Developmental Editing: Fiction Theory

What you need to know to help authors improve their novels.

Do you want to help authors improve their novels? And earn money by doing so professionally? If so, it sounds like you want to start offering developmental editing services – and this online course could be for you.

Become an Author's Secret Weapon

What is Developmental Editing?

Developmental editing is the first part of the editing process. It comes before the copy-editing stage (where you focus on the writing at the sentence level) and it definitely comes before the proofreading stage (which is the final polish before publication).

A developmental editor looks at the story as a whole and figures out how it could be told better. All authors benefit from this kind of big-picture feedback. It’s a crucial part of the writing process.

The Difference Between Informal and Professional Feedback

You might already have an intuitive understanding of what makes a good story – and a bad one. But you don’t know how you would translate that intuition into useful guidance. You want to be able to help authors tell their best stories, but you’re just not sure how you’d go about advising them.

This course will help you move from an instinctual to an intellectual understanding of good storytelling so you can help authors transform muddled manuscripts into sterling stories.

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Developmental Editing: Fiction Theory has already proved to be a great addition to my editorial armoury. Sophie’s advice is detailed and practical. I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend this course.

Nikki Brice

This course takes the vast, complex area of developmental fiction theory and breaks it down elegantly into manageable topics. You’ll look back at the end and wonder at how much you’ve learned. I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend Developmental Editing: Fiction Theory to editors, authors, or anyone with an interest in the craft of writing.

Cally Worden

About the Course

This Course Could Be for You If …

  • You’re already working as a copy-editor or proofreader and want to add developmental fiction editing to your skill set
  • You’ve studied storytelling and literature from the perspective of a reader or writer and now you want to learn about it from the perspective of an editor
  • You’re intimidated by the idea of working with fiction at such a crucial part of the process, but you’re also excited by the prospect
  • You’re an avid, analytical reader with a love of literature and you want to learn how to turn your passion into something you can sell

This course probably isn’t for you if you’re not already wildly in love with literature and are not curious about how it works. It also won’t be the right course for you if you don’t want to turn your knowledge of fiction into a professional service, since that’s the perspective we’ll be looking at things from.

How the Course Works

In this 4-week guided online course on developmental editing, I’ll provide you with comprehensive written modules (with accompanying video content) and weekly assignments, which I’ll give you detailed feedback on. Every week, I’ll email you with the course materials.

My goal is to teach you the absolute must-knows of good storytelling so you can take what you learn and apply it to manuscripts in progress (a different skill to reading an already-published novel that doesn’t require any more editing).

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I found the course extremely enjoyable and informative and am very happy to recommend it. The weekly course notes were of great help while the feedback was both encouraging and constructive.

John Romans

I’m so glad I decided to do this course […] The course has provided the heartening realisation that reading in the bath can actually be a job. It’s not magic and anyone taking the course will need to put in a lot of effort, but I feel I have learned a huge amount, I’ve got resources I can keep going back to and have gained some really useful tools for developing my practice. Thanks, Sophie!

Cathy Turner

Course Outline

Week 1: Introduction & Common Basic Manuscript Issues


  • A thorough exploration of what it means to conduct a developmental edit
  • Why reading is so important, and how to read analytically
  • Why you need to read fast, and how to do so without missing crucial information

Common Basic Manuscript Issues

  • The two main ways authors mess up their beginnings
  • Stylistic issues authors should avoid
  • How to help authors prevent narrative disorientation
  • What you need to know to help authors write impactful endings

Assignment: Read the extract provided showing the beginning of a novel. Analyse how effective it is (checklist provided for assistance) and write up a short report.

Week 2: Dealing with Tangled Plots & Saggy Middles

  • The difference between plot and story
  • Why you need to know the nuances of genre
  • How to analyse a three-act plot arc
  • How to recognise and make use of the eight basic plots
  • How to assess sub-plots

Assignment: I’ll provide you with a selection of plot summaries of published novels. Identified the major plot points for each summary and answer a question or two about story structure. Complete up to three.

Week 3: Analysing Character & Conflict

  • The main reason novels lack drive
  • Why size matters (when it comes to the cast of the novel)
  • Not all novels need a villain – here’s why
  • Common dialogue problems to look out for
  • How to recognise and advise authors when they use clichés

Assignment: Take one of your favourite novels (or something you’ve read recently). Describe the main character, their motivations and how they have changed by the end of the book. Describe the main antagonist and how they create conflict for the protagonist.

Week 4: The Common Thread – Meaning & Style

  • Why a novel might lack coherence, focus or emotional impact …
  • And how to help the author fix this
  • Understanding the relationship between reader, writer and editor
  • Things to consider about writing voice and style
  • Course summary and next steps

Assignment: Identify the thematic questions of one of your favourite novels (or something you’ve read recently). How important was the theme? In which ways did the author explore the main themes?

BONUS: Novels in a Series

In this additional mini module, I’ll take you through how to think about novels-in-progress if they’re part of a series, since this will affect the kind of feedback you’d give an author.

CIEP Upgrade Points

If you’re a member of the Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading (formerly the Society for Editors and Proofreaders), it would probably interest you to know that this course is recognised by the upgrade panel and is worth 3 points! Pretty sweet.

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Don’t hesitate! This course is excellent. The content is well-planned and the assignments are designed to help you apply and embed your learning. Sophie is very professional and great at giving critical feedback in a friendly and supportive way.

Catherine Walmsley

Sophie is a witty and reassuringly clued-up guide to the intricacies of fiction editing, and has made learning some intimidatingly tricky concepts both illuminating and fun. The course was well-designed, concise, and comprehensive. It has fundamentally changed the way I think about stories, and is well worth your time.

Graham Clarke

Who Am I To Teach Developmental Editing?

I studied English Literature with Creative Writing at UEA. I also hold an MA in Creative Writing, used to work for publishing-giant Pearson, and have completed in-depth editing training through the Publishing Training Centre and the Society for Editors and Proofreaders (where I’m an Advanced Professional Member).

I’ve been running my own freelance editing practice since 2011, with manuscript critiquing (a type of developmental editing) being one of my most popular services.

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Frequently Asked Questions

Nope. This is an online course. I’ll email you the modules weekly, and you’ll email me your assignments for feedback.

Though we will look at how to assess a client’s work, we won’t look at the logistics of managing clients. However, I also run a course that teaches you how to work with developmental editing clients (Developmental Editing: In Practice), but this course is designed to come first because it covers what you need to know before you can even think about offering developmental editing services to writers. In short, if you want to work with clients, you need to learn all this stuff first.

If you’re confident you know how to advise authors and you just want to learn how to conduct a developmental edit and work with clients, you might want to do ‘Developmental Editing: In Practice’ without doing this course first. I recommend carefully reading the outline for each course and seeing if it fits with what you think you need to learn. You can always do this course another time if you decide you do want to learn more fiction theory – the courses don’t necessarily need to be done in order.

No. This course is exclusively about fiction. There may be a tiny bit of crossover, but for the most part everything you’ll learn will be applicable only to fiction.

You may understand what makes a good story – but you won’t necessarily know how to critique a ‘bad’ story or how to make it better. Literature and creative writing courses focus on storytelling from the reader’s and writer’s perspectives. This course teaches it from the editor’s perspective. It’ll give you the knowledge to analyse works in progress from an objective standpoint. And that’s a key skill if you want to be able to offer useful guidance to authors.

Yes. This course will cover the basics you need to know to get started, though you do need that passion for fiction we discussed. You may still need to expand your knowledge in specific areas after completing this course, but it’s a good starting point.

Absolutely. In fact, I encourage it. Separating yourself from other editors out there by promoting yourself as a specialist in a specific genre is a great way to attract clients in your chosen niche. It’s also a good idea because different genres handle different aspects of storytelling in different ways, so if you home in on a specific one, you’ll be able to do an even better job of it.

No. None that are required, anyway, though I will recommend some further reading to help advance your learning.

You should set aside at least three hours per week for it.

You’ll need to know at least one book very well – perhaps you have a favourite you’ve read multiple times, or perhaps you’d like to use a novel you’ve read recently that’s fresh in your mind – because I’ll ask you to look closely at some of the elements of a published novel for some of the homework assignments (see above for details).

Not at all. Americans, Canadians, Australians, Europeans, Wakandans … everyone is welcome. Editing is a global community, and I won’t be addressing any UK-specific publishing conventions.

No, so please purchase mindfully. I like to think I’ve included enough detail for you to make an informed decision about whether this course is right for you, but if you’re still hesitant about buying, feel free to email me first.

Yup! Your currency will be automatically converted when you go to pay. To check the current exchange rate, visit this useful online currency converter.

You’ll be the best judge of this, so take a close look at all the information provided on this web page and have a think! If there’s something you’d like to know to help you make your decision and I haven’t mentioned it on this page, feel free to drop me an email and I’ll do my best to help.

Since I don’t know the details of all the other editing courses out there, I can’t really answer this question, I’m afraid. I recommend you take a close look at all the information on this web page, including the details of the course outline, and do the same with the other course you’re looking at. If the other course doesn’t offer the same level of information, you could ask the provider so you’re able to make a more accurate comparison.

Yes, this course currently runs twice a year. I recommend you sign up to the notifications email list so I can let you know when registration opens. The last few times the course has run, places have sold out in less than ten minutes, so I recommend purchasing your spot the moment registration opens to avoid disappointment. To put things in perspective, over 500 people are currently signed up to the notifications list!

Check above to see when the course will run next! (Or to book your place if registration is currently open.)

The course went way above my expectations. Each of the assignments was challenging in their own way because each one tested different aspects of my comprehension. The level of feedback was fantastic!

Jessica Mack

An excellent course for all those interested in getting started in Developmental Editing. The course materials were beautifully presented and easy to access and Sophie’s feedback was invaluable. Highly recommended.

Louise Pearce

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