The Editing Process: Developmental Editing

Updated on March 1, 2024

Did you know that books don’t magically appear on library or store shelves?

I know, it’s a no-brainer type of question. There’s obviously a process to follow for coming up with a story idea to when a book is released into the wild of the public literary field.

However, most people misunderstand just how complicated it can be. The writing process alone is worthy of—and has been published in—several reference books, of which many I partake as a professional business and fiction writer myself.

The editing process is a small yet vital piece of that publishing process. There are levels to editing, just like there are levels to writing. Understanding where your manuscript is and where it will go in that process helps you plan out where exactly in the publishing process an editor is needed.

Over the next few weeks, I’ll introduce you to each level of editing, starting with the granddaddy of them all: developmental editing.

This is the largest and most complicated level of editing. Manuscripts are polished up as much possible, through round after round of rewrites and self-edits. Only then does a writer turn over their book-to-be to a developmental editor (or DE). The DE can either be assigned in a traditional publishing house or hired freelance for independent or self-publishing authors.

Here is where your story is looked at with the widest lens.

Characters

People generally start a book because the plot or description sounds interesting. They keep reading because the characters are deemed worthy of the time needed to follow their journey. DEs focus on how your characters are framed.

  1. Are the included characters too developed (e.g., have you included too much backstory or unnecessary personality descriptions) or not developed enough?
  2. Can your reader realistically keep track of the number of characters you’ve included?
  3. Do minor characters overshadow those the reader is actually meant to follow? If so, is it necessary or possible to convert one to the other?

Content

This is the stage where, if a DE finds problems, a substantial rewrite may be required to fix those problems. DEs dive deep into the structure of your book:

  1. Are there sections or chapters that could be beefed up and added to, or that drag out and should be cut down?
  2. Is the pacing of your story too fast or too slow?
  3. What point of view do you use? Is it best for the story you’re trying to tell using the characters you’ve selected?

Story Arc

Finally, a DE shines a spotlight on your story arc, on how you get from Point A to Point B (to Point C). The arc breaks down to what’s at stake for your characters, what consequences they’ll face if they don’t achieve their goals. The conflict your main characters face should be shaped by their described backgrounds, personality traits, and habits.

  1. Are there areas where you’ve made assumptions about how invested the reader is in where the character is at certain points?
  2. Have you fleshed out key moments that may ultimately impact character choices?
  3. Does the resolution make sense with where you’ve taken the characters, physically and emotionally?

Having a DE go through your manuscript is ultimately a lesson in trust. It can be hard to get back a manuscript that asks for substantial changes, especially when you’ve spent months, if not years, creating the story you turned over to them.

Keep in mind that a professional editor’s sole goal is to help you tell the clearest and most enthralling story possible, and that starts with developmental editing.

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