Developmental editing basics for fiction: A fresh set of eyes for your story


Writing isn’t easy, and writing anything in long form is even harder. Fiction is no different. Just because people read fiction “for fun” doesn’t mean it comes easily to those who write it. Keeping track of characters, their motivations, their idiosyncrasies and characteristics from chapter to chapter over hundreds of pages is like a giant puzzle of the author’s design. And if you’ve worked long and hard on a manuscript, the last thing you want to hear from a reader is that something from chapter 12 doesn’t make sense given what happened in chapter 2. Looking at something for too long can blind us to its problems, which, as authors, we want to solve before they get to readers. But how can we see them?

That’s what developmental editors are for. Sometimes they are called “content” editors (usually when they have some sort of subject matter expertise). These are the people that make substantive suggestions, the kinds of suggestions that flag when something big is wrong that might take some rewriting to fix.

When do developmental editors enter the publishing process?

After an author finishes writing and revising, the developmental editor is usually the next person to look at the manuscript. For authors who have gone through the traditional process of working with a publisher, this would likely be the editor they work with after they go through the commissioning or acquisitions editor (the person who “acquires” or “commissions” the work in the first place). However, most publishers have specific areas they publish in, so it might be the case that even after revisions, the publisher needs the manuscript to conform in some other way; additionally, the publisher could see loads of promise and a good fit within its catalog, but the book still has structural issues that need to be ironed out before it is publishable.

For authors who self-publish, the developmental editor is a valuable resource. Self-publishing authors also want their work to be the best it can be, but by definition they are not working with the support of a publisher with multiple editors on staff. For the self-publishing author, the developmental editor’s skills would be most useful after draft revisions and beta reads are complete.

What do developmental editors of fiction do?

Developmental editors aren’t concerned with typos or small errors of grammar, spelling, syntax, and the like. They aren’t copyeditors; they will leave that sort of thing for the next person in line. Rather, they are concerned with the bigger issues in a manuscript—the things people put the book down for.

The developmental editor, whether working in fiction or nonfiction, is concerned about one thing: does the piece accomplish what everyone (for example, if you have a publisher, you can bet they are concerned, as are your future readers) has set out for it to do? As a writer, you have goals for your book. You likely want readers to read it and, hopefully, like it. Will readers like it? Or is there something that will make them put it down in frustration? Your developmental editor will approach your book like a reader, albeit a very informed and helpful one who is there to coach you around the issues that you may not be aware of, those that your beta readers may have picked up on, or those you yourself know you need to work on.

For fiction writers, some of the biggest issues are:

  • Plot and pacing: Does the plot keep the reader engaged? Do things actually happen and does the plot move forward? Is the pacing consistent with the plot? If things don’t “happen,” then it is likely that the reader will get bored very quickly.

  • Conflict: The plot is just the sequence of events that take place while the characters work through conflict, or the central problem that they are faced with that needs to be resolved by the end of the story. If there is no conflict, there is no problem to solve, so we all might as well pack it in now. Conflict is usually generated by having two characters want mutually exclusive things.

  • Genre conventions: This issue can be a hard one to get over. As an author, you may have specific plot points for your novel that don’t “conform,” and you’re no conformist! You don’t have to be. But in some genres, the readership comes to your book with specific expectations, and this is where genre conventions are important. If you deviate too far afield, this could affect the readership’s overall opinion of your book. It also has to do with how you plan to market your book; if you say it’s a thriller, then your readers will expect it to be thrilling. The plot and conflict are often related to the conventions: at the end of a romance, for example, the characters most often need to live “happily ever after” (or at least, “happily as far as we know”). That the main couple fulfills this convention also means that they likely solved the conflict that prevented them from being together in the first place.

  • Characterization: Characters, generally, need to act consistently and be believable. Put yourself in your characters’ shoes. Do they act the way you would expect them to act based on their personalities? Do they act the way you would expect based on things they’ve said or done previously in the story? Or do your characters talk the talk but don’t walk the walk? Last, someone (usually the hero or heroine) needs to be likeable or relatable in some way. Your readers need to root for him or her to accomplish whatever problem the story sets out for him or her to solve. Will your readers identify with this person?

In addition, your developmental editor will watch out for issues in tone, voice, authorial crutches, description, and setting.

So how is developmental editing helpful?

Developmental editors aren’t just critical readers; they aren’t there to simply point these things out, and they don’t want to make your life difficult (at least, no more difficult than the revision process already is!). Rather, they will look at your book as a whole and ask themselves, what are the biggest issues? How can this be solved in the large scale? Then, they offer suggestions, based on what you as the author want to accomplish. Often, developmental editors won’t make a whole lot of line edits; rather, they will point out passages in the manuscript that have issues, and offer suggestions for how the passages could be revised, often linking these suggestions together across the book for a cohesive revision (so, for example, if it is suggested there are too many superfluous characters introduced in chapter 5, later suggestions will take this into account).

If line edits are suggested, they are most often used as examples for how to revise a type of issue that occurs numerous times over the course of the story. For example, a passage to resolve shifting points of view, which is confusing and jarring to readers, will be changed to show how a single point of view can be applied without changing the passage’s overall substance. Later, when the same issue appears, the developmental editor will simply call your attention to it to revise in a similar manner.

So, two things are important here:

  1. The developmental editor is there to suggest and coach; in the end, the book is the author’s work. How to fix an issue is up to the author (although in some cases, such as authors publishing with a traditional publisher, some changes may be required for publication).

  2. There are opportunities here for learning; the work of writing isn’t done for you, so you have yet another opportunity to practice your craft, this time focusing on specific issues. And even authors with lots of work under their belts can benefit from working with a developmental editor; this is another way for them to learn what their weaknesses are and work on them. Do you consistently use the same expressions, or the same descriptions? Do you reuse a lot of words or particular writing conventions? I know I do (I like to ask a lot of rhetorical questions!), and a developmental editor would point these out. It’s difficult to self-edit to this degree, but a good developmental editor is there to help you through this process.

For those of you who may need a developmental editor, do get in touch! I am currently taking new fiction clients.

And for those of you who may be interested in sharpening your skills in this area, recently I was fortunate enough to take a developmental editing course through the EFA, taught by Jennifer Lawler (I can’t recommend her series of courses highly enough!). A self-study nonfiction developmental editing course is on offer as well.

Originally posted August 13, 2017

Photo by Hans-Peter Gauster on Unsplash