When many people think of editing, they think of arcane symbols and scribbled margin notes in red or blue pencil – move this paragraph, delete these words, add a hyphen, correct that spelling, capitalize this letter. And while that is an important part of editing, it’s only one part, and it comes last. So let’s talk about what comes first: developmental editing.
If you’re like many of us in the writing world, you wrote the first draft of your manuscript and then revised it, revised it some more, asked some friends and loved ones to read it, revised it yet again, and eventually decided it was ready to go out in the world.
Your particular journey may have included more/fewer revisions or more/less feedback, but the process is essentially the same for all of us: write → revise → get feedback → repeat, until you think you’re done.
It’s the “done” part that’s tricky. What does it mean? Is it when you’ve pushed yourself as far as you can go? (Is that far enough?) Is it when the manuscript couldn’t possibly be improved upon by mortal man? (How do you know?) Is it when your wife tells you it’s the best thing she’s ever read? (Is she objective?) Is it when you simply can’t stand to look at the accursed thing for another minute? (Understandable, but not exactly a ringing endorsement.)
You see the problem. We’re all too close to our own work to really know when it’s ready to be released into the world, and our friends and family are too close to us to know, so this is where professional editors come in.
What Developmental Editing Is (And Isn’t)
Editing, at least as we define it, has three phases: development (or developmental editing), line editing, and final correction. We’ll talk about the other two down the road, but for now let’s focus on development.
Developmental editing can happen in lots of ways. It can be as informal as an email conversation about that plot twist in chapter 27 where dear sweet Aunt Edna turns out to be evil Uncle Maynard in disguise; and as structured as a task memo on the subject of good characterization and how you’re going to make readers believe the seven-foot, mustachioed longshoreman Maynard is a frail elderly woman in the first place. Good developmental editors look for opportunities to increase a story’s impact, to make scenes more powerful and dialogue more effective, to create multidimensional characters, to build in the kinds of tension that keep readers turning pages and the kinds of resolution that leave them satisfied.
In short, developmental editing is feedback from an editor on where a manuscript currently stands with relation to where it needs to go, along with suggestions for how to get from here to there, step by step.
With fiction, developmental editing addresses such elements as structure, pacing, proportion, dialogue, character, plot, storytelling, style, and marketability – anything that affects a manuscript’s ability to provide an engaging experience for the reader. Particular genres have their own requirements and the editor will address those too, but at heart all stories need to work as stories above all.
With nonfiction, developmental editing focuses on structure, organization, clarity, logic, and effectiveness. What that means for any one manuscript or book proposal varies tremendously, since nonfiction encompasses everything from memoir to textbooks, but all developmental feedback is again geared toward creating the most engaging reading experience for the intended audience, whether that audience is made up of a few people or millions.
Developmental feedback may contain some hands-on editing to illustrate principles of craft and mechanics, but in general it’s not about the editor making changes. The focus is on providing guidance and coaching to authors, so they can not only make the changes on their own, but grow and improve as writers.
How Developmental Editing Works At The Editorial Department
Remember the “write, revise, get feedback, repeat” stuff from the first paragraph? Developmental editing takes that concept to the professional level.
In other words, it’s iterative, and it’s not for the dilettante or the faint of heart. It’s not a single event, where you can expect to get feedback telling you every single thing that needs to be addressed so you can fix it and move on. Developing a manuscript isn’t like repairing a refrigerator. Manuscripts are living, breathing organisms, and making a change over here often creates the need for a change over there. It’s also a process that teaches you as you go through it, leading to epiphanies that give you better and better ideas that then affect other areas of the manuscript. The developmental editor is your sounding board, on hand to tell you if all the wonderful, creative, passionate, important stuff you want to communicate is coming through as you intend – and when it isn’t, to help you figure out why not and what you can do about it.
How many rounds of write-revise-feedback a manuscript may go through before it’s ready for the next phase can depend on many factors, including how well editor and author understand each other, the author’s skill level, the editor’s ability to make clear and concrete suggestions, the author’s goals, the manuscript’s intended audience, and the author’s level of perfectionism (especially in relation to the author’s budget).
At The Editorial Department we believe in pushing authors as hard as they’re willing to be pushed at the development phase, because we know how much competition you’re up against no matter what you’re writing or how you plan to publish, and we want you to succeed. We’ll always tell you what we think your best next step should be.
But we also understand that everyone has limits – limits to their abilities, limits to their patience, their budget, their time, and their energy. We won’t tie you into long-term contracts or strong-arm you to spend money. None of us think in terms of sales, and we’re not in this business to get rich. We’re in it because we love it – we love words and books and ideas and imagination and communication and all the ways humans reach out to each other – and we’re in it because we’re good at it. We want to know what your goals are, why you are writing, and what you get out of it.
And we want you to succeed.