Never Underestimate the Importance of a Developmental Editor
When writers think of the word “editing,” they most often think of the revisions that come with second and third drafts, or the copyediting that is done on a completed manuscript. But editing comes in all shapes and sizes, and depending on your world-building skills, writing abilities, and grasp of plot lines, you may benefit from the help of a developmental editor.
Developmental editors (DEs) look at the big-picture factors in a manuscript: plot, pacing, characterization, and setting, along with any other worrisome bits that pop up in the reading. It’s the type of editing that straightens up the structure, starting at the foundation, so you don’t end up with a Leaning Tower of Pisa for a book.
Who Can Benefit from a Developmental Editor?
I believe almost everyone can benefit from them. Because DEs are usually in on the project during the early stages, there’s less opportunity for an author to go too far astray while writing.
As a copyeditor, I can usually tell when a manuscript has felt the touch of developmental editing. The narrative is tighter—more cohesive in general—and the flow of the whole project has a smoother feel.
The tradeoff for these benefits is more than money, though. You have to be prepared to check your ego at the door. As with any type of editing, it’s important to remember that the editor shares your goal of ending up with a great book. The more experience your DE has, the more you should trust that they have their finger on the pulse of what works and what doesn’t.
In Developmental Editing: A Handbook for Freelancers, Authors, and Publishers, author Scott Norton says, “If the author does not embrace the plan with enthusiasm, there’s no sense in attempting development.” In other words, don’t be the guy who goes to the doctor and then never fills the prescription or follows the medical advice given.
Is the Process the Same for Everyone?
From what I’ve observed, the developmental process itself is relatively the same, but the particulars vary between fiction and nonfiction writing. Each type of writing brings its own baggage to deal with.
Critique—With fiction writers, developmental editing often comes in the form of a wonderful critique partner. Beta readers can help with this in a nonprofessional sense, also. Fiction writers seem to have an incredible sense of community. They critique for each other, they support each other, and they don't mind helping a writer over a rough spot when asked for specific advice.
Character Development—Developmental editors are objective about your characters. They’ll point out a lack of character arc, inconsistent behavior, or a character who doesn’t seem to have a purpose, either to the plot or to the reader.
Setting/World-building—A DE can spot the questions your readers will ask if your world-building skills aren’t as sharp as they need to be. Why, if Character A is invisible, can someone walk through them but they’re able to eat food that has substance, and no one sees the food bits floating in the air toward their mouths or down their esophagus?
Story Arc—If your story meanders or seems to lose its plot cohesion somewhere, a skilled DE can help you find the path again.
Critique—Often, the nonfiction topic deals with teaching others something new or innovative, so if the idea is unique or created by you, there’s not an easy way for someone else to critique it. Nonfic writers don’t seem to have the same type of automatic group support that fiction writing groups excel at. A professional DE can fill this gap.
Character Development—The main character in nonfiction is YOU. If your specific type of nonfiction deals with self-help or anything personal or subjective, then growth needs to be shown, or the book will have failed to achieve its purpose for the reader.
Setting/World-building—Nonfiction doesn’t require this in the strictest sense, but if you’re writing your autobiography, your readers who live in Alabama are going to know you didn’t grow up there—as you claim in your book—if you refer to climate that’s incompatible to that region, or if you try to relate an anecdote that the locals know never happened. How many times have you read about tell-all authors whose “true story” books were debunked upon closer inspection?
Story Arc—Once again, the nonfiction story arc won’t feel the same as a fiction arc, but your chapters still need to make sense, both within their own boundaries and as part of the bigger tale. Just as a fictional plot needs to move from point A to point B in a way that’s logical, your chapters should flow in such a way that they lead naturally into each other, finishing one thought before building with another.
Memoirs and Other Unique Considerations
As mentioned above, developmental editing in fiction can sometimes be done by beta readers, writing groups, or critique partners. But the world of nonfiction writing is a little different.
Often, writers of nonfiction find themselves in a lone endeavor. Perhaps it's because they're writing something that's revolutionary in their field, and there really is no one else available for support or advice.
Or perhaps they’re writing a memoir, and because no one shares the same story or writing style, the genre doesn't lend itself to critique partners. This is where a DE can come in and sift all that needs sifting, taking into account that your story is yours alone, pulling this from there and adding it to here, suddenly making everything flow in the direction the author originally intended.
Memoir writing, specifically, is a genre that often needs more developmental editing than others, because those who write a memoir aren't always writers. They may have one story to tell, and they will never write another book. But their story may be important enough to share, so they need all the help from writers and editors they can get.
Developmental Editing Can’t Hurt You
Bottom line: you won’t regret it if you get it. A good developmental editor can help with all the things detailed above, and can even help you figure out if your book is geared toward the audience you’re hoping for.
If nothing else, it can give you good experience in seeing your work through someone else’s eyes, working with mutual respect, and balancing that seesaw between tact and candidness.
The result? A better book for you and your readers.