The Developmental Edit: What does it do for you?

The Developmental Edit: What does it do for you?

This post is the first in a series about different editorial services. Coming months will cover copyediting, proofreading, and the manuscript critique.

scenic overview of the mountains

CC image courtesy of Luigi Mengato on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

As we saw in the previous post, “Am I ready for an editor?” editing is not a one-size-fits-all approach. Different types of editing are useful for different reasons. The developmental edit is one of the most under-appreciated types of editing.

In the self-publishing community, developmental work—also sometimes known as a content edit—is considered either the be-all and end-all of editorial involvement in a book, or the first line item to get cut from the budget once the author sees the costs for their book begin to pile up.

It’s true that out of the “three buckets”—developmental editing, copyediting, and proofreading—developmental editing is the most expensive. It’s also the one that overlaps with the growing industry of book coaching. In both cases, this is because of the scope of the developmental edit: nothing less than the overall message and structure of the book itself.

Developmental editing is a big deal for a reason.

Why you might want a developmental edit

You may want an editor to work with on a developmental edit either from a draft or outline you already created, or from the idea or concept you have for your book. Either is valid.

The developmental edit cares about the coherence and organization of the entire manuscript, and its appropriateness and appeal to the book’s chosen audience. This is the 30,000-foot view of the work: the big picture. You may want a developmental edit if:

  • You have an idea of what you want to write about, but are not sure how to get started.
  • You’ve started writing, but aren’t sure how to organize the material.
  • You have a collection of notes you want to turn into a manuscript.
  • You have a completed draft, and are now facing that most existential of all writerly questions: Does it work?

Does it work? How can I make it work? Where do I go from here?

For any of these reasons, to answer any of these questions, you may want a developmental edit.

What happens in a developmental edit

Your editor will want to read whatever material you have: the full draft, if it exists, or any notes or outline that you have. The less complete your written material at this stage, the more your editor will want to hear from you directly about your book, your thoughts for what it will look like, and what you want to achieve with it.

Depending on the work style you and your editor decide on, feedback and information sharing can happen either verbally, such as over the phone or in person, or in written format via email, or via comments on your document(s). Below are some questions the developmental edit will ask of your work:

For nonfiction:

  • Are the ideas presented clearly and are they logically developed?
  • What is the basis of the author’s expertise? Is the author credible?
  • Is the book appropriate in tone, style, and format for its intended audience?
  • Is the length of the manuscript appropriate?
  • What is the overall structure? Are the chapters and sections organized in a way that is clear and compelling?
  • Are any chapters repetitious, out of place, or unnecessary?
  • Are organizing strategies such as headings, subheadings, transitions, and quotes used effectively?
  • Do tables, charts, or graphics support and clarify the text?
  • Is the work complete, or does it require further information or sources?
  • What is the overall purpose or takeaway of the manuscript and does it achieve these goals?

For fiction:

  • Is the beginning interesting enough to grab the reader and is the ending satisfying?
  • Is the plot credible or exciting?
  • Are the characters three-dimensional individuals?
  • Do scenes lack emotion or portray melodrama?
  • Do the descriptions set the stage, take over the work, or are they missing?
  • Are there errors or inconsistencies in point of view? In usage of tense or voice?
  • Is the protagonist sympathetic and compelling? What about the antagonist, is s/he believable?
  • Is the outcome of all conflicts predictable?
  • Is there enough rising tension to hold interest?

The bottom line

A developmental edit is a conversation between the author and the editor about big points of theme and clarity. It provides another perspective on your manuscript. The organizational feedback alone can make a big difference in the final shape of your book.

The developmental edit comes before any other editorial work, such as copyediting or proofreading. If you’ve done one of those first and then a developmental edit, you will need to repeat copyediting and proofreading once the development is complete. It’s best to save these other steps for later.

Every book can benefit from a developmental edit. If money is a concern, discuss payment options with your editor, or consider a manuscript critique to get a sense of how much work your book may need before you make the investment. Hesitate before you decide to skip this step.

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