Showing up to school in your underwear. Hiding from the monster under your bed. Bad nightmares, right? Well, neither of them compare to the writer’s worst nightmare: finding out that the manuscript they worked so hard on is in need of developmental editing.
Writing is hard enough. No one likes to hear that their work still needs a substantive edit before it’s palatable enough to read. But done right, developmental editing can be some of the most worthwhile work you put into a story, a book, or a manuscript. Here’s how.
What Is Developmental Editing?
Think of developmental editing as a hybrid between editing and coaching the act of writing itself.
If you’re a developmental editor, you’re not so concerned with grammar and syntax. Those corrections can come later. Developmental editing means you’re giving your input on the big-picture questions that come as a writer creates something new.
Most editors are used to seeing a partially-finished product before they dive in. But in a developmental edit, your role in editing puts you right in the thick of it. You’re there in the primordial stew as the story shapes into life.
When Do You Need Developmental Editing?
Developmental edits are always helpful if you’re having big-picture, structural problems with a book or story. For a fiction writer, that may mean turning to a group of “beta readers” for advice. Why isn’t the story working? Is the villain compelling enough? Should you move the flashbacks to the end of the story?
In nonfiction, substantive editing can be even more common. That’s why they often turn to freelance editors for help. A business leader might have the practical know-how, but little writing experience. You can’t expect them to conjure a bestseller out of thin air. In that case, substantive edits with a good developmental editor will be key to how the book turns out.
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How to Start a Developmental Edit
How do you tell when a writer needs to edit structure? Something in the story isn’t working. In fiction, maybe the villain doesn’t seem realistic. Maybe the protagonist doesn’t seem like an active part of the story. In nonfiction, maybe the chapters don’t naturally lead one into the next, requiring a developmental edit that changes the whole approach.
To get started, pinpoint the root cause of your issues as closely as you can. It won’t always be obvious. Sometimes a story might nearly resonate with you, but something is missing. Maybe an action scene isn’t working because you don’t care about what happens to the character the protagonist is trying to rescue. Maybe there’s no tension in the story because the author hasn’t taken the time to clarify what’s at stake.
From there, it can feel like trial and error until you work out a structure that works. This won’t be easy. In fact, you might find yourself asking a few questions along the way.
- How long does a developmental edit take? Clients used to ask the late fitness guru Greg Plitt how long it would be until they achieved six-pack abs. His response? “As long as it takes.” It all depends on how much fat there is to trim.
- Is developmental editing worth it? This is a fundamental question that only you can answer. But try approaching it from a different angle. Are you 100% certain that this project is going to be worth the work? If you believe in it, don’t give up.
What Is Substantive Editing and Is It Worth It?
Substantive editing is another word for developmental editing. Whatever you call it, it can be some of the most painful editing for an author to experience.
It can also be some of the most worthwhile. If a writer has taken the wrong approach—written the POV from the wrong character, or structured a nonfiction book without any rhyme or reason—a substantive, developmental edit can be the exact medicine they need.
To develop a career through developmental editing (whether you want to be self-employed or work in-house somewhere) try to remember that fact. Work on your people skills so you can make suggestions the author may actually accept. Read both fiction and nonfiction to find out how today’s readers want their structure. And most of all, be patient with someone who’s on the receiving end of a developmental edit.
Your goal? Be the kind of developmental editor they’ll eventually thank in their book’s acknowledgments.
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