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The Big Picture: Developmental Editing

Last week in my multi-part series about editing, I talked about beta readers and how they can help an author early on in their publishing journey. Another layer of editorial help that can be used later than a beta, but before more detail-oriented editors like copy editors, is the developmental editor. There is no equivalent function in fanfiction writing beyond having an outstanding beta.

Man wearing watch taking notes in small notebook at a brown wooden table.
Photo by Adolfo Félix on Unsplash

How many times have you watched a show or movie, or read a book and thought, “Who let this out into the world?” (Probably more times than you care to count.) Maybe the story was confusing thanks to plot holes big enough to see the earth’s core through, or the main character was so unlikable you rooted for the villain, or maybe the whole thing dragged like the last 5 minutes before the end of your work day on a Friday before vacation. Those are story-telling problems you don’t want to have. One way you can avoid them is by hiring a developmental editor (or DE).

What does a DE do?

Ultimately, a developmental editor helps you develop as a writer. Sure, they help you write a story that others will want to read, but supporting your improvement as a writer is at the heart of the job. What you learn from a DE for one story should help you as you write future stories.

How they do this is by going through your manuscript to find your strengths and highlight those so you keep building them up. They also find areas that, if you rework them, will improve your story. For instance, if your point of view is all over the place (I don’t mean omniscient here), and the head-hopping is giving your readers whiplash, a DE will make note of that, tell you why it’s not working in the story, and offer a suggestion on how to fix the problem. A good editor doesn’t only point out rough patches, they tell you why it’s rough. Without the why component, you have no way of knowing how to effectively approach a solution.

TLDR: Developmental editors look at the big picture and offer insights into how to fix the smaller components in order to make that big picture better.

What doesn’t a DE do?

They don’t copy edit the same time they do a developmental edit. Why? Because it’s a bad idea. If a DE is helping you with the big picture of your story and there are structural issues or missing scenes, or major rewrites that need to be done, doing any copy editing at the early stage a DE gets a manuscript will be a waste of time for you both, and money for you. If they notice consistent errors in grammar, or crutch words (mine is “just”), they make make note of that in a global query (a note about a story-wide issue), but they aren’t going to go through and mark every single one or tell you why each is dragging down your story.

Will a DE do a follow-up with you after you revise? That is up to you and the DE and the contract you agree to. Every editor is different. Some include a follow up in the contract and some don’t. Make sure you ask about that service if you think you’ll need it when you discuss the job with your prospective developmental editor.

Do I need a developmental editor?

If you are pursuing traditional publishing, no. Getting a contract with a publisher means you will also be assigned editors. And they don’t care if you’ve had your manuscript professionally edited prior to getting their hands on your manuscript. They are going to edit you again anyway, so save your pennies. Instead of a developmental editor, using critique partners, beta readers, and writers groups can be enough to get the feedback you need to put together a manuscript that catches the interest of agents and publishers.

On the other hand, if you’re self-publishing and want there to be no question about your commitment to producing a professional quality book, you may want to hire a DE. You’re your own acquisition editor, but you can’t always be objective enough to be any other type of editor, so passing your manuscript to a freelance developmental editor is like taking the next step a publishing house would. Or, think about every heist movie ever where the mastermind needs professionals (hackers, forgers, locksmiths, etc.) to help pull off the crime of the century. The right support matters.

Cast of Ocean's 8 standing around in a kitchen, drinking, and listening to Sandra Bullock's character talk.
Cast of Ocean’s 8
Copyright:© 2016 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

If you can afford the investment and it makes sense for your manuscript and what you think it needs, then go for it. Research DEs with experience in your genre and follow up with them to see if they are a good fit for you and your work. Again, hiring a high-level editor is an option, not a requirement.

Why are they so flippin’ expensive?

Because doing a thorough and thoughtful developmental edit takes time. It requires multiple reads of a manuscript, adding comments, queries, and suggestions directly to your manuscript, and, finally, writing a multi-page letter discussing the major issues found in your story. That does not happen in a week. Most DEs need to let their thoughts about a manuscript marinate for a little while to make connections that may not show themselves the first read-through. You pay for the time and the depth of analysis of your story and the editor’s experience. It’s an investment only you can choose whether or not is right for you and your particular story.

What are my other options?

As I mentioned earlier, you can use critique partners, writers groups, and/or beta readers (that’s last week’s blog post). The more readers you have, the better. You’ll get overlap on the things that are really wrong, because lots of your readers will notice, and you’ll get other interesting insights based on the various backgrounds of your readers.

You can also get a manuscript critique, which is less involved than a full developmental edit. It’s also cheaper. Critiques won’t give you inline comments on your manuscript, but they will discuss areas like plot, characterization, world-building, point of view, pacing, etc., like a developmental edit. There isn’t as much detail given back to the writer, so the process is quicker. If you are looking for an objective look at your manuscript, this is a good option. A manuscript critique will not tell you if the book is salable or if an agent or publisher will be interested in it, but it will give you more information to help you decide your next step.

Another option is hiring a writing coach to help you get through the parts of your story that are slowing you down or holding you up as you write. A coach’s function is different from an editor though, so keep that in mind. Editors work with manuscripts, and coaches work with authors. The feedback you get may have a different slant than you need depending on what you are getting help with.

A developmental edit can be a useful tool, but it is one of many useful tools in the editorial process. Take some time to think about your commitment to your manuscript, how much you are willing to invest in it, what you want it to mean to your future as a professional writer, and your own improvement in the craft. If those things are important to you, consider a developmental editor as part of your team.

Think a developmental editor is someone you need? Contact me today to set up an exploratory meeting. Have questions about developmental editing in general? Comment below!

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