Developmental Editing for Indie Authors

Indie authors have a unique and challenging path when it comes to developmental editing. Whereas in traditional publishing, the editor comes with the publishing deal, indies get to pick their own editors. That means they have much more freedom than a traditionally published author does. It also means they can have a harder time finding an editor who’s a good fit for their project.

Start with multiple developmental editing leads

Because indies choose their own editors, they can evaluate several developmental editing candidates for each project. Traditionally published authors yearn for that, so if you’re an indie, take advantage. Start by asking for referrals from other indie authors. If you don’t know any, consider joining an indie support group like 20Booksto50k, the Indie Writers Cooperative, or the Alliance of Independent Authors. Usually that will generate a good list of developmental editing candidates who are a match for your genre and subgenre. If it doesn’t, you can try a Google search or cruising the listings on a directory of editors like Reedsy or the Editorial Freelancers Association. Avoid booking developmental editing through vanity publishers or indie distributors (like Amazon or Ingram Spark). They’re convenient, but they’re usually overpriced, and the best editors don’t work with them because they pay poorly.

Have a conversation

Once you create a list of prospects you’re excited about for developmental editing, have a conversation with each of them about the editor’s style and experience, your goals for the editing, and whether you think you’ll work well together. It can be tempting to jump straight to the bottom line and ask about price (after all, you’re running a business), but choosing an editor based primarily on price often puts you in a race to the bottom. If you’re lucky, a cheap editor will prove to be a talented newcomer who will do wonders for your book. More often, they’re a veteran who’s perfected the art of cruising rapidly through a book making just enough light edits to justify their low fee. If that’s what you want in developmental editing, they can be a great fit, but make sure you’re clear about the depth of feedback you’re going to get before you start.

Get a developmental editing sample

Not all editors approach developmental editing the same way, so it’s essential to get a sample before working with one. Reputable editors want to know what they’re getting into as much as you do and should offer a short sample edit of your book (usually ten pages or less, double-spaced, size 12 font). If an editor refuses to do a developmental editing sample, that’s a red flag and you should walk. Either they’re too busy for you, they’re paranoid about being taken advantage of, or they don’t feel comfortable standing behind their edits.

Trust your gut

At the end of the day, go with your gut. If you don’t trust your editor, you won’t trust their feedback. If you don’t like how they communicate, you’ll struggle to use their feedback. And if you don’t like the way they do business, you’ll feel unhappy when you pay them for their services. The editorial relationship is a personal one, and you’ll get the best developmental editing if you work with an editor you view as a partner.

Next we’ll switch gears a bit and talk about developmental editing tips, so you can get a sense of what a good editor should be doing. You can also return to our developmental editing resources.

What to Do When You’re Unhappy with Your Developmental Editing

Not all developmental editing relationships end in roses, backslaps, and mutual congratulations. Try as they might, an editor might not be well suited to your genre or style. They may miss the point of what you’re trying to do. They may be inexperienced. Or they may just not have communicated well enough to make your developmental editing a success. But even if things go wrong and you’re unhappy, you can take steps to make things better before writing the whole process off.

Let your editor know what you wanted

When a writer is unhappy with their developmental editing, it’s usually because of a mismatch between their expectations and the editor’s. You can best avoid this by getting a sample edit and clarifying what you want from your editor before they get started. But if they misfire, let them know where they’ve fallen short. Maybe their feedback wasn’t concrete enough. Maybe it was all negative, and didn’t mention strengths to build upon as you revise. Maybe it was too positive, and you worry their developmental editing didn’t go deep enough. Put together a list of things you wanted and didn’t get and send it to them. Good editors will respond constructively. They want to help, and they know it’s their job.

Let it simmer

Problems with developmental editing are sometimes less about the edits than about not knowing what to do with them. This happens especially often when the editor recommends big changes across multiple content areas. Maybe they think your main character’s motivations need fleshing out, and the setting isn’t going to impress genre fans, and the plot doesn’t follow a clear structure. In that case, it can be hard to know where to start, and easy to write the edits off as “this editor doesn’t get me,” or “this editor doesn’t know what they’re doing.” But sometimes that’s just an initial defensive reaction, and letting the edit letter sit for a few days will help you sort the wheat from the chaff and find something useful.

Don’t give up on developmental editing

If you have a bad experience with one editor, don’t give up on developmental editing completely. Many authors take multiple tries before they find someone they really click with. If you don’t like your developmental editor, keep looking for a better one. Ask your author friends for references. Check the acknowledgements in books you love. And keep trying. A great editor will help you grow as an author much faster than you would on your own. It’s worth putting the time in to find one.

Next, we’ll talk about developmental editing for indie authors. Or you can return to the index of our developmental editing posts.

Who Does Developmental Editing?

The short, pithy answer is: just about every writer and editor does developmental editing, when you think of it as the process of reading a story to find weaknesses in its plotting, structure, characterization, voice, setting, and pacing. But when people ask this question, they usually really mean “Whom should I hire to do developmental editing? What should their qualifications be?” And that’s a trickier question, because:

There are no standards for developmental editing

Developmental editing has no central authority, no one who verifies that someone is trained to a basic level of competency and grants a universally recognized imprimatur. There’s no qualification you should look for, no degree, no certificate from XYZ university or organization. You may find editors who have those things, and they may or may not be any good. Some editors have undergraduate or graduate degrees in creative writing or English. Some don’t. Some have reviewing, library, or bookselling experience. Some don’t. Developmental editing has always been a craft learned largely on the job via apprenticeship under another editor, and often through experimenting and making mistakes. The job requires the ability to read critically, think creatively, and communicate clearly, and beyond that it’s mostly a matter of reading lots of books, studying the craft of writing, and practice. Becoming a developmental editor is a messy process, and one that could stand to be improved, but hasn’t been yet.

Look for experience

In lieu of earning a developmental editing credential, most editors instead build experience. Signs of a good editor may include time spent working for a major traditional publisher or literary magazine, internships at small presses or magazines, or a long list of successful titles the editor has worked on. Check, though, that the editor’s tasks at that publisher or for that client included developmental editing. Having ten years of experience in copy editing (the job of checking for errors in continuity, fact, grammar, and mechanics) doesn’t necessarily translate into being a skilled developmental editor, because the two jobs are so different. The more experience an editor has, the more they’re likely to charge, so if you’re working on a tight budget, you may have to try an editor with less experience and hope you get someone particularly talented.

Get a sample

If you’re looking to hire someone to do your developmental editing, the best assurance you can have that you’ll be happy with their work comes from getting a sample. Reputable freelancers should be willing to do one for you (though it may be short). If you’re deciding whether to work with a traditional publishing editor, they should be willing to discuss the changes they’d like you to make to your manuscript, how they communicate, how they see their role in the publishing process, and what you can expect from them. Trust your gut. If you like the way they communicate, like the suggestions they have to make, and think you’ll enjoy working with them, then go full speed ahead. If you don’t, consider your other options. There’s little worse in publishing than being stuck with an editor you can’t or won’t trust.

Next, we’ll discuss what to do when you’re unhappy with your developmental editing. Or you can return to our developmental editing index.