Feeling stuck when writing is normal. It is part of the ebb and flow of the creative process. But similar to insomnia, in which the more you try to relax, the more you worry about not sleeping, feeling stuck when trying to get your story out can lead to a vicious cycle of writer’s block.
We all know what it’s like to stare at a blank page while the cursor teases us as it blinks in a steady rhythm. But what happens once you have completed writing your first draft? You’ve done the hard part: getting your story on paper. Now you will need help shaping, developing, and polishing your manuscript. The revision is where the magic happens.
If you are feeling stuck about how to proceed, a developmental editor can help you get to the next stage of writing. Take a break from writing and leave it in the hands of a professional. This helps you avoid burnout and writer’s block while your manuscript is still progressing along its trudge toward publication.
A developmental editor will provide you with an honest critique of your work and offer feedback that is actionable, encouraging, and will help guide you in the right direction.
What is a Developmental Editor?
I have been working as a developmental editor for fifteen years, and if I had a dollar for every time a client said, “I’ve already worked with an editor,” I would be rich.
“What kind of editor?” I’ll ask.
Then the client will say that an editor has “edited the book.”
There are many types of editing: line editing, copyediting, and developmental editing.
A line or copy editor focuses on grammar, sentence structure, verb tense, and the like. A line editor or copy editor makes sure the prose is clean, that every opening quotation mark has a closing quotation mark, and that the tenses are consistent throughout the document.
Developmental editing, or content editing, focuses on the “big picture.” As discussed in “What is Developmental Editing?” all writing needs developmental editing, as no story is perfect and can benefit from structural advice.”
Some of the main points a developmental editor takes into consideration are:
• Character development
• Structure and pacing
• Point of view
• Story arc (the inciting incident; the story climax)
• Plot points and plot holes
These are just a few of the story elements that are common in best-selling fiction novels. If you have written your first draft and feel stuck about where to take your story, a developmental editor can help.
Feeling Stuck is Normal
First, understand that feeling stuck in your writing is normal. Every writer goes through this. They don’t call it writer’s block for nothing!
You have created your characters. You have placed them in difficult situations. You have developed scenes and crafted storylines. Your family and friends have read and praised your book without offering constructive criticism. You’ve shared your book with your writers’ group and have received conflicting feedback. Maybe someone didn’t understand something that happened in the story. Another person said the protagonist needs to be more relatable. Someone else liked the ending but couldn’t quite put their finger on what was missing.
This is a common scenario. A first draft needs work and refinement, but you feel stuck about how to fix it. Just know that feeling stuck is normal and part of the process.
Focusing on Minutia
Many writers focus too much on the minutia in the early stages of their manuscript. If you are the type of writer who likes to spend a lot of time reworking and revising your sentences, that is perfectly fine. But this type of self-editing can hinder your progress.
The quote often attributed to Oscar Wilde sums this up nicely: “I spent all morning taking out a comma and all afternoon putting it back.” If you’re self-editing as you go, you are likely stifling the creative flow, the zone writers yearn for when page after page is filled with seemingly little effort.
When the words are flowing freely, your characters and setting come to life on the page, so be sure to leave that flow uninterrupted. You can self-edit later, but now is not the time. After your developmental editor has helped develop your writing, the line or copy editor will take care of the grammar and punctuation for you. Let your imagination fly while writing, then polish and refine it later.
A Developmental Editor’s Role in Helping You
When I taught creative writing at San Diego State University, I used to tell my students, “Writing is like cutting your own hair.” You can cut the sides and the front, but there will always be sections in the back that you’ve missed. The front may look stylish, but the layers in the back are uneven and you need someone to fix it.
Every writer needs an editor. Even the most accomplished writers have editors. A developmental editor can help shape your story and identify what needs work and improvement. A developmental editor will analyze your work through both a subjective and objective lens.
What happens in the story is important, but if the characters aren’t well-developed, your readers won’t care about them. Have you ever finished a story and thought, “I liked the story, but I don’t understand the main character”?
A developmental editor will look at your characters from every angle. Flat, underdeveloped, and boring characters will never engage the reader, and your story will suffer as a result.
Here are few things I look for when evaluating a protagonist:
- Is the protagonist engaging, likable, or relatable?
- Is the protagonist’s backstory fully developed?
- What are the protagonist’s likes or dislikes?
- Does the protagonist have goals?
- Does the protagonist change over the course of the story?
- What are the protagonist’s flaws?
- What internal or external conflict prevents the protagonist from reaching their goals?
If you are feeling stuck with your protagonist, the antagonist, a main character, or supporting characters, a developmental editor can help point out areas and offer suggestions on how to strengthen your characters.
Pacing and Structure
One of the biggest challenges when working on a first draft is figuring out how to balance out the pacing and strengthen the structure of your story.
It’s likely that your first draft is going to be messy. There’s nothing wrong with that! But you may feel stuck about how to fix it. A developmental editor can help you with this.
Here are a few things I look for when evaluating the pacing and structure:
- How many scenes are there per chapter?
- If the scene length is short, is there enough happening in the scene?
- If the scene length is long, is there too much happening in the scene?
- Where do the story’s main events occur (i.e., inciting incident, plot point one, middle, plot point two, climax, and resolution)?
- Are there enough active scenes?
- Are there too many passive scenes?
- Are the paragraphs too long?
- Does the dialogue flow naturally?
- What scenes can be moved to create more tension?
Every chapter in your book should build up to the story climax, but if the pacing is off, the readers won’t make it to the end. A developmental editor will identify the weaker areas of the manuscript and offer suggestions on how to restructure the story.
Development of Scenes
When you have finished your first draft, there will be many scenes that need editing. But determining which ones to focus on may need an outside opinion.
A developmental editor can recognize which scenes are important to the character arc and the overall story arc. Even if you have written an excellent scene, it won’t matter in the long run if it doesn’t serve a purpose in your novel.
Here are a few things I look for when evaluating scenes:
- Is the language active or passive?
- How long is the scene?
- Does the scene have a beginning, middle, and end?
- Does the scene have tension, conflict, or suspense?
- Is the scene location described?
- Are the characters anchored in the scene?
- Does the scene have a purpose?
Whether your book is fiction or nonfiction, it is composed of scenes and sections. All parts of your manuscript must be developed, clearly defined, and serve a purpose.
At the end of the day, you are the writer and it is your book. Finding a competent developmental editor is almost like finding a good therapist. You want to work with someone who will honor your voice and your vision. A developmental editor shouldn’t rewrite the book for you.
A good developmental editor will acknowledge your strengths and offer encouraging feedback and criticism. No one wants to work with someone who will tear you down. The criticism you receive should inspire and encourage you, not leave you feeling defeated.
A developmental editor will help your story and your characters leap off the page. So go forth and conquer. Let a developmental editor guide you in the right direction (and give your story a haircut).