What is Developmental Editing?

Developmental editing is usually the first phase of the editing process once you’ve slaved through a draft or two of your work. But what is it? And why do editors usually recommend it?

Well, the short answer is because it looks at the big picture presentation of your story.

Often a writer’s first draft can be a well-written but perhaps loosely connected mash of ideas without key themes, good arcs in the plot and characters, or even well-constructed motivations and goals for the main protagonists or storyline.

A development edit looks at these big picture elements, how it hangs together, and what it needs to make them shine. This can be very important if you really want to take your story further. Let’s take a deep dive into it.

What is developmental editing?

Developmental editing is often termed a structural edit, or even a content edit (you may also see it called substantive or comprehensive). As all the words suggest, it looks more at the development phase of the story, rather than the end product (which a copyedit covers, if you read on).

While development editing may still pick up grammar, tenses, and punctuation, it’s mostly looking beyond this at things like themes, plot, character arcs, and organization that influence the presentation of the overall book.

The editor critiques structural elements, which means ideas and substance rather than syntax. It is best to seek a developmental editor after a draft or two of your work.

Difference between developmental editing and copyediting

Copy editing is a slightly more mechanical type of editing, as it looks at the details of grammar, spelling and word choice, punctuation, tenses, and syntax. It could also be described as more hands-on as it delves into the language, and gets its hands dirty with the minute.

All these minor errors are important to pick up, as they can affect the readability of your work. So, it’s not that one type of editing is better than the other, they are simply, just different.

It’s also important to note that developmental editing should come first, followed by copyediting which is more like the final polish in the process.

What kinds of writing need developmental editing?

There’s an excellent saying, “All good writing is rewriting” and we definitely believe in that here.

All writing needs developmental editing as no story is perfect and can benefit from structural advice and a critique of themes, plot, and characters. Accomplished writers whose work has been through numerous drafts will still go ahead with developmental editing.

“But what if I’m seeking the traditional publishing route?” you may ask, “don’t they provide editors?” Well, yes, but it’s more likely that will be copyediting and proofreading, rather than providing developmental editing.

Plus, you still need to get your manuscript accepted by an agent or through the publishing approval process first to get to this stage, and a story with plot issues and character flaws is less likely to achieve that. So, whether you are self-publishing or seeking a publisher, a developmental edit will aid you enormously.

Those that are self-publishing often find they get better reviews if their work has been edited. Writers who have used Amazon or another e-book platform have often contacted us based on advice or comments in reviews that their work needs editing. You don’t want those kinds of comments affecting your sales.

Novels, short stories, nonfiction books, articles, and more all qualify for developmental editing.

What does a developmental editor do?

A developmental editor does not work as much line-by-line, rewriting sentences and altering expressions. What they do is provide feedback, a bit like what a mentor does. This may include feedback on things like:

  • Structure. An editor will tell you where your work is strong and where it needs work. They may give you tips on how or where you could make changes. They will note if there is a clear beginning, middle, and end to your work, and if you reach key scenes at the right time, as per the story arc.
  • Characters. Editors may comment on if your story has too many characters or too few, if names are too similar, or if some need more or less screen time. The goals and motivations of characters are important too, so expect some comments on that, and whether characters are in motion.
  • Theme. All good books contain themes such as love, friendship, honesty, right, and wrong, etc. Editors will consider what the story is really about and if you present these themes strongly.
  • Point of view. This is a more important aspect of writing than most people realize. Editors will look at if your work is in first or third person, if that is consistent, and if that’s the right approach to your work.

How to work with a developmental editor

Here are some answers to some commonly asked questions:

How fast will it be? And will it be ready to publish afterward?
Most writers want their books published, and published fast. They’ve slaved over it already and want the editing process to go quickly and smoothly. But … if you get a developmental editor, you should expect there to be more work for you to do after you get the edited manuscript back.

The editor may return your manuscript to you in anything from two weeks to two months, depending on the length, your agreement, and what needs to be done. But this doesn’t mean your job is finished. The more time you spend on it after the edit, the better, and developmental editors love writers that aren’t in a hurry and are prepared to continue working on their story.

Will the editor make the structural changes themselves?

A developmental editor doesn’t rewrite the story for you. They are not ghostwriters that write copy or line editors that tackle each sentence and perfect it for you. They will make comments on the plausibility of plot turns, the presentation of characters, if a chapter should be reworked chronologically or even the entire story, and more. Many suggestions are provided, but then it’s up to you to make the changes you feel are pertinent.

What if they change too much of my work or suggest things I don’t like or agree with?

Most editors used tracked changes so you retain control of your work. A developmental editor makes lots of suggestions and it is possible you won’t like them all because they create more work, change the direction of the plot, affect a character you love or remove the text you agonized over and can’t part with.

If you remain open-minded about the process and consider the spirit in which the suggestions are made, you will enjoy the experience far more. Editors do not seek to criticize, but critique. They give advice, not instructions. And they seek to improve your work, not tear it apart. They’ve also spent a lot of time on it and have a lot of experience.

Being flexible, open, and communicating well with your editor is important. Remember, you have submitted this work for their appraisal, and their suggestions are designed to improve your work and help you.

It always goes without saying, that if you need help with any fiction editing, please look at our editing services.

Frequently Asked Questions

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