How to do a developmental edit yourself — a self-editing guide for writers

Friday is here again, which means another blog post from me!

Today I’m following up on last week’s post on the importance of developmental editing, by popular request, with a how-to for writers who want to try and do it themselves. (If you missed last week’s post, read it here.)

Meanwhile, on our blog, I hope you enjoyed this week’s post from Byron Gillan, on magic and environment in fantasy (read it here) and Sean Gallagher’s great post on his own magic in the world of Mysts (read it here). Next month, we’ll be talking about what inspires us to write the fantasy stories we write, so stay tuned for that.

Before I dive into the how-to, I want to announce something exciting that I’m starting next Friday. World Builders 3.0!

For those who followed the World Builders series, this started with the original world builders (read those posts here), wherein I interviewed several authors with a set of questions they answered on their process of world building. After this series, I got excited about several epic fantasy author worlds and followed up with these authors in a more D&D-style questionnaire where they painted a detailed picture of their world — World Builders 2.0, which ran from February to April of 2016 (read those here).

Well, now that I’m getting ready to tackle the second draft of Blood Dawn (and a BIG update on that coming soon), I’m thinking more about world building and I’ve been working with Malkuthe, one of our contributors, to develop a meta-questioning method, a sort of “world builders how-to”. We’ve decided that we’re going to turn this development process into a blog series that covers rigorously how to develop a fantasy world. I hope you’re as excited as we are about the start of this series — World Builders 3.0!

Okay, on to today’s how-to — writers of all stripes, read on if you want to find out how to do a developmental edit yourself, from an editor with more than 60 projects under his belt (not that I’m bragging, but I do think it’s important you know I didn’t just conjure this “how-to” out of thin air).

How to do a developmental self-edit (with some of the core principles of developmental editing)

Developmental editing, as defined in my previous post, is the second step in the editing process. Ideally, you should include the first and step together, so that means you are going to read you manuscript (or someone else’s manuscript) twice.

I will assume you are going to do the complete process. I will add a special note for those who choose to do one revision and combine steps 1 and 2.

Step 1: Print your manuscript out, or put it in .epub or some other format where you CAN’T change it as you read

This step is very important. If you are self-editing your work, you MUST divorce yourself from your inner writer. Unfortunately, you will lose a significant amount of objectivity when you self-edit your work, because you are the one who wrote it and you will have a lot of assumptions about what you think it communicates, when in fact to someone who DIDN’T write it, what you think you are communicating might not be clear. You CAN optimize your objectivity in how you approach your work critically, however, if you separate your inner writer from your inner editor. To do this, you must remove yourself from the ability to “fix” what you see.

Step 2: Read your manuscript through like you’d read a book. Take notes somewhere separately, and sparingly, ideally stopping after every scene to make one, then resuming reading and not stopping until the end of the next scene

The goal of the editorial assessment is to experience the book the way a reader will experience it. Think about how you would read a book you just bought. You don’t stop every few pages to make notes on mistakes or ways to fix the book. If you do stop it’s to reflect on questions the story is creating within you or reactions you are having – be they good or bad. If there is a major plot hole, it’s going to nag you and pull you out of the story, but likely, unless the writing is very bad and the story has lost your interest, you will keep reading while taking note of what’s bothering you.

That’s the idea behind the editorial assessment reading. Read your book like a reader. Have a notebook for after your reading sessions so you can journal your thoughts on what you’re encountering. Think critically while you read.

But don’t think about how to fix what’s wrong, because that’s your inner writer at work and it’s working against you. Think like a reader, and an editor, where your goal is to think about the book and what’s working or not working and why – this does not include how to fix it.

Step 3: What to focus on

This guide will not cover all the principles of storytelling mechanics, so it will be assumed as a writer you are constantly making efforts to educate yourself on principles of writing craft as can be found in the numerous self-help books for writers. With this knowledge in mind, as you do an assessment on your work pay attention to:

1) Does each scene advance your protagonist’s journey in a meaningful way?

2) If your protagonist is not involved in a scene, does the scene still advance the protagonist’s story through events that the reader will, in the scene or later, realize are significant?

3) Do you keep all your promises? If you introduce something in one scene, does it pay off later? Are there any dangling ends?

4) Are the scene narrators’ motives always clear to the reader? This includes withholding thoughts or feelings or intentions in first person or limited third person narration.

5) Do your scenes move with a reasonable amount of dialogue to balance passages of narration? Are there places where the story seems to drag because it’s “told” to the reader, where instead it could be shown through the use of dialogue or increased narrative proportion?

6) Is the pacing consistent with the scene mood? In an action scene, for example, the pacing should be quicker and the proportion lesser and grounded in direct connection to the narrative present. In a reflective scene where the scene narrator is undergoing an inner change the pacing will be slower and the narrative proportion greater to highlight more thoughts and feeling and how they relate to the more immediate present.

7) Do your scenes all open on a hook? Upon reading the opening paragraph, is there a connection to narrator, an immediate and tangible present moment that’s accessible visually, and has a sense of place and time? Does this hook move forward relentlessly to the closing scene hook?

8) Does each scene have a focus? Every scene must be focused on advancing the protagonist’s journey of change. You should be able to summarize what happens in the scene in a way that you can connect to the protagonist’s journey, even if it’s indirect.

9) Does every scene have a closing hook? This mean the scene ends in a way where the reader has a sense that the change to the protagonist’s journey established by the scene focus continues forward, thus leaving the reader eager to pick up on this thread again. If you are writing multiple narrators, then your secondary point of view characters should also have their own secondary arcs that affect the protagonist, which means the end of each secondary point of view character scene should end open and end with two hooks, based on the two foci of how the scene evolves the protagonist’s journey, and how it evolves the individual second point of view character’s journey.

10) Is your voice consistent? If you have multiple narrators, does each one have consistent voice?

11) Do elements of your plot feel contrived or confusing? Are the reveals at all times clear and logical or do they sometimes feel forced or thrown in?

12) Is there repetition? This could be scenes or sequences of scenes that feel similar. This could be story elements such as characters or character events that seem to be similar, or plot events or plot elements that seem similar. This also includes repeated words or phrases or sentence structures. If you notice it, then that means it’s getting your attention and taking your attention away from the story, so it’s worth noting.

Step 4: When you are finished, put all your notes together

You will now have notes from each scene on what’s struck you throughout reading your book. Now, put it all together. Try to organize it by grouping similar things together into categories. It’s a good rule of thumb to separate plot, character, and craft, and I also recommend following with scene-specific notes after summarizing the big picture information.

As you put this all together, you can elaborate on your notes with some further analysis you might make having read the entire book, or from seeing patterns or themes as your put your scene-by-scene notes together.

Step 5: Write yourself a letter, but pretend you are writing it for the author of the book, and that author isn’t you

With all your notes together, your goal is to make yourself a letter. You will want to start with strengths and what you loved. Then you can segue into the critical information, which is what you will have arrived at from the previous step. After all details are outlined, follow up with some suggested remedies based on everything outlined.

Imagine when you’re writing this letter that you are giving yourself instructions on what to do when you go back to your manuscript as writer. In practice, this letter you are writing is what a developmental editor will prepare for the author, so it’s meant to inform on big picture elements, with a lot of freedom given to the author. The editor DOES provide some suggestions in this step, however these suggestions are broad, i.e. “what about making character X more inquisitive so that his scenes, in which he’s always analytical, become more engaging and feel less passive?” or “what about making plot element X simpler, such as [suggestion A], or even [suggestion B]?”

Step 6: Rewrite your manuscript using your “editor’s” letter as a guide

Now you can become a writer again. Open your manuscript. Open the letter you finished writing yourself, reading it over critically and thinking about just what you need to do.

I always recommend going in order of easy, moderate, hard. (Read this post on the three-tied approach, and this post on how to take hard feedback and put it into action.) Use the strike-through font feature in Word to cross our sentences in the editorial letter once you’ve dealt with them.

The first time through, fix what’s easy. If all your characters says “Ah!” a lot, that’s a simple “find” search over your manuscript where you can decide which characters might suit that (based on voice) and which characters might say something different. That goes in “easy” since it doesn’t take a lot of thought and planning.

The second time through, fix what’s moderate in difficulty. Maybe there’s a scene where the protagonist’s motives aren’t clear and it needs some rewriting. That’s going to take some time, maybe a few hours, but it’s localized to the scene and something you can tackle. Go through and decide which battles you want to pick and think you can tackle in about an hour or less. Do them, and use strikethrough to cross them off your letter.

The last time through, you’re going to be left with what’s hard. At this point, I recommend making a road map. Save the file as a new file and clear away all the easy and moderate. Try to break down everything left and, in the new file or somewhere in your manuscript, start writing out plans for how you will address the given issue. Use this as a guide as you dive in. Hard issues can be ones that take all day or even days each, so you’ll want to pick one and give the manuscript your time focused on that one issue. Good examples of this could be if the politics as outlined in your story world is murky and you decide to introduce an entirely different backdrop and implement it throughout the manuscript; or perhaps a character is redundant and you choose to cut them our – you’ll have to comb through every scene and change the story to remove their imprint on it; alternatively, you might choose to keep that redundant character by brainstorming a way to make them matter, in which case you’re going to be doing lots of rewriting.

Step 7: Become an editor again and this time do a developmental edit

This is the second step in the editing process. After you are all done your rewrites, “submit” your manuscript to yourself. This time you can open it in Word and use the comments / track changes feature to edit it, but remember, you MUST NOT DO ANY REWRITING! I can’t emphasize this enough. It’s hard, however, in this step because as editor you will be highlighting problems and will be a few finger strokes away from switching from editor to writer. If you catch yourself in writer mode, try to be cognizant of this and switch out. It’s something that will develop with discipline (and ultimately, this is why paying to have a professional editor is far more advantageous than relying on self-editing for this step).

Step 8: How to do a developmental edit

Developmental editing proceeds much like the editorial assessment, but slower. Unlike the editorial assessment, where your goal was to read the scene then make notes, in the developmental edit, since you’ve already seen the whole book once, you now will be zeroing in on issues as you encounter them and putting a comment bubble there with questions or concerns you encounter. It’s okay to provide suggestions in your comments, just as long as they are to illustrate and not to figure out what you have to rewrite.

Work your way through the entire novel. Being the writer, you will have a better sense of what you changed, so you can pay attention to how the book has improved from the editorial letter suggestions (in publishing, the developmental editor does this as well, except they will recall what they suggested the writer fix and see how the manuscript has improved, and provide more pointed feedback in comments where it might need further work).

In developmental editing, you want to avoid getting too caught up in what might SEEM like small changes but in fact are time wasters. An example of this might be spotting repeated words and wanting to “fix” that problem, only to spend several minutes rethinking a paragraph and – guess what – rewriting! Simple typos are fine. As a rule, if it takes you more than 3 seconds to think of what you have to do, throw a comment on it and try to describe why it bothers you so you have the notes for later when you come back and rewrite.

Step 9: Specific issues for developmental editing

Just as with the editorial assessment, developmental editing focuses on issues of how the story is told and is not concerned with getting words and grammar perfect. You will still use the same focus as laid out in step 3, however you might also focus on:

1) Does the given sequence within a scene move it forward or has something occurred to disconnect you as a reader?

2) Is the description or narration in a given paragraph or collection of paragraphs confusing or does it feel rushed or inconsistent from the tone and mood of the rest of the scene?

3) Is the point of view consistent?

4) Is there an awkward part to a given dialogue?

5) Does a given scene narrator feel absent in what the narrator is describing at any time? Are there spots where you feel they might share more of what they intend or think as they are learning new information?

6) Does something SEEM off to you but you don’t know why? If so, highlight it and say that. If you can’t put your finger on it, don’t spend too long. Just try to say why it’s bothering you so that later when you come back and rewrite, you can remember why you left that note for yourself.

NOTE: I am senior editor and founder of Story Perfect Editing Services and have been involved in developmental editing on dozens of projects ranging from short stories, to partials, to full novels. Even after all this work I still continue to refine my process, and so for this reason I assert that these steps are meant as a starting point. The only way to truly learn how to be a good developmental editor is to get practice, ideally under an overseeing editor who can critique your approach. While there are numerous “checklist” items one might follow in a developmental edit, the reality is that every story is going to present different challenges, wherein you will make use of all your knowledge of storytelling principles to come up with the best possible solutions. This is the reason why as a writer investing in quality editing from a professional is to your advantage, not just because of the objectivity the editor has, but because the editor is trained through experience and has refined this skill in a way that goes well beyond anything that a checklist or a textbook can teach.

Step 10: When you are done, switch back to writer mode and go over your edits using the easy, moderate, hard approach

After you have completed the developmental edit, now you can switch back into writer mode and start to do the revisions to address your comments. As with the editorial assessment rewrite, aim to go over your document 3 times, once to clear away easy-to-fix things (i.e. “This character’s eyes are green, but they’re brown here”), a second time to clear away moderately tough things to fix (i.e. “The pacing is still off here in this action sequence, it feels rushed”) and a third time to deal with the hard-to-fix things.

As with the editorial assessment rewrite, upon reaching the hard comments, you might wish to stop and brainstorm solutions before diving into rewrites. Does your plot still feel contrived but you aren’t sure why? This is going to take some thought and care to address. Focus on that one issue and brainstorm alternatives until it’s done, or if you’re struggling with it, brainstorm and move on to other hard issues, coming back to that particular issue later, perhaps after having a critical insight. The idea is don’t rush this or push for artificial progress, because it will mean introducing rewrites that only shift the problem elsewhere.

Ideally, if you can, submit your revised manuscript to beta readers to get some further input on issues you were most concerned about, asking them specifically to give you their comments on them.

Step 11: When you are done, you’re ready for copyedits

This guide was written for Inkshares Quill authors, but for any author going through this process, your next step will be copyediting. Copyediting is essentially a focus on clear wording, proper grammar, punctuation, spelling, and internal logic. It also aims to cut away redundant words to reduce word count as much as possible (meaning fewer pages to print and hence lower cost / unit, and smaller width for bookshelf space).

I hope you found this useful, and please, if you have any questions, send me an email:


About John Robin

John Robin is an epic fantasy writer, professional editor, and lover of imaginary worlds. He write stories about magic and myth, human suffering and the power to rise above it. He loves world building, coffee shops, mathematics, chess, and is an avid author community builder.
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