Developmental Editing: Fiction Theory

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

Do you want to help authors identify and solve the big-picture storytelling issues in their manuscripts, and earn money by doing so professionally? If so, it sounds like you want to become a developmental editor.

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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I absolutely loved this course! You explained everything in a really accessible, easy-to-understand way, the assignments were interesting and thought provoking, the discussions were so enlivening and the feedback was encouraging and educational! I’m honestly sad it’s over!

Alexandra Dawning

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 is 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

There are two versions of the course: self-study and tutored.


  • Immediate access to all six modules of the course
  • Work at your own pace – lifetime* access to the course materials
  • Content available in video and written format – choose which suits your learning style
  • No assignments to complete
  • No group video discussions
  • Excludes supplementary resources
  • 1 membership upgrade point for the Chartered Institute for Editing and Proofreading

*Refers to lifetime of the course. If/when the course retires, access will be revoked – but you are able to download and keep all the written resources.

TUTORED (£499, taught once a year)

  • Six-module course with additional supplementary resources
  • Modules released every fortnight – helping you pace your learning
  • Content available in video and written format – choose which suits your learning style
  • Module assignments – with personalised feedback provided
  • Additional set reading (extracts from published novels) to put theory into context
  • Fortnightly discussions* via Zoom so you can chat with me and your fellow students
  • Hardcopy certificate of achievement upon completion
  • 4 membership upgrade points for the Chartered Institute for Editing and Proofreading

*If you aren’t able to take part in discussions, please don’t sign up so that you don’t detract from the learning experience of the rest of the group. Purchase the self-study version of the course instead.

There are only five places available at a time. This is so students can get to know each other and I can give you my fullest attention.

The course will run once a year. I’m based in the UK, but I will switch up the times that group discussions are held in order to accommodate as many people across the globe as I can.

To officially complete the tutored version of the course, you need to have completed at least five of the six assignments and attended at least five of the six discussions. (If there are extenuating circumstances, we will work something out.)

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.

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I feel like I came into this course grappling with impostor syndrome and I’m coming out of it feeling inspired and empowered to give my developmental editing work my all. It really has been a turning point for me!

Lucy York

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

NOTE: Supplementary resources and assignments are only for students on the tutored version of the course, not the self-study version.

Module 1: Skills, Role and Mindset

  • A thorough exploration of what it means to be a developmental editor
  • 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

Assignment: Read the extract provided showing a chapter from a published novel, and write up a short analysis.

Module 2: Common Basic Manuscript Issues

  • The main ways authors mess up their beginnings
  • What to do if the novel’s premise is too weak
  • Why it’s crucial to think about genre
  • How an imbalance of certain narrative techniques can destroy pacing
  • What you need to know to help authors write impactful endings

Supplementary resources:

  • Novel beginnings checklist
  • Novel endings checklist
  • Genre essentials cheatsheet

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

Module 3: Tangled Plots & Saggy Middles

  • The difference between plot and story
  • How to analyse a narrative arc
  • What you need to know about prologues
  • How conflict drives storytelling
  • What makes an effective scene
  • How to assess sub-plots
  • Understanding the link between story and character

Supplementary resources:

  • The 8 basic plots

Assignment: Identify the main plot points from the story summaries.

Module 4: Character & Dialogue

  • What goes into a compelling character journey
  • 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

Supplementary resources:

  • What makes great characters

Assignment: Read the extract provided showing a chapter from a published novel, and write up a short analysis of the main character and the forces working against them.

Module 5: Point of View & Narrative Technique

  • Common viewpoint errors authors make
  • Understanding the effects of a specific narrative viewpoint
  • What ‘head-hopping’ is (and what it isn’t)
  • How to handle multiple points of view in a novel

Assignment: Identify the point of view of each extract provided. Then, take a look at the chapter from the novel-in-progress and identify where point of view could be improved.

Module 6: Meaning & Style Through Theme & Voice

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

Assignment: Read the extracts provided and write up a short analysis of what you think the main themes of the books might be. Then, read the chapter from a novel-in-progress and identify where and how the author could strengthen the narrative voice.

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.

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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

The module content covered an awful lot of ground and demystified a lot of literary terms I’d vaguely heard of but hadn’t quite understood. I don’t understand how you managed to fit in so much information so succinctly.

Elizabeth McIlwaine

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 Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading (where I’m an Advanced Professional Member).

I’ve been running my own freelance editing practice since 2011, with manuscript critiquing and developmental editing being the foundations of my work.

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Frequently Asked Questions

Nope. This is an online course – though you are expected to attend the group discussion video calls if you’re taking the tutored version.

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, broad 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.

Typically, students spend two to four hours on each module. You’ll also need to block off an hour every two weeks for the group discussion if you’re taking the tutored version of the course, and set aside time to do the assignments and set reading – usually another hour or so per module. It varies from person to person.

No. This is because fiction is so open to interpretation, and when analysed, there’s no one correct ‘answer’. The assignments on the tutored version of the course are marked in a flexible, discussion-oriented way, so it’s difficult to provide module answers.
The way I would recommend you put what you learn into practice would be to think about the topics discussed in the course while you read novels (and even watch movies, which are useful for analysing story structure). How to read analytically is covered at the beginning of the course.

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, I aim to run the tutored version of the course every year. I recommend you sign up to my mailing 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 five minutes, so I recommend purchasing your spot the moment registration opens to avoid disappointment. To put things in perspective, over 1600 people are currently signed up to the mailing list!

Check below to see when the tutored version of the course will run next! (Or to book your place if registration is open.) / Purchase access to the self-study version below.

When the tutored version of the course goes on sale, refresh this page to see the purchase button.

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

Become confident in your knowledge

Click the button below to be taken the payment page, where you’ll be able to purchase access to the self-study version of the course using your credit card via a secure portal.

Next tutored version: TBC.

  • Self-study course access:£199
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