Category Archives: Developmental Editing

Steps in Developmental Editing

Not all editors follow the same template when performing developmental editing, but most of them have a process. Generally it involves several steps, and we’ll dig into some of the most common here. Your editor may or may not follow this format for your developmental editing, but at the very least it should help you understand some industry terms and jargon and make it a little easier to talk with them about what they’re doing.

The First Pass

Most developmental editing happens the first time an editor reads through a manuscript, on what we call the “first pass.” Editors train themselves to bring fresh eyes to a manuscript each time they read it, and to read it as different members of its audience would (through what we often call “lenses”). But there’s no replacing that first encounter with a manuscript. It’s when the editor’s experience is closest to the reader’s. As editors read, they take notes on the manuscript, in a separate document, or both. They get to know the characters, the setting, the plot, the voice. They jot down questions, potential problems, plot holes and pacing issues. They form a general opinion of what the best revision plan for the book will be. By the time they finish the manuscript, they usually have a good sense of what it needs—often the ending helps them understand what’s missing from the beginning and the middle.

The Edit Letter

Once an editor finishes their first developmental editing pass, they’ll get started on their letter to the author. They’ll group notes by theme or content area (the protagonist, for instance, or the setting). They’ll discuss their thoughts at length, explaining narrative theory to help the author understand why a problem might throw a reader off. Their goal will be to communicate clearly, constructively, and efficiently. Occasionally they’ll make a few suggestions, but they’ll usually leave the fixes to the author. Even if they have some ideas, they’ll often just drop a note along those lines. That way the author will know they’re there, but won’t feel constrained by them.

Spot Editing

You may, from time to time, hear editors talk about “spot editing.” This refers to going back over troublesome areas of the manuscript. Maybe the midpoint complication fell flat, and the editor needs to make a second (or third, or fourth) pass over it in order to understand what to do with it. Maybe the introduction didn’t do a good job of establishing character and conflict. Maybe the climax didn’t feel satisfying, and the editor needs to review previous sections of the book to figure out what was set up that didn’t pay off. Spot editing adds time to the developmental editing process, but it also means you’re getting solid, deep work done on the novel.

The Second Pass

Occasionally, the editor wants you to make revisions and return the manuscript to them so they can do the whole developmental editing process again. We call this a second pass. It’s most common with second books, which are often written under heavy pressure from deadlines and promotional responsibilities. But it can happen anytime during an author’s career. If your editor wants to make a second pass, don’t panic! The book will be much better by the time that second pass begins, and you’ll probably have a much smaller set of changes to make when it’s over.

Next we’ll talk about the Sample Read, an essential part of forging a relationship between author and developmental editor. You can also go back to our developmental editing resources.

Developmental Editing Swaps

Developmental Editing Swaps

Sometimes, an editor (or a writer) wants to trade service for service rather than paying someone for developmental editing. We call this a developmental editing swap. Swaps can be an inexpensive, efficient way to get other eyes on your manuscript. They can also lead to frustrations, wasted time, and torched relationships with friends and colleagues. Here we’ll offer a few tips so you can good results rather than bad.

Find a good match

All developmental editing relationships, whether they’re swaps or paid, live or die on the strength of the match between editor and writer. That’s as true of a swap as it is of a commercial relationship. If you’re friends with an editor who specializes in cozy mysteries, but you’re writing gritty noiresque thrillers, the two of you may not benefit all that much from a swap, even if your technical skills and communication are strong. If you and your swap partner both specialize in feminist epic fantasy set in pseudo-medieval Africa, but you have vastly different ideas about what makes a good narrative, you might still not benefit from a swap, despite your shared genre. Look for someone who understands what you’re trying to do with your book, who thinks it’s awesome, and who can help you do it better.

Set deadlines

Developmental editing swaps, like other informal working arrangements, get frustrating if one party finishes their work quickly and the other lingers for weeks or months. But because most editors have to juggle unpredictable amounts of paid work with the unpaid work of a swap, manuscripts in a swap are likely to get pushed to the bottom of the to-do list whenever something else crops up at work (or in life). To make sure that doesn’t happen, agree to a timeline with your swap partner before you start. Many creative people, editors included, leave projects to the last minute. So if there’s no last minute, it’ll never get done.

Temper your expectations

In developmental editing, you tend to get what you pay for. So temper your expectations of a swap. Yes, you’re providing something of value when you edit someone else’s work, but that’s not the same as providing them with the ability to keep the lights on and pay the rent. Swaps can be a helpful, profitable way to keep the costs of producing a book down. They can be enjoyable, if you pick the right partner. They can even get you top-quality editing. But understand going in that they’re not a shortcut to success. They’re just an alternate path.

Next we’ll describe developmental editing steps. Or you can return to our developmental editing resources.

Developmental Editing Tips

Developmental Editing Tips

We’re taking a break from our usual focus on the author’s point of view to give some tips about how to do developmental editing. These tips should be useful to budding editors as well as authors learning how to give critique. They’re based on a decade of experience giving and receiving editing, which boils down to thousands of hours and hundreds of novels’ worth of editorial comments. We’ll focus the list on three basic rules a good developmental editor should follow.

It’s not about you

Always remember that it’s not about you. The editor’s job is to step out of their own head and imagine what a genre’s readers will think. You are not a critic, and your personal preferences have no place in your judgment of whether a piece of writing is succeeding. If you find yourself writing “I think” or “I feel” too often, and especially if you’re using blanket statements like “There’s too much telling in this scene,” you’re probably focused too much on your own experience of the story. There are no rules in writing. There are only reader expectations, and whether or not the writer is fulfilling them in a satisfying way.

Developmental editing is constructive

Second, always remain constructive. Editors who go too long without undergoing developmental editing themselves often get cranky and cantankerous. Never fall into the trap of frustration, and never take it out on the writer. Remember: you have no job without them. To that end, always check your comments before sending them back. If you’re frustrated, let it out in your initial pass. Then edit yourself before you turn over the manuscript. “What’s happening here?” is infinitely more constructive than “What’s happening here????” All you have to do to get there is delete a few question marks.

Do the work

Lastly, do the work. Not just the work of developmental editing, but the preparation you need to do the job well. Your formal education, if you have it, probably focused on literary fiction. Your reading background probably pushed you naturally into one or two, or maybe three, genres. But as an editor you’ll get submissions across every genre under the sun. Know your limits, and if you take on a project that will stretch you, do the work to become an expert in the genre. Ask the author for comparison titles and read them. Dig up craft books written by genre experts and learn the genre’s conventions. Communicate throughout the process about what kind of mystery/thriller/romance/adventure novel the author is writing. It’s not easy expanding your genre repertoire, and you’re fooling yourself if you think you can just wing it. If you try, your developmental editing will suffer, and the writer will bear the brunt of your mistakes. So do the work.

Next up, we’ll talk about developmental editing swaps, where two authors trade edits of one another’s work. You can also return to our developmental editing resources.