statue of a woman holding her head

Why the Developmental Edit is One of the Hardest Things You’ll Ever Do

Why the Developmental Edit is One of the Hardest Things You’ll Ever Do

statue of a woman holding her head

All this editing makes my head hurt. CC image “headache” courtesy of threephin on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

Friends, I’d like to address a difficult and emotional topic: the developmental edit.

You’ve sent your manuscript off to your editor for developmental work. You’ve completed a draft! The world is a beautiful place, filled with hope. Rainbows, puppies, and kittens are everywhere. You buy everyone dinner.


Your editor returns your draft manuscript filled with comments, cross-outs, lines pointing everywhere; or they’ve rearranged the content for you, and nothing looks like it did. There are questions, so many questions! You think about the pristine draft you sent out and realize now that it’s obviously defective and awful. You spend a week hiding in a dark room, blinds drawn, listening to sad music or watching Dead Poets Society on repeat.

A developmental edit is as necessary as it is painful

The best and worst part of a developmental edit is how radically it can change your book. We want our books to be amazing, of course. And most of us recognize there is no choir of angels singing over our first draft. Still, that first reunion with our manuscript can be tough.

Developmental work may cause you frustration and doubt. Do not despair! Every author who has published a book with an editor’s help has gone through the same pain you have. Ask one of them whether they have regretted going through this process. You’ll be amazed at what you will learn about your book if you give yourself a chance.

First remember: You were not wrong to celebrate

Finishing a book draft is a tremendous achievement. Do you know how many people never manage it? Of the scores of people who think they’d like to write a book some day, only a small proportion begin the process. You are one of these. Of all the people who at one point have started a book, an even smaller sliver finish the manuscript. You, yes you, are part of this select group.

What you’ve done deserves a celebration. Heck, let someone else buy you dinner. Mark the occasion with fireworks.

Changes on developmental edit do not make you a failure

Rare indeed is the writer who has no changes after the first time an editor looks at their work. In fact, I’d argue that a) these writers don’t exist and b) those who think they fit this category are doomed to a lifetime of creative stagnation and mediocrity.

Think about it. The editor wants to help you make your book BETTER. Of course there will be changes.

Consider these changes a compliment. The editor believes that your work can be improved, and should be. Your editor finds you capable of making these changes…and believes you have the emotional balance to welcome the feedback.

Also, there’s this—if your document came back to you pristine, you should wonder whether they even read it.

The truth: developmental work is the hardest work

No editorial work compares to developmental work in intensity, level of scrutiny, and its ability to completely change the groundwork of your book (in a good way).

The copyedit requires you to make stylistic choices; the developmental edit requires you consider the total impact of your book.

The proofread may be tedious and time-consuming (especially if your book is longer); the developmental edit asks you to think about the choices that you are making.

This type of work is the most time-intensive, thought-intensive, and emotional part of the editing process. You are talking to your editor about the very foundation of what you want to say, and your message may be quite personal to you, near to your heart and freighted with emotion. Although in the beginning everything is a big, black swamp sucking at your boots, the work gets exponentially clearer as you progress.

The bottom line

Your joy at finishing the draft is as nothing compared to the joy you’ll feel holding in your hands the manuscript at the end of the developmental process. Your book will feel real to you in a way it never did before.

Celebrate the completion of your draft. Celebrate also the work you do developmentally, because this work brings you closer to not only a completed book, but an excellent book, an important book, a book you will be thrilled to lay claim to and brag about.

Write on.

Thoughts, questions, comments, suggestions, and blarney (bonus points for wit):