How to do a developmental edit: understanding how it works before you hire an editor

You’ve likely heard the term “developmental editing” tossed around. The term will vary from editor to editor, much like how “hot yoga” can mean a lot, depending on which studio you go to.

This is because editing has become the Wild West of publishing. We can thank the rise of online publishing for this. Before the 1990s, editing services were mostly limited to the traditional publishing houses. Editors who freelanced on the side were mostly helping writers strengthen their books for submission.

There was no need to look past the “editor” hat and talk about developmental editing, substantive editing, or structural editing.

But that’s all changed with self-publishing. It is now the new frontier for authors who aren’t just strengthening manuscript for a publisher. Self-publishing authors have to emulate the steps involved in a publishing house, and in fact, they have the opportunity to do even better by hiring the right team and understanding the process well.

The most important first step is understand what a developmental edit is.

To put it in perspective, let’s talk about three kinds of editors you might encounter.

The cheerleader editor:

Many authors who pay for developmental editing end up disappointed because of what I like to call the cheerleader editor.

They might receive an abundance of comments like:

  • “Oooooh, I love the suspense here! Great plotting.”

Or:

  • “This scene is dragging, really need to rewrite.”

You might get some suggestions, but you’ll mostly find their edits consist of fixing typos, cutting repetitive words (i.e. overuse of “that”), tweaking commas, and occasionally reordering phrases.

But these are the kinds of edits you mom, spouse, or good friend could give you. They are what you might expect from a beta reader you’ve asked to read for input on your book. They aren’t worth $60/hour.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with an editor who adds compliments, or adds comments about pacing and assess reader engagement. I personally make sure I add these into every editing job I do. There’s nothing like an uplifting compliment when you are wading through hundreds of critical edits. It reminds you that, though your editor is doing their job well and thoroughly, they are still thinking about the value of your story and enjoying it.

Side note: an editor should always be honest, otherwise what are you paying them for? When I’ve encountered a story that’s falling flat and giving me nothing to cheer for, I stop while I’m ahead and prepare an editorial letter for the author suggesting revisions. The only thing worse than paying an editor $60/hour for a meticulous developmental edit is paying them $60/hour for a developmental edit on a book that you’ll later wish you’d put away for a while, or not published at all if you’d been better advised.

The show-off editor:

At the other extreme is the show-off editor. Their comments might look like this:

  • “The character arc here is failing to execute due to how the tension between plot and theme are intersecting. I recommend you consult Joyce and Wilde for structural comparisons, and draw from archetypes.”

Or:

  • “The symbolism in this scene is very powerful. Great choice of imagery to match the idea of an ascending spirit, as per the overarching theme of the book. Conjures images of Proust.”

These are the kinds of comments you’d expect from a pretentious book reviewer, or a literary critic, or someone making notes for their university literature class. These comments are absolutely useless to a writer who is trying to determine exactly what revisions they need to do in the limited time they have without pulling their hair out and throwing their computer out the window.

That said, there’s nothing wrong with an editor paying attention to symbolism or theme, or mood or style comparisons. Just like adding compliments, it shows additional perspective if an editor can, when relevant, point out how your novel is fulfilling its genre expectations, or how well your writing executes the tension of a suspenseful scene.

Side note: in a developmental edit, an editor will summarize global comments in categories, such as genrecharacters, plot, scene execution, and craft. You can expect to see some analysis and comparisons to other existing books, consideration of genre expectations, analysis of plot holes, and discussion on your craft habits and craft conventions. There might be some notes in the manuscript accompanying the edits themselves, but these should feel secondary. You will have a sense of the edits that are local, i.e. assessed for each specific line given the context of that line, vs edits that are global, i.e. broader perspective notes tacked in a given place, but which apply to a larger arc.

For example, sometimes when I have an overarching remark on a plot issue that’s developed across a sequence of chapters, I will put a comment right on the header of the first chapter and say in the note something to the effect, “This comment applies to the chapter 12-16 arc. I will label comments related to this in bold font with the label ’12-16 note’.” What this allows me to do is communicate clearly with the author how that exact comment fits, in a global sense, with other specific comments unified under one specific editing issue.

The Goldilocks editor:

Somewhere “just right” in the middle between the two extremes is the Goldilocks editor. You’ll find these sorts of edits:

  • “I rearranged these two sentences because we want to ensure cause before effect.”
  • “I’ve rephrased this to avoid the passive construction, and disembodied description (see editorial letter on disembodied description habits).”
  • “You can cut this sentence. The thought is already implied by what she says in the previous sentence, and reader will infer via subtext. Especially here, you want to avoid over-narrating because it slows the pace of the dialogue.”

You’ll notice that one thing all these edits have in common: they refer to specific in-line changes and suggestions. They augment real edits you can work with. Your editor isn’t just phoning it in and telling you, with a hand-waving ease, “You need to rewrite this, it’s boring.” Your editor is giving you a prescription.

That’s a good word because of the analogy. If you went to a doctor with a health concern and the doctor just told you, “It sounds like you might be having warning signs of a stroke,” then sent you home, that would be useless. You aren’t going to the doctor just to be told you have a serious medical condition. You’re going to the doctor, and paying lots of money, so that you can find out what’s wrong and how to fix it.

$60/hour is not a small sum of money. It’s on the cheap end for editing, as some editors with big house experience charge up to $200/hour or more. Whether $60/hour of $200/hour, you aren’t paying just for a diagnosis. You want an expert editor with expert skill who will sweat and toil expertly over every single sentence of your story, think of every paragraph and sequence of paragraphs, of every scene and chapter, of all the plots, character arcs, reader promises, of the line-by-line tension and narrative drive that must persist every single line from line 1 to the final line when the reader closes the book and thinks, “Damnit! When is the next book coming out?”

Caveat: the difference between voice rape and editing:

Rape is a strong word and I will apologize if this word offends you. But it is the correct type of word to describe the crime of an “editor” violating an author’s voice and vision with their own.

Developmental editors will cut. They will rearrange. They will rework phrasing. They will fill in “example” prose to highlight a certain type of phrasing they want the author to provide (a principle called a “minimum viable edit”, which means, if you like what they did, you could hit “approve” and you’re ready to go).

A good analogy is how the editors work on a movie.

In film, the director will create a wealth of shots during filming. It’s a jumble and there’s no way those shots are anywhere near the final movie. When the editors take over, their job is to refine the excess of shots and piece them together into the movie that is going to keep the audience on the edge of their seats minute after minute.

For the most part, the editors are cutting, splicing, and organizing. The whole time, they are doing so critically and carefully. Sometimes, they will realize something is missing. That means the crew and director might be going back for some last-minute shots. The editors push for whatever it takes to get that final movie working.

Never once, though, do the editors make new shots themselves. They don’t deviate from the direction of the film. They are using their expert skill to work with the mastery of the directors, producers, actors, sound and special effects crews, and everyone involved.

Your developmental editor likewise will get in there with a strong hand and in some places, if needed, hack relentlessly. They will not change words and phrases just because they think “this one is better,” but they will provide a suggested change if certain words or phrases you used were confusing or break the narrative drive. Each and every time, and every single edit, you should be able to see their justification, and, most importantly, that the edits are suggestions — minimum viable edits which act like doctor prescriptions you can follow, yet which you can modify if you feel they don’t quite work.

At the end of the day, when I’m doing a developmental edit for an author, I am thinking purely about the author on the receiving end of my edits and the experience they are going to have. That means I’m thinking about efficiency on their end. I want them to have a sense of what they have to do, and if ever they disagree (and everyone is going to disagree, since I’m not telepathic), they know what I’m thinking and can provide alternatives that gel with their vision.

Putting it all together:

Contrary to what many people think when they think about developmental edits, a developmental editor isn’t just following a check-list. There is no hard line between when a specific edit is best made as a comment with examples and suggestions, or when it’s best shown through a cut or rearrangement with comment to justify. If there’s a typo that gets crushed in the process, you can’t blame your editor for loving the Law of Grammar, but of course, this should be the exception, as the copyeditor who will work on your book after the developmental edits are complete will be tasked specifically with sound grammar, punctuation, and clarity.

Think of your developmental editor as your first line of defense. All the heavy lifting happens here, and the biggest bogeymen are going to be chased out of the closet, all corners of consideration carefully dusted.

The goal of a developmental edit is to produce a manuscript that the copyeditor will delight to pick apart further as they focus less on story, and more on clarity and final form. And that in turn will produce a manuscript that’s almost print-ready, which your proofreader will go over with fresh eyes to make sure it’s bullet-proof. A developmental edit done will will mean the copyeditor can delight at what they do best, and not wonder, “Why wasn’t this edited?” and likewise, a proofreader will not wonder, “How did these issues slip through the previous two editors?”

There are so many nuances in how to do a developmental edit that the only way to keep learning them is to keep reading more articles on specifics. For my part, I will write more (please leave requests in the comments, or email me), but want to start with the basics in this article about what it is and how it works.

And, of course, I am but one editor coming up for air to share some tidbits, so enjoy these and add them to your growing collection of resources, as you become a smarter self-publishing writer in this Wild West of opportunity for authors looking ahead to the 2020s.

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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9 Responses to How to do a developmental edit: understanding how it works before you hire an editor

  1. Jamie Brindle says:

    Really interesting read. Many thanks 🙂 >

    • John Robin says:

      My pleasure! I’m enjoying the educational on-editing posts lately and look forward to writing more along these lines. Any request for future topics, please let me know. I’ll be making notes 🙂

  2. landofoyr says:

    so if i got this right (correct me since you are the expert) there is development edit first then copy edit and then proofreading?
    my concern is that for a 100k fantasy novel (which is the standard) if an author decides to go for all three editing services the cost may rise to $10k and if an indie novel is sold at $ 5 with about $3 for the author in amazon for example then the book should sold more than 3k copies to cover just the editing costs! let alone marketing, cover, format etc.
    so we are talking about 5+k sales for 0 profit!
    i find this intimidating so say the least

    • John Robin says:

      You are correct on the order. Regarding the cost, you’re right to be intimidated. I’ve spent over $10,000 on editing on A Thousand Roads, though that was over several years so I was able to budget. It’s a big investment, though I don’t regret it. That all said, you can sometimes get editors for lower rates. I was just using my personal rate as an example. I oversee editors with my company and we charge $35/hour for that. It’s still a bigger cost for 100k+ fantasy. We also offer hybrid services for those on a budget. For example, you can get a 2-round revision where the first and second editor divide up the copyediting objectives strategically. I’ve worked with a number of authors using this model and the results were very satisfying for all parties involved. That said, if you want to emulate the gold standard of what the traditional industry is doing, 3 editors divided up in this way is the way to go.

      And, for what it’s worth, I hear you on the profit woes of fantasy. The same can be true of any genre. Profit and loss calculations are more suitable for high turnaround models. For example, if you were writing 25k romance novels once a month, you’d want to be sure the cost and revenue aren’t out of balance or else that’s going to be a steady charge into debt! For something like an epic fantasy you spend years on that’s your pride and joy, well, for me personally anyway, I’ve seen it as akin to raising a child: college costs a lot bit if you don’t put them through it they can’t get out in the world and make you proud. My next epic book will take me 8 years, so I’ll be tucking savings away.

      • landofoyr says:

        i am not sure i want to put emotions into way because as a self publisher i am also an business man so i want a return for my investment
        its a tough choise though: you want to be recognised for your quality so that you can sell more but you wont sell a lot in the begining so you need to be careful about loses!
        thats business choises not author ones though!

        • John Robin says:

          You definitely make a great point, Viel! I know that perspective on editing cost for something bigger and harder to know ROI will vary from writer to writer. My own perspective has been, trying to make a living just on one big fantasy epic from the get-go is very hard and I decided (for my own sanity) to see it as a passion project that I hope, with time and continued growth of audience, will take off. Or maybe the sequel will pull in bigger audience and have more people buy the first. Etc. What that has forced me to do is look beyond just that one fantasy epic book, and broader to the goal: “I want to make a living on writing as a writer.” That’s helped me explore other options, i.e. I write courses for Highbrow and those are what help me make a living as a writer and keep doing what I’m doing. I also ghostwrite and make money on shorter stuff. Generating the funds to get the quality edits done on A Thousand Roads, and now Blood Dawn to come is all done in perspective of how overall cost on all efforts is balanced by income from all revenues. If I make $20,000 on writing income from all endeavors added together, then I’m at $0 with regard to the two fantasy epics, for example. But as you point out well, it’s quite a balancing act and difficult. In my case, you can see how my tack on this means spreading my time thinner, i.e. I wouldn’t anticipate 8 years to write my next epic book if I could spend 100% of my writing time on it and only it. That said (and I’ve been over this many times in my reflections on career path): slower is better, and I’m really convinced, for me anyway, that writing other things and spending more time researching will mean Blood Dawn will be all the better for it. And of course, if (and when, one must hope) the epic sales take off, then of course I’d focus more time on the next one. As one of my editors and career mentors once told me, “This epic of yours is a slow-growing snowball. Don’t think too much of instant success. Think of about how big it will be when it’s rolling down strong, giant, and unrelenting. Your job now, and in years to come, is to keep it rolling, and do whatever it takes not to stop.” So, we do what we can, to keep our truest vision and passion coming out in our writing, while keeping up the juggling act of making money at it. There is some necessary soul-selling, but with it comes a promise of eventual emancipation.

  3. Paula Cappa says:

    Hi John, I’ve never heard the term “voice rape” in editing. Can you give us a specific example of what that would look like on an edited manuscript page? Your film analogy doesn’t quite make it clear to me.

    • John Robin says:

      Thanks Paula!

      Let’s say you had this in your manuscript:

      “She danced fleetingly down the stairs, wisps of starlight in her hair. There, at the bottom landing, he stood, his raiment clad with the deeper shadow of the room. Smoke wreathed him, the cigarette burning like a coal before his hidden eyes.”

      Here is voice rape:

      “She went down the stairs. On the main floor, her mate was tapping his foot, smoking.”

      In this example the editor as “cut down” your fiction but inserted themselves in the process. They’ve rewritten what you’ve written beautifully and in a unique voice. I’ve seen this done by writers who offer editing services but aren’t necessarily trained in editing principles. It’s often done in writing critique groups where boundaries aren’t established, ie the writer who wants to rewrite your story how they’d want to write it, rather than suggest edits that work with your story to make it stronger.

      To take that same example and show how an ethical editor might approach this:

      “She danced fleetingly down the stairs, wisps of starlight in her hair. There, at the bottom landing, he stood, his raiment clad with the deeper shadow of the room. Smoke wreathed him, the cigarette burning like a coal before his hidden eyes.”

      Not a thing changed at all if this is literary, or depending on the voice and style of the rest of the chapter. If this were, say, an action novel and the writer waxed literary like that and it were out of place, I’d suggest some cuts (ie “fleetingly” is an adverb that pushes the prose to the purple end of the spectrum; I might reorder the phrase “he stood” to we have “there he stood, at the bottom…” so it’s less poetic and clearer choreography; I might suggest “his cigarette” vs “the cigarette” to match the pronoun in the first clause of the last sentence; I might place a comment on the whole passage pointing out that it’s waxing poetic and disjointed with the action-driven pacing, of this were the middle of an action scene for example).

      What I hope that illustrates is how, like the film editor, an ethical editor works with the shots presented and makes sure they tell the best story they can. If they need more shots, the director gets involved and calls the crew back; analogously, the author does some rewrites based on the prescriptive layout the editor provides in the comments and in-line suggestions. It should always be clear, in each and every edit, that the edits are suggestions, even the ruthless cuts, though a good editor won’t make a single cut or change without being able to justify it so well the author will feel like they are somehow kindred spirits. That’s the tough part of being an editor — slipping into the skin of an author’s prose, living it, breathing it — but I think it’s critical to being a great editor, since it comes down to respect, even reverence, for the sanctity of just what you’ve been trusted with.

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