Developmental editing goes by several names. You might hear it called story editing, or substantive editing, or even content editing. Whatever it’s called, it’s the process through which an editor evaluates the essential elements of a story: plot, character, setting, structure, pacing, audience considerations, and voice. Developmental editing can be performed by an in-house editor at a traditional publisher, or by a freelance editor for a small press or an indie. In some ways, even an author’s first revision pass over their manuscript is developmental editing.
What It Isn’t
It’s also worth considering what developmental editing isn’t. It’s not focused on language; this isn’t the stage where an editor goes through and crosses out words, marks up typos, and flags repetition and cliché. That comes later, in line editing and copy editing. An editor will often suggest big changes at this stage: add, cut, or combine characters; write a new scene or delete one; pick a clear antagonist for the story; adhere more closely to or deviate farther from the basic structure you’ve chosen. Some writers add tens of thousands of words to a draft during developmental editing, or cut just as many, and it’s wasted effort polishing language when you’re not yet sure what the final shape of the story is.
What It Looks Like
Finally, there’s what developmental editing looks like. Some editors write narrative-style or bullet-point letters (as long as 20 pages) describing issues they see and nudging the author toward solutions. Others make comments directly in the manuscript, sometimes on paper but more often digitally using a feature like MS Word’s Track Changes. It’s also common to get both a letter and an annotated manuscript. No matter how you get them, comments during this stage of editing should be asking difficult questions to get you to engage more deeply with your manuscript. An editor may make suggestions, but the best editors have learned through experience to trust their writers, and won’t try to force a writer into a specific solution.