December 29, 2016

Picking Editors: Tips for Finding a Developmental Editor

Cranes building skyscrapers with text: Which Editor Will Best Help Us Develop?

A couple of years ago, I wrote a series of posts here about how to find the best editor for us. I covered the differences between the types of editors and gave tips on how to evaluate editors to determine their strengths (especially as an editor’s skills don’t always match their title description). Finally, we explored how the “best” editor is a subjective label.

We all have different strengths and weaknesses and thus need different things from our editors. Just because an editor comes with a great recommendation doesn’t mean they’d be the best editor for us.

The best editor isn’t the one who came with the highest recommendation for meeting another author’s needs. The best editor is the one who meets our needs, who we trust to be our partner, and who we trust to improve our work in the way we want.

The usual advice for how to find a good match for us includes asking questions, getting a sample edit, etc. However, as I’ve mentioned many times, the process is more difficult for finding developmental editors (or sometimes called content editors).

Why Is It Harder to Evaluate Developmental Editors?

Developmental editors look at the big picture: the story arc, plot flow, pacing, tension, stakes, character development, motivations, theme, etc. Many of those elements don’t reveal themselves in a sample edit, which is typically the best strategy for finding a good editor-match.

While a few pages can let a line or copy editor mark typos, point out unclear sentences, etc. those pages—or even a whole first chapter—will reveal only the starting point for the big picture of a story. A developmental editor can’t comment on whether a Black Moment is dark enough or a plot flows smoothly enough, etc. The story-level insights a developmental editor can glean from a sample edit are so limited that we can’t get a good feel for how good of an editor they are.

In fact, as a freelance developmental editor, I don’t even offer sample edits. I know from both an editor and an author’s point of view how they’re too limited to do much good. They’re often just a waste of time.

So if the usual advice of “get a sample edit” isn’t that helpful for finding a developmental editor, how should we approach finding a developmental editor who’s a good match for us?

4 Qualities to Evaluate with Developmental Editors

Let’s take a step back and think about what we want to learn about potential editors before hiring them. As I mentioned in this post, we want to know their strengths with these four qualities:

#1: A Keen Eye for Issues

The main reason we need editors is because we can’t see our own problems, but they can’t give us feedback on problems they don’t notice either. So the best editor for us is one who looks for the issues we need them to and who is skilled enough to find those types of issues.

To share an example of the issues a developmental editor should notice, these are the story elements I look to improve in my editing clients’ work:

  • story and character arcs (and if applicable, the romance arc)
  • plot events and turning points
  • conflicts, stakes, and tension
  • pacing and information dumps
  • characterization and likeability
  • goals and motivations
  • story and character themes
  • general writing issues, like showing versus telling and point-of-view usage

Evaluation Tip: Whether we come across a developmental editor’s name from a website or a recommendation, we can look for evidence of the type of issues they find. Do they list what they focus on? Does the editor’s site include testimonials mentioning some of those story elements? Can we ask our friend giving the recommendation which of these elements they received feedback on?

#2: An Understanding of Issues and Their Causes

In addition to being able to look for those story elements above, a developmental editor needs a deep understanding of how they interrelate. How one element affects other elements—like I explained in my guest post at Writers Helping Writers—is key to identifying the cause of many problems.

For example, if they don’t understand story structure, they might not be able to pinpoint why something feels off about the story goals that should be established around the 25% mark. A good developmental editor should know what culprits to look at if pacing is slow. Or if they tell us our character is unlikable, they should be able to tell us what’s creating that impression.

Evaluation Tip: Do those testimonials or friends giving recommendations mention how the editor’s feedback was able to pinpoint why something was a problem? If we receive a recommendation from a friend, ask to see some of the feedback they received (it’s even better if we’ve beta read that same story and can compare the editor’s feedback with our impression of the story). Then we’ll know just how in-depth and insightful the edits from this editor can be.

#3: A Knowledge of Potential Solutions

Some authors just need to have problems pointed out to them, and they’ll take it from there. Others like to receive suggestions for how to fix those issues. The best editor for us will be one whose strengths match up with our weaknesses.

For example, some developmental editors might not have ideas for how to make a character more likable. They’d only be able to point out that the character was unlikable and maybe some of the phrases or sections that caused the impression. Other developmental editors would be able to point out most of the phrases causing that impression (so the author could tweak or delete them), as well as be able to give other ideas for how to increase the character’s likability. Either type of editor could be a good match for certain authors.

For me as an author, I love seeing suggestions from my editors, even if their thoughts won’t work for my story. I have a photographic memory, so once words are committed to the screen, I have a hard time seeing alternatives. Suggestions, even off-track ones, help shake loose my own brainstorming to see other possibilities.

That said, when editors do give suggestions, they should be offered as suggestions—not obligations. As an editor, whenever I give big suggestions, I include lots of disclaimers and explanations so authors understand the problem and can come up with a solution that will work even better for their story.

Evaluation Tip: Like in the sections above, we can check testimonials, recommendations, and maybe even an example of an edit for evidence of how the editor usually approaches this situation: Do they give suggestions and if so, how are they presented? In addition, we can also watch out for hints on their website or in communications of their attitude: Do they think they’re always right or have the best answer?

Only we know what we want our story to be, and we have the right to not have our dreams for our book stomped on by a pushy editor. A good editor will respect our story for what we want it to be.

#4: An Ability to Communicate

In most aspects of our life, we can learn a lot about others by how they communicate, and the same goes for developmental editors. In our email exchanges while we’re evaluating them, we can pay attention to whether their communication style will work for us:

  • Are they willing to answer questions? If not, what’s going to happen post-edit if we don’t understand their feedback?
  • Are they pushy about getting us to sign up? If so, what does that say about their willingness to listen to our needs?
  • Do they offer other services that might be a better match for us? (Not all editors offer other services, but sometimes we might need a “lighter” or “heavier” edit. Or maybe a story analysis would be more helpful in identifying the big issues without paying for a full edit.)
  • Do they seem eager to help us take advantage of their knowledge or talk about how they want to help us reach our potential?
  • Do they maintain a humble attitude rather than assuming their way is the only way?

Evaluation Tip: In testimonials or if we’ve seen their feedback to others, is their feedback style a good match for us (harsh vs. gentle, suggestions or not, explanations or “just do it this way,” etc.)? The ability to feel like we’re on the same page as our editor is important to building trust, so we need to listen to the voice inside us during interactions with a potential editor. Do we feel listened to? Do we feel respected?

What’s the Process for Evaluating a Developmental Editor?

To evaluate a potential editor, we can take some or all of the following approaches:

  • Check a potential editor’s website for their description of services. (What do they say they do? Is that what we need?)
  • Compare our genre with their experience. (Different genres have different expectations about point of view, descriptions, character development and likeability, etc.)
  • Read testimonials and look for clues about their editor qualities.
  • Ask for referrals/recommendations and follow up with questions about the specific feedback they received.
  • Analyze their communications with us to determine style and attitudes.
  • Ask clients to share examples of feedback.

Every editor has their own specific process as far as initial contact, follow-up, and scheduling, so it’s hard to come up with any one-size-fits-all suggestion for how to evaluate a developmental editor. But as I’ve been on both sides of the process, I want to share one more tip on what I’ve found most helpful: an evaluation submission.

#1 Tip: Ask to Submit a Sample for Evaluation

An evaluation submission is when an author submits a chapter or two of their work to a developmental editor to look at. Although an evaluation doesn’t provide direct feedback (unlike a sample edit), it does allow an editor to see an author’s work and propose how they could help the author.

In fact, I think it’s in an author’s best interest to ask for an evaluation if a potential editor doesn’t request one. Many developmental editors are scheduled far into the future with clients, so before we sign up with them and start the waiting game for our turn, we want to know whether we’re a good match. An experienced editor can learn a lot from an evaluation sample, and a good editor will admit when a project might not be a good fit for them.

For example, I might mention that their craft isn’t where I’d need it to be for a full developmental edit (as I get distracted by frequent craft issues) but if they want a story analysis to pull the pieces together, we might be able to make that work. Or I might point out how their voice is a shallower point of view than I’m used to and admit that I’d probably be tempted to give suggestions to use a deeper POV, and if that’s not how they want their story or voice to evolve, then I’m probably not the right editor for them.

An evaluation submission is an editor’s chance to evaluate an author and give an author the information they need to evaluate the editor in return. The best author-editor relationships will form with mutual respect and a common vision for the story. So ask questions and make sure an editor is in tune with your goals. *smile*

(For another look at how we can hire a developmental editor, check out the guest post here by Stacy Jerger. She’s also a developmental editor, and she posted a few years ago about her process of working with clients.)

No matter how good of an editor someone is, no editor is right for every story. It’s important to find an editor that we can trust will have our best interests at heart and not just want to write our story they way they would. They must respect our goals for our story.

They need to believe in us and our potential to improve our story. Their goal should be to help us reach that potential. So maybe my biggest recommendation is to make sure either your questions or their process is comprehensive enough to see how well you’d work together at developing your story’s potential. *smile*

Have you worked with a developmental editor before? How did you choose them? Were they a good match for you, and if not, why not? Do you have any other suggestions for how to evaluate a developmental editor? Do you disagree with any of my suggestions?

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Clare O'Beara
Clare O'Beara

Have a good 2017!

Donovan Quesenberry
Donovan Quesenberry

Excellent post. Insightful. I would never have thought of several points made. For example, ” look for evidence of the type of issues they find” and “ask to see some of the feedback they received”.
Good stuff.
Stay Well,

Laurie Evans

Thanks for the tips. I’m going to need to find a developmental editor in 2017.


[…] Picking Editors: Tips for Finding a Developmental Editor | Jami Gold, Paranormal Author […]


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