So, you’re an editorial professional who’s decided you’d like to dip your toe into developmental fiction editing.
It sounds like a fun and rewarding service to be able to offer your clients, right? But you’re nervous. Being able to spot and correct a comma splice is very different to being able to advise an author on how they can strengthen a character arc. You’re worried that maybe you’re not cut out for developmental editing …
Well, maybe you’re not.
Not everyone has the skills required to be a good developmental editor.
Here are a few reasons why developmental editing might not be a good fit for you:
1. You don’t read a lot of fiction
Developmental editors advise authors on how to improve their manuscripts. Instinct plays a big role in knowing what advice to offer. That instinct isn’t something you’re born with – it’s something you cultivate. By reading. A lot.
You can study all the theory you want about what makes a good novel, but if you don’t engage with how that theory is put into practice, you won’t ever move past a surface understanding of novel writing. Art is complicated and nuanced. It goes without saying that you should enjoy reading fiction, but that’s not enough – you have to read it voraciously.
2. You’re a really slooooow reader
Developmental editors need to read a manuscript slowly enough to take in all the details, but quickly enough that they can make a profit. It’s simple business sense. If you’re a super slow reader you’ll either have to charge a lot of money to make developmental editing worth your time or you’ll have to accept a low hourly wage – because why should an author pay you double when another editor can offer the exact same service for half the fee (and in half the time)?
The good news is, you can improve this skill. Practise reading fast (in a distraction-free environment) and you’ll eventually increase your overall reading speed.
3. You’re terrified of hurting your clients’ feelings
This is a tough one, and I sympathise. Authors pour their hearts and souls into their novels, and when they send them for developmental editing they’re opening their work to criticism. We’re all human. We know criticism can sting – badly. It can be painful to receive, and it can be painful knowing you’re the one who’s going to cause that pain, too.
But here’s the thing. Professional constructive critique is worlds apart from unsolicited meanness. Developmental editors aim to reduce the amount of criticism the novel might receive in the long run – by helping the author address the manuscript’s weaknesses before it’s published. Authors know we’re here to help them. We don’t do this job because we like to tear authors down – we do it because we want to help raise them higher.
Criticism, presented in the right way, won’t send an author spiralling into a tear-fuelled hurricane of anger and depression. They’ll be grateful for your insight and honesty. If you don’t say what needs to be said, they won’t thank you for it in the long run.
4. You’re a control freak
One of the most important skills you need as an editor is understanding your place in the hierarchy of creation. When you provide a developmental edit, you’re inevitably going to get deeper into the story than if you were proofreading. And you can start to feel emotionally invested, can start to feel as though your ideas have a right to be taken on board.
But, no. You need to keep your distance and maintain objectivity. This is not your novel. The author is the only one who should be making decisions about the direction of the manuscript. You’re there to provide an objective-as-possible outsider perspective on the writing and make suggestions for improvement. Suggestions. The author will always have the final say. If you find this difficult, you need to rethink your mindset.
5. You don’t understand literary theory
You might have a fantastic intuitive understanding of what makes a good novel (see the first point in this list) but if you can’t explain your gut reaction to your clients with good, solid theory, you’re offering little more than an opinion. Opinions are useful (that’s why beta readers are so valuable) but if you’re charging hundreds (even thousands) of pounds for a professional service, you need to be offering more.
If you understand writing craft theory you can objectively analyse the novel, explain exactly why something doesn’t work and offer concrete suggestions on how the author can make improvements. Again, the good news is that this is the kind of knowledge you can study and learn.
If you’d like to start offering developmental fiction editing, are any of these points holding you back? Which ones can you do something about? (Hint: it’s all of them.)
If you’d like to learn more about writing craft theory, my online course Developmental Editing: Fiction Theory might just be for you.