Rewrite requests are generally sent in place of an acceptance or rejection. If you receive one, it means your story is a fence-sitter—too good to reject, but not quite ready to accept. The good news is: the editor likely wants to shove your story right off that fence and publish it. The bad news is: to secure that acceptance, you’ll have to decide whether you’re willing to make the required changes, and the resulting story will need to resonate with the editor and/or publisher.
Fulfilling a rewrite request does not guarantee acceptance.
Rewrite requests encompass what editors consider “substantive changes,” usually involving plot elements. For instance, your racist vampire villain may be too racist, requiring major dialogue changes. Your ending might be too tidy to be believable, or too abrupt. A few poetic paragraphs might subtly undermine the message you were trying to impart, leaving readers confused.
A proper rewrite request will be specific about what needs to change, but not about how to make the change. The request may come in the form of a marked up manuscript with relevant areas highlighted and commented, or a simple bullet list. For example:
- On the second page, Lester, the racist vampire villain, uses a slur that edges too close to an existing racial slur, and
- On the ninth page, the torture scene is a bit gratituous and does not propel the plot.
- The skysurfing scene is too long. Cut it down by at least 200 words.
It’s important for these requests to be specific. Vague hints won’t do. To ensure no more of your time (or theirs) is wasted, they need to be clear about what exactly needs to change and exactly why. It’s up to you to determine if you agree or can compromise to resolve the issues standing between your draft and publication.
Open your mind to the editor’s perspective. Before getting defensive, take a deep breath. Remember that this editor is very likely in your corner, fighting to publish your piece. You can bet there’s a publisher behind them with a cocked brow and a half-frown, urging them to send the rejection and be done with it, because—frankly—publications aren’t suffering for quality submissions, and sending you on your way far less expensive, time-consuming, and complicated than working with you to refine your submission into something acceptable.
Treat the editor like an ally. Respond with gratitude and appreciation, even if your pride is a bit bruised.
Choose your battles. Every minute an editor spends collaborating and corresponding with you drives the cost of your story up. Difficult writers (not implying that you, dear reader, are one) can frustrate not only their editors but the overall process. If you insist on arguing about everything, the editor will drop you—quickly, if they have any sense—and your name will likely end up on an internal spreadsheet of notoriously uncooperative writers. (You probably don’t want to end up on such a list. Once a publication knows you to be combative towards edits and/or editors, they won’t be inclined to accept anything less than publication-ready perfection from you.)
Keep your ego in check. Yes, this is your story, but the publisher and their editors get to decide what goes into their magazine or anthology, and if your story doesn’t meet their needs or align with their brand, they’re certainly not obligated to run your piece as-written, no matter how many times you preach about your “artistic vision.” Should you make it clear that you’re more trouble than your story is worth, you’ll quickly learn first-hand how the publisher–writer power dynamic plays out…and it’s highly unlikely to ever be in your favor. Don’t be a Kanye.
Consider the request. Reread your original draft to become reacquainted with your story, then review the editor’s notes. Do their requests still align with your vision for the story? Would the changes likely improve your draft? Are you feeling eager to collaborate? If so, create a new version of your draft and try to satisfy the editor’s requests.
Whether you’re collaborating closely with the editor or not, treat them like a partner in your success.
This is an excellent opportunity to make a great connection with a powerful(ish) ally. Take advantage of their expertise and willingness to help you. Don’t be afraid to leave comments or ask for help and feedback. Realize that you’re getting time and attention from a professional that most people would have to pay to receive, and instead, you are being paid (and published!) for the privilege.
Don’t rush it. Take the time you need to ensure the new version is as close to perfect as possible, because you will likely only get one shot here. Make it count.
Before submitting the new draft, reread the editor’s notes, then reread your revised draft. Be as objective as possible.
- Does the new draft satisfy the editor’s notes?
- Do the changes genuinely benefit the story?
- Is this revised draft something you’d be proud to attach your name to?
This final question is the most important. You are the director of your career. If you sincerely feel that the revisions are not improvements, that the revised piece doesn’t reflect the image you want to project as a writer, do not submit it to the editor.
If you are proud of the revised story, send that baby in, along with a cover letter to the editor who requested the rewrites. In the letter, briefly summarize how you resolved the problems the editor identified.
Thank you so much for believing in my story. I incorporated the requested rewrites to the best of my ability, and I’d love to hear your thoughts.
- The racist villain’s dialogue has been toned down significantly, and
- The torture scene on page six has been cut.
- The skysurfing scene is 220 words shorter.
You’ll find queries in the comments. All changes have been tracked. Again, thank you for this opportunity. I look forward to your feedback.
…or refuse the request. But wait—what if the requested changes are too much? What if the result looks nothing like your original draft? What if you love the story as is, disagree with the editor’s perspective, or the market sending the rewrite request isn’t paying enough to be worth the time investment? What if you tried to incorporate the changes but the result wasn’t one you felt proud of? Those are all valid reasons to refuse the request. Feel free to use the template below:
Thank you so much for believing in my story. I understand how rare it is for a story to receive a second chance at acceptance, and I greatly appreciate the opportunity, but I’m going to pull this one for now.
Again, thank you so much. I’m flattered and grateful that you considered my story worth championing and investing time into. I’ll submit again soon and look forward to working with you in the future!
Save yourself the anxiety of providing an explanation. In this email, say what you need to say—thanks, but no—and wrap it up. You don’t owe anyone an explanation and editors don’t expect them. We understand writing is an intensely personal endeavor, and we knew the exact combination of complex emotions you would feel when you received our request. We know it’s usually very hard to reject a rewrite request, too.
Many editors are writers also, and trust me, we get it.
Of course, we’ll be disappointed to lose a story we were willing to fight for, but again—we get it, and we’ll respect your refusal.
Whatever you decide to do, remember that rewrite requests are generally a positive sign. Take advantage of the opportunity, if you get one that feels right. Whether you move forward with rewrites or not, be proud that the story came so close to publication. Good job, writer.