Fifteen minutes long, because you're in a hurry, and we're not that smart.

19.08: NaNoWriMo Revision with Ali Fisher: Working with an Editor

An agent, an editor, and a writer walk into a Zoom room and record a podcast… but really… that’s (part of) what this episode is!

First off, a reminder that your agent, your editor, and you are all on the same team! They are all trying to make the same book (your book!) a better book. Whether you’ve published before or are just starting your first short story, we are so excited for you to dive into this episode.

For our final episode in our three-part series on revising your NaNoWriMo manuscript—or any other large writing project—we are diving into how to work with an editor! We wanted to show you a peek behind the curtain that is publishing and editing– what does this relationship look like? How do you handle differences, conflicts, and priorities? What IS an edit letter?

Our guest for this series has been the inimitable editor Ali Fisher, who works at Tor. Thank you, Ali, for your advice, stories, and time!


Take a work written by someone else (anyone else!) and come up with three questions you have for the author that would help them clarify their intention in the text.

This could be a movie you’ve seen, a project you’re beta-reading for a friend, or a short story you’ve stumbled upon.

Then, apply these questions to your own work in progress!

Thing of the Week from Ali: 

Ali has two podcast recommendations for you!

Rude Tales of Magic

Oh These, Those Stars of Space!

Credits: Your hosts for this episode were Mary Robinette Kowal, DongWon Song, Ali Fisher. It was produced by Emma Reynolds, recorded by Marshall Carr, Jr., and mastered by Alex Jackson.

Join Our Writing Community! 






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As transcribed by Mike Barker

Key Points: Working with an editor or agent! First, your agent and your editor and you are all on the same team, trying to make your book a better book. What’s an edit letter? There are stages of editing, starting with developmental or structural. This tends to be broad structural questions. E.g. this character arc doesn’t seem to line up with the rest of the book. These are often phone conversations, not letters. Edit letters should be a compliment sandwich, starting with what is good about the book, and ending with more things that are working. When the editor asks you to do something, can you say no? Absolutely. That helps the editor or agent know what is important to you. When the editor or agent offers a suggestion, they are asking whether you can come up with a better idea. Sometimes they offer ideas that they know are not good ideas, to help you react and find a direction. Suggestions identify that there is a problem that needs to be addressed. Ask questions! Sometimes “no, this is a terrible idea” shows that you are tired, and it’s time to take a break. Editors and agents are people, too. Alignment comes with asking questions.

[Season 19, Episode 08]

[Mary Robinette] This episode of Writing Excuses has been brought to you by our listeners, patrons, and friends. If you would like to learn how to support this podcast, visit

[Season 19, Episode 08]

[Mary Robinette] This is Writing Excuses.

[DongWon] A mini-series on revision, with Ali Fisher. Working with an Editor.

[Mary Robinette] I’m Mary Robinette.

[DongWon] I’m DongWon.

[Ali] And I’m Ali Fisher.

[Mary Robinette] Now, I am very excited about this episode. Let me tell you what we are about to do. I’m about to ask DongWon and Ali all of the questions that I wish I’d been able to ask an agent and an editor before I had published a novel.

[Ali] [garbled]


[DongWon] We are so excited to answer these questions. I wish I could transmit from my brain all the information I know about how this process goes to every writer in the world. Because that’s the whole point of this. We want them to feel comfortable coming into the process and see how it’s not scary. Even though it is difficult at times, that we’re all pulling for the same goal at the end of the day.

[Ali] Yeah.

[Mary Robinette] Yeah. Yes. I will say, one of the things that’s straight off the bat, dear writers, that you should know is that your agent and your editor and you are all on the same team.

[Ali] Yes. It’s true.

[Mary Robinette] You’re all trying to make the same book a better book.

[Ali] Amen.

[DongWon] One of the reasons I wanted to have Ali on in particular is that we are working together on several projects at this point.

[Ali] Yes.

[DongWon] Having a sense of Ali’s perspective, but also so that you guys can hear a little bit of the working relationship between an agent and an editor working together. I think there is this idea that is the agent versus the publishing house sometimes, and that it’s the author versus everybody sometimes. The more that, I think, if we can find ways that… To be clear, that we are all trying to accomplish the same thing. That doesn’t mean that conflict doesn’t happen, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t problems. But at least we’re starting from a place of understanding and conversation and alignment in what our goals are.

[Ali] Yeah. Yeah. Which doesn’t mean that your agent won’t advocate for you when needed and it doesn’t mean that there aren’t going to be conflicts of sort of ideas or like [garbled thoughts on] campaign, etc. Like, that’s just smart people working together. But when it comes to the book itself and especially… I don’t know, overall, I think, there’s no question that success of the book is a win win win for the whole team.

[Mary Robinette] Yeah. Yes. So, writers, you’ve probably heard that at some point you’re going to get something that’s called an edit letter. What’s an edit letter?


[Ali] Never heard of it. Sounds suspicious.

[DongWon] Sounds like to me…

[Ali] Well, DongWon, do you want to start with the types of, like letters or calls you do before I do?

[DongWon] Yes. So, I think, there are different stages of editing. Right? What we sort of think of as developmental or structural. Then, sort of like editing. What I tend to do is very much on the developmental stages. I love to be involved early in a project. Or when a submission comes to me, and it’s a debut, then I’m doing a lot of structural edits working with the editor to make sure that the book is in a great place before we send it off to the publishing house. So I’m asking… I tend to be asking incredibly broad questions, like big structural questions, word count questions, of, like, can we add 20,000 words? Can we cut 30,000 words? Right? Like, that’s scale of question tends to be what I’m doing. So, often times…

[Mary Robinette] Can you give some examples of what a structural question is?

[DongWon] Yeah. So, a structural question can be as much like, “Hey, I’m not sure this arc for this character is lining up with sort of the central themes of the book.” Right? I’m being a little bit abstract. I’d say it more specifically of like, “This character’s situation feels really disconnected with our protagonist’s situation. Can we make that feel more connected, or should this be here?” Like, what are… What was your intention with writing this character into this book, and how are they tying into the rest of it? So that might be a structural question I’m asking that could affect an entire character arc, which is… A solution set could be rewriting that character’s entire central conflict so that there arc ties more closely in. It could be cutting that character entirely, because we all realize that they’re extraneous and were vestigial from a previous draft. Or it could be changing the central thematics of the book, because that character is actually really important and their arc is more important than the protagonist’s arc, and we need to make those pull into alignment in a different way. Right? So, when I’m asking these structural questions, they are kind of that big and that broad about, like, “Hey, the pacing doesn’t feel great here. The act two turn, the big reveal, isn’t landing in an exciting way. This character isn’t feeling like they’re exciting and connected. This romance isn’t working right, these 2 characters don’t come together in the way that I kind of wish.” So that’s kind of what I’m doing at that stage. Because they’re such big broad questions, and because I really do frame them as questions, not like, “Hey, do XYZ,” I tend to do that is a conversation. So I’ll get on the phone with the author. I know, everyone’s dreaded phone call. I will have edit conversations that are 2, 3, 4 hours, sometimes. As we’re really just talking through the book, like, what were you trying to do, what… How does this work? What are possible solutions? For me, those are some of the most exciting, most fun conversations I have. They’re very difficult and stressful for me, and for the author, but in ways that I think are really energizing when they go well.

[Ali] Yes. So, not dis-similarly, by the time it comes to me, normally, it’s in more polished condition or it is… It fits more firmly within the expectations of the types of things that the house that I work at publishes. Right? So, like, it tends to be in a state that is quite recognizable to me. Then I do a lot of the same things. I’m a different reader, different eye… A different sense of… Understanding about where the author’s coming from or, probably a lot less understanding of where the authors coming from, and probably just a lot more sort of like generic reader experience. I’ll ask a lot of the same questions, very high structural things. You mentioned worst-case scenario twice, and we never saw it. Which made me want to see it. So, something like that. Right? Then, all the way down to sometimes through sentence level style questions or suggestions, mostly for matching things up or, like smoothness, that kind of thing. Just, for anyone out there who’s curious, I am an acquisitions editor and an editor, and not a copy editor. Bless them, because I am not nearly qualified enough to make sure a book could actually go to print. But, so a lot of the same things, a lot of the same questions. So brace yourselves, this is also a part where, I think, the agent turns into a little more handholding as someone’s going back into…


[Ali] Revisions after they felt like we just finished, and then we went out and the book sold, it’s so exciting. So, sometimes that happens. Similarly, I also… I love and I offer a phone call as often as I possibly can because an edit letter, even though those are really fantastic, and I’ve also obviously found that authors with audio processing issues or who just need the time… They just need to read it, they need to think about it, and otherwise it’s just not a free flow conversation. Happy to write it down. But if we get the chance to have that conversation, you avoid sort of the asynchronous issue of my assumptions running through the entire thing, whereas there can be a quick, like, “Oh, I actually intended this,” and then that changes a lot of my responses. Right? So, I guess all I’m doing is sort of pitching the concept of if you can muster the confidence or the desire to get on the phone with an agent or an editor, I do think it’s a really helpful thing. If you can’t, that’s totally fine too. Edit letters themselves look really different, editor to editor, and, for me, book to book. Sometimes it is… I go through… I have big chunks that’s like character A, character B. I’ll have worldbuilding questions. Then, sometimes, they’re 2 pages long, and it’s like bullet points of, like, this is where I cried, this is… My one big question is this. And can you add like a whole section where she’s getting from here to here? Because I was desperate to know more.

[DongWon] Yeah. Sometimes they can be really brief, like you were saying, like, one or 2 pages. I think my longest edit letter, back when I was at Orbit, I think was 25 pages.

[Ali] Whoa!


[DongWon] I think sometimes…

[Ali] Oh, my God.

[DongWon] Hey, I know people who wrote longer letters. You ask [garbled] sometime what the longest letter she wrote was…

[Ali] No.

[DongWon] So, sometimes, like having… Sometimes you just need to dig into lots of detailed things. Especially if you’re going chronologically through the book, of, like, chapter 1, Chapter 2, like, breaking things down. Depending on the writer and what they need and what kind of conversation and what kind of changes you’re suggesting, sometimes, a lot of details was called for. But the long edit letter, I think, is very rare, don’t let that scare you. That was something that was produced in conversation with the author, I didn’t just spring that on them.


[DongWon] But one thing that I wanted to point out about edit letters that’s really important is what I think of as the compliment sandwich. Right? Where you start your letter with talking about the things that are good about the book, and hopefully you end the letter also with reminding the author, here are the things that I liked about the book, here’s the things that are working. Right? I think… I see sometimes younger editors, newer editors, skip that. I think that’s a huge mistake to do so. Because it’s not just… We’re not just like blowing smoke and we’re not just complimenting you for no reason. It is… Kind of going back to what we were talking about last episode, it’s showing that we are in alignment about what your intentions with the book are. If I’m telling you, here are the things that I think are working, and you read that and say, “That isn’t the book I wrote. That’s not what I was trying to do.” Then nothing in between that compliment section matters anymore. Right? Because I don’t understand what you were trying to accomplish, so all of my critiques aren’t going to land now. Right? So those alignment sections are… Perhaps as important if not more important than all the critical stuff in between. It’s not just to make you feel good. It is to make sure that I understand as deeply as I can what it was you were trying to accomplish, so I can help you write the book that you meant to write. To make it the best version of the thing that you want it to. So don’t skim those compliments, don’t cut them, don’t not give them, if you’re an editor yourself. I think they’re really, really important and really interesting, and very fruitful conversations come out of them.

[Ali] Also, that’s… I think I flagged this in our last episode, so we share credit, but it’s also where I say, like, please don’t cut this. Like, I love this. Like, I might be telling you to make some sweeping changes, and this could get caught up in that, and I don’t want to lose it. So those are genuinely… I find those very important.

[Mary Robinette] Yeah. As a writer, I can also say, that now I recognize that those compliments are some of the most useful things, because it is telling you what I’m doing well, and, as writers, we are spectacularly bad at understanding what our strengths are, because those strengths are usually things that come easy to us, so we don’t acknowledge them as being valuable. Having someone else recognize that allows us to be like, “Oh. Okay. So that’s something I’m good at. I should look for more places where I can do the thing that I’m good at.”

[Ali] Yeah. It… A lot of parts of the process to focus on what could be improved or, like, what opportunities are there that aren’t here yet. So it’s very important to focus on the things that are there and that are working and can be expanded, like you’re saying.

[DongWon] Yeah. Again, flagging the things that, like, this is great. This made me cry. This made me laugh. Like, as you go through the manuscript, are just really helpful, because getting… Somebody telling you the stuff that doesn’t work about your book over and over again for a long period of time can be quite demoralizing. We understand that. So I encourage any people who are trying to be editors or agents out there to really remember that. Even [garbled] just like have your little notes of like, “Yay, thumbs up,” like, this part is so important just to make the whole process go more smoothly. Whenever I see an edit letter that’s like too harsh and sometimes even sarcastic a little bit, it’s like, “Uhh, this is not working, we can’t do this. We gotta switch up how we’re approaching this writer.”

[Mary Robinette] Yeah. So, when we come back, I will ask my 2nd question.


[Ali] My things of the week are 2 incredible podcasts. One is called Rude Tales of Magic, and the other is called Oh These, Those Stars of Space. Both of these podcasts just so happen to feature me regularly on almost every episode. So if you like the sound of this, what’s happening now, I simply must recommend Rude Tales of Magic and Oh These, Those Stars of Space. Rude Tales of Magic is mostly fantasy. It’s a collaborative live-action role-playing…

[DongWon] I believe the phrase I said earlier is that it’s a collaborative improvised storyteller podcast that is…

[Ali] Yes.

[DongWon] Roughly using the rules of Dungeons & Dragons to lightly flavor the type of story that you’re telling.

[Ali] Correct. Then, Oh These, Those Stars of Space is the science-fiction version of that. Also, we have so much great merch. Go to, get a sweatshirt, and don’t listen. It’s entirely up to you. The sweatshirts are so soft. I’m wearing one right now. Thank you.

[DongWon] I can attest to the quality of the merch. As someone who owns some. I’m a huge fan of the podcasts myself. As you can tell, as I’m stepping all over Ali’s pitch here. But, Rude Tales in particular is a really wonderful podcast if you like things like critical roll and Dimension 20, then absolutely you should check out Rude Tales. It is much more irreverent than those, but it is a group of truly hilarious comedians and I cannot recommend it highly enough.

[Ali] Yes. Thank you.


[Mary Robinette] I… As… I’m just going to flagged here for our listeners, even editors can be really bad pitching their own stuff.


[Ali] What do you mean?


[Ali] Yeah.

[DongWon] I promise we’re all better at talking about other people’s stuff…

[Ali] I know.

[DongWon] Then our own stuff.

[Ali] That’s… Other people’s stuff…

[DongWon] That’s why we do what we do.

[Ali] Exactly.

[Mary Robinette] Anyway. All right. As we come back in, I’m going to ask another question. So, we talked about what the edit letter is. One of the things I just wanted to draw a line under is that a lot of the edit letters that I get and that you all have talked about is really about the editor asking questions rather than giving an answer to the author. It really is about the… A trust between the editor or the agent and the author. But when you’re a new author, you don’t necessarily know that that trust is there, and you don’t know what the rules are. So they’ve asked you a question, they’ve asked if you can add more of this and more of that, can you really say no?

[Ali] [deep breath] I don’t know. What do you think, DongWon?


[That’s really tough]

[DongWon] No. Absolutely. Please say no. [Garbled] people say no all the time. You have to say no. It’s your project, you know it better than us. Know what you… This goes back to what I was saying earlier about loving your darlings, know what you can change and what you’re not willing to change. Right? Know what the things are that are untouchable to you. That’s fine. We will work around that, because what we want to know is what do you care about and why have you written the book that you’ve written and how can we make that the best version it can be. Right? So we will constantly be poking at stuff, and you say, “No. Actually, I don’t want to do that.” My best case scenario is I make a suggestion of how to fix something and the author does something completely different. They do answer the question, but they just run off into the distance and come back with something wildly different. That’s always more exciting than whatever stupid idea that I had.


[Ali] Yeah. Oh, 100%. I have a piece of text that I put at the beginning of all of the edit letters that I send to new authors that I’m working with. I really hope it gets through. This is what it says. It says, “I’m trusting you to safeguard what makes this story for you. When I offer you suggestions for changes and opportunities for deeper exploration, I’m hoping to initiate your creative process. I fully expect you to come up with better ideas than the examples and suggestions I come up with to illustrate my thinking.” Because that is really how I think of it, which is, when I’m offering a suggestion, or like a directly actionable specific recommendation, I’m really saying, like, “can you think of something better, actually?”

[DongWon] I love that so much.

[Ali] This is kind of what I mean, is, really what I’m trying to say.

[DongWon] There’s a thing that I’ll do, and this sounds worse than it actually is. But there’s a thing that I do sometimes where I will suggest something that I know is not a good idea because… And that the author will also recognize is not a good idea. Because then, they’ll have a reaction to it. Right? When you have a reaction, now you have a direction. Right? I do this a lot with titles most clearly. I’ll just start suggesting the worst titles in the world…


[DongWon] So that they’ll bounce off of it, and in bouncing off of it, a direction is going to start to emerge, because, like, they keep running in this direction, like, “No, that’s too comedic, it has to be more like this…” Then I’m like, “Okay. Now we have more information that we can start building around.” So, the… When I make a suggestion about an edit, I mean, usually it is sincere of, like, what if we did this, what if we thought about it this way, but really what I’m looking for is a reaction to the suggestion, not an execution of the suggestion.

[Ali] Yes. 100%. Did you see Hannibal? The show?

[DongWon] Not that much of it. Only the first few episodes.

[Ali] Okay. Well, in the first season, there’s an episode where Hannibal commits a murder in the style of a murderer…


[Ali] To show Will Graham, like, what it isn’t. Like, what is actually special about that. I think about that all the time. How I’m committing bad murders to show…


[Ali] How their murders… This other murderer to try to figure out that’s actually like this.

[DongWon] If you take nothing else away from this episode, please remember that we are the Hannibal to your Will Graham.

[Ali] Yes. That’s all I’m saying.

[Mary Robinette] That’s beautiful, and I’m making notes about being alone in a room with both of you.


[Mary Robinette] But it is… I will say that, as an author, the thing for me is, is that suggestion, for me, it identifies that there is a problem that I need to address, and the suggestion is usually wildly wrong. But the problem is usually one that’s present. So, when I don’t understand why a suggestion has been made, I will go back to the editor and I will ask clarifying questions.

[Ali] Beautiful.

[DongWon] Yes. I think if there’s anything you truly do take a away, not joking this time, is that if you don’t understand what the editor is asking you to do, or if you don’t feel it’s right, just ask questions. Just start a conversation.

[Ali] Yes. Please.

[DongWon] Whether it’s your agent, whether it’s your editor, if you feel that you cannot go to them and have a conversation about what is going well and what’s not going well, then there’s something that needs to be tweaked about that relationship. Because it’s your book at the end of the day, and you should feel empowered to make sure that your writing the book that you want to be writing. That means asking questions, advocating for yourself, advocating for your ideas. If there is something you really care about that they’re really pushing back against, then that should be at least a conversation, if not an adjustment that everyone’s working around what your goal is.

[Ali] Yeah. I remind myself all the time, it’s your name on the cover. Right? Nobody else that you’re working with, their name’s going to be on the cover. So, that’s your… It is your vision, it is your job to safeguard things and to also, like, keep your ears open and be really honest with yourself if something causes friction within you. But that discomfort might settle into a realization of an opportunity. Right? So, sometimes our initial reaction can be really intense, and we thank you for your 3 day waiting period before telling us.


[DongWon] Right. That too.

[Mary Robinette] Yeah. So, I’m going to give writers a quick moment of perspective from some of my experience. And then a tool that’s extremely valuable. The first is that, with my first series, I would hit things that my editor would say, and I’d be like, “No. This is very wrong, and I’m doing this for a reason, I’m going to keep it.” I only did that a couple of times, but without exception… Without exception, my editor was right, there was a problem, and that is a thing that got [garbled] in reviews, that people would say… It would get brought up. So, my editor’s suggestion on how to fix it was the thing that I was objecting to. I didn’t recognize that at the time. But now, when I get a suggestion and I don’t agree with it, I will ask for more clarification, but I will see if I can dig into it and find a way to do something that makes me happy that addresses whatever the problem is. The other piece of that is that sometimes the reason that you are having the no, this is a terrible idea, is just because you’re tired. You’re feeling a little bit defensive, because your baby… Someone has come in and told you that your baby is ugly. So if you hit 3 editor notes in a row that you think are stupid, walk away from the edit letter. Go take a walk. Go do something else, you’re just tired and angry.

[Ali] I mean, clear your vent. Tell them how stupid we are. Get mad. Be… It’s…

[Mary Robinette] Yep.

[Ali] It’s totally, absolutely appropriate and shows that you give a shit about your book if you’re mad at… Like, suggestions that don’t feel right immediately.

[DongWon] I would encourage you to do that in private.

[Ali] In private.

[DongWon] And not on Twitter or Blue Sky.

[Mary Robinette] Yes.

[Ali] yes.

[DongWon] That is a thing that I don’t recommend you do.

[Ali] Ideally in private. Rage in private. But then come back and then see what still feels bad. Or feels different.

[DongWon] One more thing I just want to point out that may be too obvious to bring up, but editors, agents, are people. Right? There individuals with strengths and weaknesses. Yeah, I know, we’re…


[DongWon] We’re all just robots and… Yeah, very questionable. But have their own personality quirks, have their own modes of communication, have their own styles. Right? One thing that may be happening if you’re feeling really frustrated is an editor might just have an abrasive style or a style that just doesn’t vibe with you. Sometimes I will get an email from a client being like, “Hey, I got notes from this editor. Can you take a look at them and tell me what’s happening here?” Sometimes the answer is, “Oh, they’re missing XYZ,” or sometimes I’m just like, “They just kind of talk like that, and that is rubbing you the wrong way.” I’ve seen that both go in the too harsh and too nice directions. Right? I’ve seen both send up a flag for the writer. So much of this is matching personality, matching style, matching how we communicate, how we connect. Again, that alignment stuff I’m talking about, this is where it becomes really important. So, sometimes, if your editor has left or you didn’t choose your editor or for whatever reason, you might be stuck with someone for a second that… And you need to find a way to work it out. But other times, it is a question of, like, make sure that you’re working with someone you’re excited to work with. Don’t just be taking the first thing that’s offered to you or the biggest number that was offered to you when you don’t like the person. The connection with your team is so important to making sure that everyone is happy with the end result.

[Mary Robinette] So how do you get that alignment with… Between the writer and the editor on a project? Like, are there tools that are useful to make sure that everyone’s actually on the same page?

[DongWon] I mean, I think it’s asking questions. Right? We kind of keep coming back to the same things in certain ways, but it’s that… The compliment section of the edit letter, not to sum up what’s wrong, but talking about what’s going right. Sometimes it’s taste stuff, right, like sometimes even talking about other books, other movies, and things that you both like can be really useful, because then that gives you a shared language of, like, “Okay, we both love Hannibal. So our series [murder] like, we want it to feel more like Hannibal than we do like Scream.” Right? So having that shorthand of vibes that you both are feeling can be really, really helpful to think about it.

[Ali] Yeah. Even on that… If you have that initial call with an editor who’s interested in your book, you can ask mildly irrelevant questions. Obviously, nothing like to personal or inappropriate, right. Because that’s probably not your business. But you can ask questions, because the more someone talks, the more they display their values and their interests and their thoughts, and, like, it’s kind of just reaching out and touching someone else’s mind for a little while and seeing if you like it.

[Mary Robinette] Right. Well, with that, let’s segue to our homework as we try to touch the minds of our listeners.

[Ali] Yes, yes.

[Mary Robinette] Not creepy at all.


[DongWon] Not creepy at all.

[Ali] For my final style…

[DongWon] Exactly.

[DongWon] So, I have our homework this week. I would like you… Thinking about this alignment question, I would like you to take a work you haven’t written, and come up with 3 questions you would ask the writer to help them clarify their intention in the text. Whether this is a project your beta reading for a friend, a short story, even like a movie that you’ve seen, take a piece, a story that you engaged with and really figure out what are the questions I would ask the creator of this to really help them understand better what it was that they were going for. Then, for bonus points, I want you to apply those questions to your own work in progress.

[Mary Robinette] This has been Writing Excuses. You’re out of excuses. Now go edit.

[DongWon] Hey. Have you sold a short story or finished your first novel? Congratulations. Also, let us know. We’d love hearing from you about how you’ve applied the stuff we’ve been talking about to craft your own success stories. Use the hashtag WXsuccess on social media or drop us a line at [email protected].