A few weeks ago, I posted about how we can identify a good editor and the skills a good editor should possess. During those posts, a conversation with fellow developmental editor Stacy Jerger gave me another idea for the blog.
If we haven’t been through the editing process with professionals, we don’t know what to expect. In the case of developmental editing, which focuses on the big picture of our story, characters, and plot, we might not even know—really—what editors do.
That’s not good. We need to understand what’s involved with the different stages of editing to judge whether an editor is right for us and will meet our needs. Stacy’s created processes to ensure her clients know what to expect, so I asked her to share her insights with us today.
(Note: I haven’t used Stacy’s services, so this post should not be taken as an endorsement. However, the fantastic information she shares in this post is helpful to everyone, and I’m happy to have her as a guest so we can all benefit. As with any product or service, only you know your goals and can decide what would be a good fit for your needs.)
Even if we traditionally publish, we still go through a developmental editing phase. So understanding developmental editing is important for everyone. Please welcome developmental editor Stacy Jerger, here to explain the process! *smile*
What to Expect When You
Hire a Developmental Editor
Every type of editor concentrates on a particular skillset, as Jami explained in her post How Can We Identify a Good Editor? After spending months or even years on a manuscript, authors are understandably cautious to hand off their work to a complete stranger. For those who haven’t worked with a developmental editor before, developmental editing can seem intimidating, mysterious, and even threatening.
The assumption I hear most often from authors who haven’t worked with a developmental editor is, “My entire book will be changed, and I won’t have any control.”
Well, who wants that? Authors should never work with any editor who would overstep their wishes. Fortunately, a good developmental editor won’t take control away from an author and will recognize the importance of the author’s voice, story, and goals, and will maintain and enhance those aspects of a manuscript.
But how do you know whether or not you would like to work with a developmental editor? And how can you find out if a particular developmental editor is the right fit for you? As an author, the more you understand developmental editing, the better educated you will be when you decide to work with this type of editor.
What Tasks Does a Developmental Editor Perform?
Working with a developmental editor (DE) means improving and developing your manuscript on a big-picture, story-logic level to prepare it for the next editing processes such as line and copy editing, and proofreading. Several of my copy editor friends blanch at the idea of getting involved at all in an author’s content. And rightfully so. Content editing and story development are areas where any editor should tread carefully.
The range of developmental editing tasks for fiction and creative writing includes:
- structure and plot: timing plot points, strengthening conflict, identifying loose ends and gaps
- content organization: managing backstory, improving connections between ideas, examining order of scenes and paragraphs
- character development: maintaining consistency of traits and voice, timing of emotion and reactions
- setting and description: avoiding extraneous information, including helpful details to ground readers, maintaining consistency, determining how setting affects conflict, tone, action
A good DE will do these tasks with great respect toward the author’s goals.
DEs might perform other content-related tasks, even some that bleed into substantive/line editing, which is sentence-level editing instead of paragraph-level. For example, if the protagonist is eating an apple in one sentence and a few lines down she throws her orange peels into the compost, some DEs would point out the internal inconsistency.
Because DEs may approach the job differently, it’s important to ask your editor what tasks he or she will perform so you can know what to expect.
What Are Some Traits to Look for in a Developmental Editor?
You can determine if a DE has these traits based on discussions, the editor’s feedback and review of your manuscript, and working directly with the editor in a developmental editing process.
A lot of explanation, discussion, and frequent in-line comments are involved in developmental editing because it deals with content-level changes. While each situation is unique, you should be able to follow the DE’s thought process before deciding whether to accept or decline changes.
Comments from a DE can be quite detailed. The DE will diagnose areas that could benefit from revision, and give you an explanation and solution to try. The DE can suggest this solution through rewriting or editing the text, or will instruct you to revise or edit in a comment.
A good DE is going to make these types of suggestions and revisions, not just point out what isn’t working well and leave you confused about how to fix it.
Can creativity play a role in developmental editing? Editors have a natural ability to connect the dots, and when this skill is applied to story development, that’s creativity. A DE sees not only what’s there but also what could be there, and will ask you about it.
Recently, one of my authors approached me and decided to change her plot. She needed almost a complete restructure of her nearly finished manuscript, but she wanted to save as much of her writing as possible. It sounds insurmountable, right? I’m happy that I was able to save ninety percent of her content by reorganizing and repurposing sections. That required some creative thinking, and I realigned her manuscript to the new plot while maintaining her voice and her words.
A DE has to be flexible. Editors know not every idea is going to sit well with an author, and in that case, the DE should be willing to let go of one idea and come up with another. The mutual goal is to find the solution that feels right to the author and works in his or her story. It’s surprising how many different ideas can resolve the same issue.
The working relationship between an author and a DE isn’t a battle. It’s a collaborative partnership in which the DE is a guide and the author gets the final say. If you’re working with a good DE, your goals will be respected, and you will never lose control of your story.
Communication and Honesty
Both the author and the DE are responsible for keeping up the flow of communication. Whether it’s an intensive edit or a manuscript critique, I email my authors a progress update so they know what’s happening on my end.
DEs should always be honest with you concerning the developmental process and manuscript feedback. This doesn’t mean giving harsh opinions, but giving gentle, constructive honesty that leads to a solution. In general, you should never feel uncomfortable asking editors as many questions as you need to. It’s your manuscript at stake.
What Are Consultations Like with a Developmental Editor?
Consultations are helpful and really underused! DEs sometimes offer consultations as part of (or in addition to) their editing services and can help you and a DE feel each other out, discuss options and expectations, and form a mutual understanding.
These consultations often follow one of these styles:
1. The Meet ’n’ Greet
This style of consultation might include a discussion of what a developmental editor does, what that role might be like in your revision process, and how that fits with the goals of your book.
Topics that may be covered:
- The DE can help you decide if you need developmental editing or some other level of editing instead.
- The DE can explain what he or she can do for your manuscript.
- You can ask the DE any questions or discuss concerns about your book.
The DE may also have questions:
- What is your book about?
- Have you ever had feedback on your book before (group critique, writing partner, beta reader)?
- Is this your first time working with an editor/developmental editor?
- Do you have a deadline?
2. The Working Plan
This kind of consultation skips to hatching a working plan together. The working plan ensures everyone is seeing eye to eye about the focus of the book and what editing tasks are required.
3. Advice on Concept
The third type of consultation usually functions as a standalone service and focuses on the concept of your book.
- If you’re at a planning and outlining stage, a DE might help with conceptual guidance, identify themes and target readership, explore ideas on plot and characters, and help you put together a writing process that organizes and suits your way of working.
- If you have a partial manuscript and ran into a rut, a DE might help with identifying the cause of the rut and explore ideas and solutions to get you unstuck and on a path to finishing your book.
- If you have a completed manuscript, a DE might give you a review or analysis so you can make revisions to your content on your own.
In all three scenarios, a developmental editor can bring clarity to your project using his or her editorial mindset and knowledge of story development.
How Does a Developmental Editor Evaluate a Manuscript?
Working with a DE is a two-way street. Just as authors want to choose the best DE for their story, DEs want to ensure a project is a good fit for them. Sometimes that means a DE might want to see some or all of an author’s manuscript before giving an estimate and completing the hiring process.
- In this case, DEs might check a manuscript to determine how areas could be improved from their skillset and knowledge of story structure and content development, as well as ensure that their first impression includes positives.
- If a DE can’t find one thing the author is doing right, he or she shouldn’t take on the project. It would be a disservice to the author if nothing about the manuscript excites the editor.
Having the ability to focus on both the positives and the negatives is often what distinguishes a mediocre editor from a good editor. I think of it this way: if I help the author only correct the negatives, it’s like scrubbing away problems and leaving the author with a manuscript that’s technically working. But there is a more important consideration. Is it singing? If I ignore the positives, I’m doing the author a disservice and missing opportunities to make certain areas shine, and by extension, blow readers away.
A manuscript review is usually unpaid time, but in addition to verifying if I’m a good fit for a manuscript, I do it in hopes of connecting with the author before taking on a project. Some DEs will compensate for this time by having higher hourly rates. In general, DEs are more expensive than other types of editors because they are getting much more involved in your story content.
What Happens After You Hire a Developmental Editor?
After you and the DE agree on a working plan and the DE receives all the information they need from you, he or she will start working on your manuscript.
If all the editing tasks can be completed and given back to you in one round, you could take the information and edits and decide to go on your merry way, or you could revise and re-send it to the DE to confirm all the revisions were implemented well (depending on the editor, this might require extra payment).
Sometimes the number of tasks is too overwhelming for a single pass edit, so they are broken into two or three working rounds. After the first round of edits, you may need to resolve certain things before the DE can move on to the other tasks. This requires more back and forth collaboration during the revision process. If the working plan significantly changes during these multiple passes, the DE and author may revisit the estimate and renegotiate payment details.
The Reality of Developmental Editing
Reality isn’t always fun—that’s why we love fiction, right? While developmental editing is an excellent, valuable, and specialized service, it isn’t a magical cure-all. In an ideal world, money would be no object and you would have all the time you need to work with a developmental editor and make your book the best it can be.
But deadlines cut time short, money runs out, and sometimes every task on a wish list can’t be accomplished. These realities can affect any level of editing, but to prevent an unfinished editing process, DEs have to organize themselves and adapt to certain limitations. If I can’t do every editing task to a manuscript in an allotted timeframe, the author and I will prioritize which issues need the most attention. The manuscript will still be significantly improved and leave the author in a more focused mindset to make additional revisions.
All in all, developmental editing is mentally intensive, but it’s exciting to be an editor at this level because all sorts of story situations crop up, and if I can find solutions that bring joy to authors, well, it’s an amazing feeling.
Authors benefit from a developmental edit because the process not only helps them fix structural issues and develop their content, but also improves their writing craft and grows their storytelling abilities. It’s a very rewarding experience for both editors and authors.
(Even editors need editors. This blog post was copy edited by Abby Wucherer and Kate Bolen.)
Stacy Jerger (@StacyJerger on Twitter) loves sinking into fictional worlds and introducing herself to new characters. She works as a freelance developmental editor with new and experienced authors and believes every manuscript has potential. You can learn more about her editing services and find her blogging about writing and story development at www.apoideaeditorial.com.
Thank you, Stacy! Hopefully your great insights will help everyone know what developmental editors do and what to expect when we work with one.
As a developmental editor myself, I completely agree with Stacy’s editing philosophy:
- A good DE will recognize the author’s voice and the story’s goals and work to enhance those aspects.
- A good DE will explain their thought process because there are many ways to resolve an issue, and the better we understand the underlying problem, the better our chances of coming up with solutions that fit the story, our goals, and our voice.
When we find a good DE, the process shouldn’t make us feel like we’re losing control of our story. Rather we should feel like our story is finding its wings. *smile*
Do you have any questions about developmental editing or for Stacy? Have you worked with a DE before? If so, what did you like about the process? What didn’t you like about the process? If you haven’t, does this post make you feel better about the idea of a DE digging into your story?