manuscript back to your editor with further thanks and a promise of chocolate. If you’re self-publishing, hire a copyeditor. You’re going to need one.

Step 18: Recall that you have a family staying at a hotel somewhere. Rehearse your explanation for the dent in the wall, then ask them to come home.

Step 19: Celebrate. (Liquor cabinet optional.)

Step 20: Get back to that other book you were writing.

8 thoughts on “What To Do When You Get Your Editorial Memo

  1. I love editors. They’re like guardian angels that keep writers from looking dumb or babbling incoherently in their books. They also invest themselves just as deeply in your book as you do. Who else is gonna do that? 🙂

    1. Exactly. But even the best editors sometimes look like monsters when a writer realizes just how much work there is to do on a draft they once called “final.” Thankfully, we’re only temporary monsters.

  2. I am waiting for that ping. Pre-edits have been done and my manuscript resides with my editor. I have been both dreading and anticipating her email. Is it too late to invest in a liquor cabinet and take up drinking?

  3. I find this post funny but at the same time, I have to ask, is this really how you feel when you get your edits back? All that dread and being upset?

    This is an honest question- I got my bachlors in Creative Writing and every class was a round table open critique of a student’s work. I LOVE hearing what people have to say.

    I recently had a short story published and I was beside myself waiting for the critiques to come back- I don’t think I wrote much for three months I was so excited.

    Now, my editor did comment that she’d never had anyone thank her for ripping a story apart but I passed it over. Am I the weird one? 🙂

    1. Keep in mind that I’m the editor – the one who writes the notes. And I am a very kind-hearted editor, at that. I believe most of my writers would say they don’t mind getting notes. But even the most eager of writers (and there are many like you) still experience “what was my editor thinking?” and “am I really a writer?” moments.

      It only takes one comment about a character or plot element to (potentially) unravel the whole work. Novel writers in particular fear those sorts of comments most of all. And for good reason – if they agree with the editor, they’re in for extensive rewrites.

      But mostly I was just using exaggeration for the sake of a point – that it’s okay to hyperventilate when you get your editor’s notes. A good editor is only trying to help.

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