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Rosemary Shipton

The Editor’s Letter

Illustration of an open laptop with a sheet of paper coming from it (like an old typewriter). Laptop surrounded by a smartphone, notebook, crumpled up paper, a cup of coffee on a saucer, and a couple of pens.
Illustration of an open laptop with a sheet of paper coming from it (like an old typewriter). Laptop surrounded by a smartphone, notebook, crumpled up paper, a cup of coffee on a saucer, and a couple of pens.
Lukyanov Vladislav ©

The editor’s letter — the first substantive communication you have with a client — is the most important task in any editorial project. It provides the opportunity to give your assessment, raise questions and establish a relationship. If this exchange is successful, the myriad other tasks should follow seamlessly.

In this scenario, you’ve been hired by a new client — a publisher, institution, department or author — to edit a text. When the manuscript (or a portion of it) arrives, read it through quickly. If you are the only editor working on it, you should be prepared to assess it from all three editorial points of view — structural, stylistic and copy editing. Once you have your points in order, it’s time to write the letter.

You know that the author or a group of writers has spent countless hours preparing the manuscript. Most of them want you to say that the manuscript is perfect in every way except for some minor fixes. But alas, that is never the way. Your list of points is likely long, involving issues of organization, presentation, infelicities of style and the three Cs of copy editing — clarity, correction and consistency. Before you can begin your detailed work, you’ll have to agree on some important decisions.

It’s always best to begin the letter on a positive note — on what you honestly like about the text. If you can’t find anything sincere to say, perhaps you’re not the right editor for the project. Once that paragraph is composed, move on to your list, beginning with such large issues as clarity of theme and focus, suitability of language for intended readers, length, pacing, characterization, context, gaps, repetition and whether the title and the headings work as they should.  

If your contract stipulates that you will be doing a substantive edit, you’ll simply alert the writer of the problems you’ll be addressing. But if your role is restricted to making suggestions, the outcome will depend on how well you convince the writer to follow your advice.  

Don’t get bogged down in your letter with detailed stylistic suggestions: mention only recurring issues such as word repetition or paragraphs that are too short or too long. You’ll solve all the other problems one by one as you edit. As for copy editing, if your client has provided a style guide, you’ll simply follow it. But if you are to set the style, you’d be wise to check some contentious points, such as capitalization, in this letter and agree on an acceptable system with your client.

The tone you establish in this initial communication is critical in gaining your client’s trust and confidence. Try to establish yourself as a valued partner in the project — the specialist in the presentation and publication of the text. If you come across as knowledgeable and with good judgment, your client will respect you.

If you seem co-operative and supportive, the client will respond in kind — and you will succeed not only on this project but on future ones too.


Previous post from Rosemary Shipton: To Retire — or Not?

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5 Comments on “The Editor’s Letter”

  • Anita Jenkins


    Ah, advice from Rosemary Shipton. With a link to an excellent article on establishing the tone. What a gift.

  • Mary Rykov


    Rosemary Shipton, a paragon of grace and tact, raises an excellent point about the importance of the editor’s letter being foundational to the editor-client relationship. Linking to Nina Munteanu’s piece about tone is equally apt.

    I’m honoured to be a sister-in-press with Nina. Her novel, A Diary in the Age of Water, and my poetry collection, some conditions apply, launched together last month from Inanna Publications.

    Shameless promotion here: both books sell at a 30% discount with the «summer20» coupon code at

  • Frances Peck


    When looking for elements to praise in a manuscript that’s especially rough, you can nearly always commend the time, effort and subject-matter expertise the author has invested in the work. I’ve worked with many authors whose writing skills are weak but whose knowledge is tremendous. It’s important that they know that YOU know how much they’ve toiled over a piece that may, in the end, need dramatic editorial intervention.

    • Rosemary Shipton


      An excellent point, Frances. The comment you suggest would show that you understand what the author is trying to do and appreciate the effort involved. It should lead on to a fruitful cooperation between the writer and the editor.

  • Thank you for highlighting the need to set a positive tone from the beginning. The rapport established between client and editor is crucial.

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