Developmental Editing: How I Do It

I have been freelancing for almost a year, and one thing I have come to realize is that most indie authors, no matter how much they have educated themselves on the self-publishing process, do not understand the different levels of editing, nor do they know which kind of editing their manuscript needs. I also find that although they requested a certain type of editing from an editor, they do not know how to tell if they did, in fact, receive that type of editing (e.g., instead of a copyedit—what they wanted or needed—they received more of a content edit).

This realization inspired me to do a series of blog posts on the different types of editing services I offer—developmental editing, copyediting, and proofreading—and how I go about doing each one. I am starting the series with a post on developmental editing because it is the first type of editing a manuscript should receive. Developmental editing is very subjective, and methods will vary by editor. What it really comes down to is the skills of the editor. My hope is that by the end of this post, indie authors will understand what developmental editing is and will be able to tell if they received a developmental edit from an editor.

What is developmental editing?

Developmental editing (sometimes called content, structural, or substantive editing) focuses on the plot, characterization, dialogue, description, voice, pacing, and themes—the elements of storytelling—and provides detailed suggestions for revision to eliminate the manuscript’s weaknesses and enhance its strengths. Basically, it looks at the big-picture items.

What it is not…

Hiring a developmental editor doesn’t mean your editor will rewrite your book. Sometimes this is what authors are afraid of, and sometimes it’s what authors want. As a developmental editor, I will not write your book. Instead, I will tell you what you need to do to make your book better.

Developmental editing also is not copyediting, which I’ll discuss in a later post. As hard as it is for some editors to block out punctuation and grammar mistakes, it’s something we really have to do in order to focus mainly on the story itself during a developmental edit. However, if an author has consistently punctuated dialogue wrong or if the story has a ton of dangling modifiers, for example, I’ll note this in my editorial letter so that the author can either try to correct the problem or mention it to the copyeditor.

Is my manuscript ready for a developmental edit?

I typically recommend developmental edits to first-time authors or those who have just gotten into writing, but this doesn’t mean that experienced writers won’t benefit from a developmental edit. A set of expert editorial eyes can help every manuscript in some way.

If you are only on your first draft and if you haven’t received any outside feedback on your manuscript, I don’t recommend a developmental edit yet (instead, you might want to consider a manuscript evaluation). A writer will get the most out of a developmental edit if he or she has written several drafts of the story; gotten feedback from friends, family, or other writers; and has tried self-revision. The writer should have done everything possible to make the story great before calling in an expert.

So now that you have my manuscript, what are you going to do with it?

First, we’ll talk. I want to know things like who’s your audience, what made you write this book, what genre do you see it fitting into, and so on.

Then I’ll begin my first read of the manuscript. As I read through the manuscript, I will get a feel for your voice and writing style, and I will take detailed notes. I always have at least two Word documents open while I’m doing a developmental edit: one, obviously, is the manuscript, and the other document contains my notes. Every thought that pops into my head as I’m reading through the manuscript goes into that second document. I’ll record big issues, small issues, and general thoughts, like “This scene was so intense!” or “I love how you’ve described the setting of the farmhouse.” I will also take notes about each character, and I’ll keep a timeline so that I can keep track of the story’s action and events. This will help me see if events line up and if the story seems to lag anywhere.

In addition to the notes I take in my separate note document, I will also make comments in the manuscript using Word’s comment feature. When I’m done with my first read-through, depending on the issues I found in the manuscript, I might read through the manuscript again. Then, I use my note document to write a detailed editorial letter to the author. The manuscript and the editorial letter are sent to the author, and we’ll talk about my notes. The author will make revisions (I’ll ask the author to use track changes) and then send the manuscript back to me so that I can read through it again and see how the story has improved. Most often, the manuscript is significantly better.

This whole process is usually repeated at least twice but can go into three or four rounds of back-and-forth review and revision until it seems every last detail has been addressed. Which takes me to my next point…

How long does it take?

A developmental edit can take three to six months, sometimes longer, depending on several factors (scheduling, the condition of the manuscript, etc.).

As you can see, a developmental edit is the most extensive type of editing your manuscript can get. An experienced editor will be able to provide a deep analysis of your story, and with the editor’s feedback, you’ll be able to significantly improve the structure, characters, and readability of your book. If you need a solid plan for improving your story, look no further than a developmental edit.

Cypress Editing offers developmental editing services for fiction manuscripts of various genres. I’d be happy to help you with your book. Contact me today, and we’ll talk!

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