Getting a manuscript critique or editorial letter from an agent, editor, or critique partner is as scary as it is exciting. Here’s how to make the most of your editor’s notes—and avoid sabotaging your manuscript in your attempts to improve it.
1. Mull things over.
When you get a revision letter from a critique partner or editor, it can be tempting to jump in and start making changes right away. My advice? Don’t. Making major plot or character changes before you’ve had the chance to think them through can lead you to major headaches down the road, even if you’re sure you know the “perfect solution” to the issues your agent, editor, or critique partner raised in her letter.
I’ll let you in on an embarrassing secret. When I got my first-ever revision letter for a novel, I immediately decided to turn the “aunt” character in my novel into the protagonist’s sister. It would be easy—all I had to do was change every occurrence of the word “aunt” into “sister” and make a few other minor changes. Problem solved!
A few days later, I found myself stuck in the biggest quagmire of my (manuscript’s) life. It turns out that turning a character’s aunt into her sister has all sorts of ramifications—after all, a character is a whole different person if she grew up with a sister than if she grew up as an only child. In fact, the characters’ whole family is different—her parents aren’t the same people, either. It took me days to dig myself out of the mess I made in the interests of “solving” the problems addressed in my critique.
2. Figure out what your editor or agent is really saying.
When an agent or editor says something like, “maybe you could have it so her brother dies in a car crash or something?” what she really means is “here is a plot hole that needs filling, and this is one way of achieving it.” Examples of possible solutions are not orders to re-write your manuscript in a certain way, no matter how eager you might be to please your agent or editor.
As a first-time critique-receiver, don’t feel pressured to implement every sample solution your editor suggests. Instead, make sure you understand the problem (are the characters flat? Is the pacing slow?). Then brainstorm solutions and choose the one that works best for your manuscript.
3. Make a plan or checklist.
It’s common to feel overwhelmed after reading a critique letter. After all, you’ve just spent months and months writing your novel—only to realize that the real work has only begun.
If you tend to write from the seat of your pants, you might balk at this suggestion. But sometimes making a list or outline can help even the most planning-aversive of writers to gain momentum and feel some measure of control over the chaos of revision.
In your revision plan, list the easy things first (fixing continuity errors, smoothing out a rough subplot, etc.) Next, break the hard things down into easy steps: if you’re making significant changes to a character or plot element, list all the scenes that will be affected by this change.
4. Revise smarter, not harder.
Sometimes, the instinct to “slash and burn” is (sadly) appropriate. But if you’re clever, you can sometimes find ways to salvage scenes or chapters that would otherwise be cut with only a few minor changes.
One great piece of advice I read recently is to replace your main character’s reactions in a so-so scene with the opposite reactions. For example, if your main character reacts to another character’s arrival with surprise, try having her react with anger, or guilt, or shyness. Just by changing a few sentences, you can transform a boring scene into a tense one–without having to cut it and start over from scratch.
5. Save time to read through your entire manuscript at least once after you’ve finished revising.
Revising individual sections of your manuscript without reading through the whole thing is like tinkering with a website’s HTML: when you put it live, it might work great—or you might find out that in fixing one part of your code, you broke something else.
Common revision bloopers include scrambling the order of events in a way that doesn’t make sense, creating character inconsistencies, and providing redundant or contradictory backstory. These problems are all easily solvable—but you’ll never find them if you don’t read your manuscript carefully from beginning to end.
6. Brace yourself.
It’s possible that your manuscript will be ready to go after one revision. But many manuscripts require two or more rounds of revision before they’re ready to go on to submission or go public as self-published books. If you haven’t quite nailed the issues from your first critique letter (or if you’ve created new ones) you can be sure that your agent, editor, or critique partner will be coming at you with another round of comments.
Throughout the revision process, try to stay positive. Remember: every day in every way, your novel is getting better and better!