What does a developmental editor do?
Lucky for you I have a fantastic answer…
Stuff! A developmental editor does stuff 😂
Not what you wanted to hear? Fine. Because I *really* like you, I’ll go into more detail, just this once.
A developmental editor examines a manuscript and analyzes it for story-centric strengths and flaws. That’s the over simplified answer, but fundamentally what a developmental editor does. As a developmental editor, I would take all those words crammed into sentences and paragraphs and chapters, and determine if they’re representing your story in the best way possible.
Sounds a little weird, right? Let me give you an example. This is the first paragraph from my very first manuscript, 9 years ago!
This is the very basic role of a developmental editor, to help take the words you’ve poured your heart and soul into writing into something much, much more than the sum of its parts.
Story is more than just a recorded event. Telling a story is more than just entertainment, or an escape. Story in its most basic form is harnessing emotion and allowing the reader to experience that emotion. Going back to my example above, I *personally* haven’t lost my parents, they’re still alive and kicking. But through story I can glimpse the internal pain that losing loved ones can bring.
That is what a developmental editor does. They clarify, hone, chisel, and expose words to create gripping emotion. They tighten pacing, smooth out rough edges, and overall polish a good story into a great one.
You might be thinking, ‘dude, I can do that by myself, I AM the author.’ And that’s true up to a point.
As an author you’re in a unique position to create that emotion in the exact way you’d like it. But as an author, it’s difficult to separate yourself from your written words and see the complete story you’re presenting to a reader. In the midst of getting that vision out of your head, onto paper (or a screen), things can get lost. And the more you stare at it, the more you are likely to miss due to attentional blindness.
Which is why plot holes, inadequate character development, slow pacing, and bad dialogue exist.
It’s easy to get lost in the middle of a vision, especially when you’ve spent time crafting that vision and struggling to get it all out in its complete form. I think it’s a universal truth that both a single man in possession of a fortune must be in want of a wife, and it’s hard for authors to separate themselves from their work. I guess Jane Austen had it almost right 🙂
Now, onto how a developmental editor like me helps to focus and hone the elements of story.
As mentioned above, identifying plot holes is an essential part. This also includes an analysis of any twists and how well they’re implemented. A developmental edit also includes character critiques. This allows the author to understand if their characters have developed well and are intriguing and consistent. Dialogue is also important to review, because it’s so very critical to the flow of story and character development. Clunky dialogue can pull a reader from the story faster than an oversized pebble in your shoe.
Developmental editors will also review pacing and action sequences. These can be hard for an author to really identity if there are any issues. Mostly because, as an author, you’ve probably read your manuscript a dozen times or more. It might seem like things match up in your head, but the reality can be very different. Reader expectation and writer experience can be vastly different, and a developmental editor closes any gaps in that. Even professionally published A-list books with teams of editors sometimes miss these things (and I tend to catch them when I read those books).
Now, my most favorite part of any story is the emotion. I really believe that emotion is the single most important factor in a manuscript. No joke. I read books that aren’t the best in terms of story or character just for the emotion, because it can be so damn powerful! So any developmental worth their salt should pay special attention to the emotional beats throughout the story.
Emotional beats? Yep! A story is essentially an emotional symphony, and how well you take people from emotion to emotion determines if it’s a brilliant symphony, or a discordant one.
Now, this is a lot already, and we’ve only really glanced over the surface, because a good developmental editor will also ensure the story is consistent. That includes everything from hair and eye color staying the same, weather, time frame, and character behavior. If your story skips from autumn to spring, back to winter again, the reader will notice, and they will probably ding you in a Goodreads review for it.
When To Do A Developmental Edit
A developmental edit really makes the best impact when the manuscript is complete, but before a line or copy edit. That means that you, as the author, have finally typed ‘the end’ and are ready for the next stage. Now, this doesn’t necessarily mean the first draft. You should really seek a developmental editor when you’re 100% happy with the manuscript (you feel that YOU can’t make it any better).
This is critical, because a developmental editor will recommend changing things, sometimes lots of things. A developmental edit is sort of like the second step before you reach the finish line. The first step being completing your manuscript. Ideally, a developmental edit should be completed before any heavy line or copy editing takes place. Because, as I said before, a developmental editor will recommend changes. Even the brilliant authors you’re so fond of make mistakes, which is why a lot of them have entire teams of people dedicated to making sure they’re consistent, and stick within their own established worlds (and again, they still sometimes miss stuff).
So don’t be surprised when your manuscript comes back needing edits or even rewrites.
But this is a good thing! A good developmental editor will improve your story, and will find all those pesky problems that could drop your ratings from a five star to one (or a two or three, which is really just as bad).
Now, like writing itself, this is a unique process. Some writers have a developmental edit done on very early drafts to solidify ideas, ensure gripping characters and provide more support to the story. But others will wait for as long as possible before having a developmental editor take a look.
A developmental edit is critical in ensuring your words are as powerful, emotional, and gripping as they can be.
Also, it’s worth noting, even if you go with a traditional publisher, they typically DO NOT include developmental editing. Some agents may help you on this front, but that’s also pretty rare.
Don’t skip this!
What To Expect When Working with A Developmental Editor.
Opening yourself and your manuscript up to the eyes of someone else can be a really scary thing, especially when you’ve dealt with personal truths in your novel. It’s your baby, you’re attached to it…but with some idea of what will happen, you can prepare yourself.
1. Expect truth. Remain open-minded and remember, you hired them. Developmental editors know what they’re talking about. They will not tell you that your favorite character, Billy, is a total loser, unsympathetic, lout without there being a genuine need for it. So you’ll need to consider their advice very carefully. This doesn’t mean that you blindly accept whatever they say, no matter what. This means you need to take a step back, release any sort of connection to what you’ve written and decide if they’re right. My favorite thing to recommend is try it. Rewrite that scene, or dialogue, as they recommended it. See how it feels. You might decide they’re right. You might not. At the end of the day it’s still your call, but try hard not to blind yourself to truths you don’t want to accept.
2. Communication is King. Talk it out yo! Like any good relationship, communicating with the other person is critical. A simple misunderstanding can spiral out of control until you’re both speaking about two different things entirely. Your goals for your manuscript should align, or there is no point in having a developmental edit done. Without clear communication, the true meaning of the manuscript can easily get lost in limbo. This also means you need to be prepared for truth, harsh or not. This also means knowing when you can never agree and that it’s time to part ways. You don’t have to suffer. There are a lot of developmental editors to choose from, and you have a right to be a little picky. Just don’t go all novelzilla on some poor unsuspecting editor.
3. Remember, you both want the same thing, a successful novel: This is a sort of merging of #1 and #2. Because when your chosen developmental editor is telling you, yet again, that your favorite scene is super slow and dragging the entire feel of the chapter down, and you want to keep that precious scene; remember, remember the fifth of November 🙂 Almost. Remember, they want your manuscript to sell; they want you to get the recognition it deserves. And, unless I’m mistaken, you as the author want that as well. So take their truth and examine it. Communicate with them to determine exactly why they feel that way. Know they’re only recommending it because their knowledge and experiences are telling them that’s the case.
What A Developmental Editor Expects from You
Candy, free hand rubs, and a good scalp massage. The great thing is I’m not even joking 🙂 Okay, I’m half joking. There are only two things I expect from my clients. Trust, and consideration.
1. Trust: Trust me when I say something feels wrong or confusing. When I tell you something isn’t working. When you really love something, and I tell you it isn’t going to fit. Trust that I know what the reader is looking for, and that thing isn’t it. But this is a two-way street. Trust that I won’t tell you to do something that will harm your story. This can be a hard thing when someone who isn’t you, telling you, the author, to change something. But I don’t recommend things that are pointless, it’s all for the good of the story.
2. Consideration. Maybe thoughtfulness can work as well. When I agree to work on your manuscript, I expect you to consider my time and attention. If we have deadlines set in place, I expect you to honor them. It can throw any good schedule into chaos when agreed upon deadlines elapse without the work being complete. But like above, it’s also a two-way street. I’ll be considerate of your time and attention. Working closely with someone over a passion project like a manuscript is like a dance. Both partners need to be aware they’re dealing with other actual humans, with thoughts, feelings, and emotions.
I love story. I know I’ve said it before, but it’s the truth. Seeing a story blossom and unfold like a perfect rose is one of life’s greatest pleasures. I’ve literally read thousands of books in my chosen genres, and I know those genres inside out and upside down.
Finding a developmental editor who you work well with, who understands your vision, story, and how to make a manuscript shine is one of the best steps an author can take to ensure that happens. And that’s exactly what a good partnership can offer, a good manuscript transformed into a great one. A good story elevated to greatness. And that’s all doable with a good developmental editor. Fantastic isn’t it?
Now, go forth and write!