Then I read the letter again. And again. And one more time until I started to notice that lump in my throat, the discomfort in my chest. I began to understand just how much work my manuscript needed, and that my editor—who is kind, generous, and extremely thoughtful with her notes—had actually torn up the whole manuscript and politely asked me to rewrite an extraordinary amount of it.
This kind of editing is a normal part of the publishing process. It’s the editor’s job to make your work better, to make your story go fromreadable to unputdownable. And that’s the same kind of care I’ve tried to take with my own job as an editor at outlets like Entertainment Weekly and Cosmopolitan. In those roles, I’ve spent most of my time cajoling writers—many of whom I pursued for weeks or months to write for me—to send me their copy just so I could edit the bejesus out of it, turning it into something that might fit neatly into a 400-word album review, a 600-word reported rant about antiabortion legislation, or a 900-word essay about The Bachelor. I’ve had no problem rewriting and restructuring hundreds of pieces, all with one goal in mind: Make it better.
But, as I learned, having my novel dissected was a much different experience. It felt like having my heart ripped out, stomped on, scraped off the floor, and handed back to me on a platter with a handwritten note that said, Your turn! So, that preciousness I thought I had gotten over? Yeah, I lied.
Receiving that first edit letter sent me into an unexpected panic. My mind raced with questions like How the hell did I even get this book deal? and How soon after you sign a contract can your publisher drop you? (Oh, hello, imposter syndrome. Nice to see you here!)
Sensing my unease—or, ahem, extreme levels of freak-out—my editor scheduled a call for us to go through her notes point by point. With each passing bullet, I began to feel that knot in my stomach untangle. I could see that her edits were brilliant and expansive, and all of them would make the story unquestionably better. All I had to do was get over myself and implement them.
I made myself a list of to-dos based on her notes and started to chip away at them one by one. As I worked, I discovered new things about my manuscript. There were emotional layers I didn’t recognize before and cultural critiques I could press deeper into. The messy plotline she smoothed out? It became the emotional arc for my main character. That ending she wanted me to change? It made the book more challenging and nuanced. The character she wanted me to rewrite? It worked so well, Halsey signed on to play her in the limited series based on the book, which is in development at HBO Max.
I spent nearly six months revising They Wish They Were Us.At the end of the timeline, I was shocked at how much more compelling, propulsive, and nuanced the book had become. We had produced something we were both proud to send to the printers, see on shelves, and promote like hell. And by the time I got her first edit letter for my second young adult thriller, They’ll Never Catch Us,I was able to read it without experiencing any anxiety or stomachaches—only gratitude.
Jessica Goodman is the Indiebound bestselling author of They Wish They Were Us and They'll Never Catch Us. She is the op-ed editor at Cosmopolitan, and has held editorial positions at Entertainment Weekly and HuffPost. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.