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Enthusiastic writers often pour out their whole life and soul into their work, and when their manuscript is finally finished, you might see them clutching it tightly and whispering, “My precious!” like Gollum from The Lord of the Rings.

But no matter how good the first draft is, having an experienced set of eyes look it over can do wonders, which is why aspiring writers should consider hiring an editor.

What Is Developmental Editing? 

Developmental editing is the process of thoroughly reviewing a manuscript, examining all the elements of the writing, including the overall structure, the voice or style, or even to the way that a writer forms paragraphs and sentences. 

Developmental editing is also known as substantive editing, because the process can change a manuscript substantially. Another name is structural editing, because it delves into the structure of the piece.

The process can sometimes be painful for new writers. Imagine spending weeks, months, or years on your manuscript, only to have the editor criticize, move, or even cut out entire chunks from your work! 

But it’s important to understand that an effective editor has your target audience in mind and will do their best to make your book as good as it can be, especially against industry standards you may not be aware of. 

What Is the Difference Between Developmental Editing and Copyediting? 

Many new writers think of editing as simply getting someone to spell-check their work, or make sure they don’t have any blatant errors in their writing. But the editing process spans much more than that. 

Let’s review the key differences between developmental editing, copyediting, and proofreading:

  • Developmental editing: This involves a big-picture process of checking the overall structure and readability of your book. This is usually the first step of the editing process. 
  • Copyediting: This is the process that most writers expect, which involves an editor checking a manuscript in terms of punctuation, grammar, and diction. It can also be called line editing, because it focuses on checking and refining your work line by line, and only happens after the developmental edit. 
  • Proofreading: Proofreading is this last phase of editing, which focuses more on spell-checking, making sure the layout and typography are consistent, and checking captions and page numbers, among others. Think of it as a safety net that catches any last few mistakes before it heads to publication. 

Note that these are the 3 primary stages of editing that should be completed in order. You should always make sure you are completely done with the current stage of editing before moving onto the next.

You can also check out our blog about these different types of editing in more detail.

What a Developmental Edit Covers 

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Photo by Dan Counsell on Unsplash

The developmental editor can help you with the following things: 

  • Providing honest feedback on the structure, style, and even line issues 
  • Offering critique and support as you improve your work 
  • Writing an editorial report detailing what works well, as well as everything the editor thinks you need to change
  • Giving you an annotated version of your manuscript which gives specific suggestions for fixing each issue

To break it down further, this process will typically help you with the following issues: 

  • Pacing of your story
  • Possible plot holes
  • Thematic issues 
  • Overall problems with structure 
  • Characterization problems 
  • Anything that seems unrealistic
  • Too much or too little description
  • Issues with the setting
  • Wording quirks that pop up repeatedly (like crutch and filler words)
  • Overuse or misuse of dialogue tags
  • Predictable or clichéd lines
  • Inconsistencies in character behaviors

As you can see, a detailed developmental edit will help you improve your manuscript in more ways than one! Just come with an open mind and be prepared to rewrite sections of your book, or make adjustments to foundational elements like your setting, characters, and plot development.

Should You Get an Editorial Assessment?

What if you are only in the process of working on your manuscript, and you want to get a professional’s perspective on how best to arrange your work? In this case, it might be a good idea to get an editorial assessment before a developmental edit. With an editorial assessment, you’ll get an in-depth report called the “edit letter.” 

This gives you a big-picture evaluation: in the case of novels, this includes your plot, characterization, structure, and style. In the case of nonfiction works, this includes the way the chapters are arranged, how you organize your ideas, and overall style that you use. 

Remember that in this stage, you will not get comments or specific examples of how you need to rewrite your work. Instead, the feedback will focus on the broad strokes. But this can still help you bring your manuscript to a higher, professional standard.

This big picture assessment is a good start for when you are still working on your book. But if you have a finished manuscript and want your editor to delve into the nitty-gritty details with you, consider getting a developmental edit. This is when the editor will work with you both for the wide-angle view and even issues at the line level. 

Because developmental editing is the most laborious of all the editing processes, it is usually more expensive, too. So if you’re tight on budget and can’t afford a developmental edit, opting for an editorial assessment is better than nothing. 

How to Find a Developmental Editor

Finding the right developmental editor can make a huge difference in your final output. This is especially crucial if you are self-publishing, as the editor can help give you the feedback you need to improve your work. 

When looking for an editor, make sure you find one that you can respect and work with. This is because your relationship will involve regular criticism, and you need to be able to respond well to this feedback. 

So how do you find an editor for you manuscript? These steps will help you: 

1. Do your research. 

List down the names and contacts of different editors, paying attention to projects they have specialized in. Prioritize those who have worked on books similar to yours, and check their qualifications, the titles they’ve worked on, and how many years they’ve been in the industry.

Client testimonials also offer great insight into the quality of their work.

The following are helpful resources you can use: 

2. Schedule an interview with your prospective editors. 

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Photo by Jim Reardan on Unsplash

From your list, e-mail each candidate with details of your work, such as the genre and word count, and schedule a time for a voice or video call. 

These calls will serve as your chance to interview the editors. List down your questions so you don’t forget anything important. The following questions can help you make your decision: 

  • Can you tell me about your past experience in editing? Which client did you recently succeed in working with? 
  • How do you go about the editing process? 
  • What are your expectations from me? What do you usually give on your end? 
  • What is your pricing structure? Payment terms? How much will this project cost me? 
  • Can you give me three references I can consult about your past work? 
  • Do you prepare a letter of agreement that details the terms with your clients? Or, shall I prepare one for you to sign? 

3. Check their references.

Once you have your prospect’s references, make sure you actually contact those individuals to find out how the editor works. If something doesn’t feel quite right, don’t feel guilty about looking into it until you can put your fears at ease. 

Some questions to help you get the most out of your calls to the references include: 

  • What kind of project and editing service did you hire this editor for?
  • What made you choose them over other options? 
  • Do you feel that their work was worth their price? 
  • How did your project turn out? 
  • What would you say was the biggest advantage of working with them? 
  • What areas of improvement do you think need to be addressed? 

4. Make your final decision. 

From everything you’ve gathered, now is the time to make your final decision. Once you pick your editor, commit yourself to cooperate as much as possible. Be sure to be transparent and consistently open with your editor, as misunderstandings can affect your working relationship.

For more tips, check out our full post on how to find a book editor.

Your Finished Manuscript and the Developmental Editor

Before sending your manuscript off to an editor, be sure that you’ve given it your best effort and already reviewed it very carefully several times yourself. It’s not enough to just get the words onto a page, then assume that your editor will handle everything from there like magic.

The editor won’t be able to dedicate as much attention to important components at the developmental level if they have to rework all of your sentences just to make it readable. So always make sure you’ve put your best effort into your writing, even when submitting that first draft.

When you see your book as a collaborative effort between you and your editor, you will have a greater chance of seeing it bloom to its full potential.

Did you find this post helpful? Let us know in the comments below!


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