How to Become a Developmental Editor of Fiction

Sophie Playle
How to Become a Developmental Editor of Fiction image

Developmental editors work with authors to help them improve (develop) their stories and the techniques they use to tell those stories.

An author works with a developmental editor after they’ve written their novel to the best of their abilities in order to get professional, objective guidance on how they can make their novel even better.

See also: What is Developmental Editing?

Most developmental editors of fiction are freelance. It used to be that a lot of developmental editing was done in-house (i.e. by the publishing house) or by literary agents, but these days budgets are tight and competition is fierce. Publishers don’t often need to help authors develop their novels because they only publish the most accomplished and marketable books submitted to them.

Instead, authors often hire developmental editors directly – and these developmental editors either work for themselves or for literary consultancy firms (where the editor works as a sub-contractor rather than an employee).

As such, there are three stages to becoming a developmental editor:

1. Learn Your Craft

Before you even think about selling your services as a developmental editor, you need to make sure you know your stuff. You’ll need to know what makes a good piece of writing, what makes a publishable novel, how to understand and strengthen an author’s creative intentions, and how to provide tactful feedback and make helpful suggestions.

There are lots of ways you can develop your knowledge:

  • Read, read, read. If you don’t read fiction, how can you know fiction? Read widely, and if you want to specialise in editing a particular genre, make sure you’ve read the classics in that genre as well as lots and lots of contemporary novels so you have a thorough understanding of how the genre works as well as what readers want in today’s market.
  • Read fiction analytically, not just for pleasure. Think about the choices authors make when writing their books. (From whose perspective is the story told? How long are the chapters? Is it written in third-person or first-person? Are there any subplots? What information about the plot is revealed and what is withheld, and when?) Consider why the authors made their decisions – what effect does each have on you as a reader?
  • Read books on writing craft. Yup, more reading. There are so many excellent books out there that delve into literary theory and writing-craft theory. Most of them are aimed at authors, but it’s all stuff you need to know as a developmental editor too.
  • Take courses on developmental editing. Get some training under your belt so you can prove your abilities to your clients (and yourself). Since most books on writing craft are aimed at writers, taking a course in developmental editing is a great way to learn about novel writing specifically from an editor’s point of view. And you’ll also learn about the practicalities of conducting a developmental edit.

See also: How Much Training Does a Fiction Editor Need?

There’s so much to learn, and you will never stop learning. Once you feel confident that you know enough to start helping authors, you’re ready for the next step.

2. Set Up Your Business

It’s going to take you some time to set up your business (and then find clients), so I recommend having some savings to tide you over until you’re making a living from your editing – six months might be good. Alternatively, transition slowly from your current job – first working on your editing business in your free time, then perhaps part-time as it gains traction.

You’ll need to make sure you’ve set up your business according to the laws of your country of residence. For the UK, that means registering as self-employed with HMRC.

Open a separate bank account for your business transactions so you can better keep track of your earnings and expenses. Remember, you’re going to have to be responsible for your own taxes now! If you’re in the UK, I recommend using accounting software FreeAgent. It’s a great way to manage invoices, client contacts, incomings and outgoings – and if you use that link (or code 43g3im2), both you and I will get a lifetime 10% discount.

You’ll also need to set up a website. In my view, having your own corner of the web is essential in developing your presence and authority as a developmental editor.

See also: Do Freelance Editors NEED a Website?

If you want some step-by-step help in setting up your website and creating a cohesive and professional look for your business, check out my self-study online course: The Visible Editor.

3. Find Clients

Once your skills are sharp enough for you to start charging for them and once you’ve got the foundations of your business all set up, it’s time to find some paying clients!

Marketing is a huge topic, so I recommend reading some books, following some blogs and listening to some podcasts that talk specifically about how to market yourself as a one-person business. (Yes, even more reading!) You’ll continue to learn about marketing – and be able to test what works for you – throughout your career.

In my experience, the best ways to find clients as a developmental editor are as follows:

  • Content marketing. This is where you create valuable, useful resources for your target clients and provide them for free on the internet (e.g. blog posts, video tutorials, etc.). The idea is that your ideal clients will be looking for such resources, so when they find them, they find you!
  • Networking – both with authors and other editors. There are lots of reputable editorial societies across the globe, and the editorial community is active on platforms like Facebook and Twitter. Make friends, and you might find yourself top-of-mind when a more experienced editor needs to pass some work on due to a full schedule or an incompatibility with the project. Similarly, integrate yourself into the author community, being helpful and friendly, and you’ll start to become known.
  • Be good enough to recommend (and hire again!). Make sure you do the best job possible for every author you work with. Not only does your client deserve it, but they’ll likely want to hire you again – and recommend you to all their author buddies too. It’s amazing how quickly you’ll grow your client list simply by being awesome.

Of course, no amount of marketing will land you clients if you don’t have your business set up well. In other words, you need to nail the first two steps in this process first: make sure you’re skilled enough to do the job (and are able to portray this to your potential clients) and make sure you have a well set-up business that looks and acts the part.

And there you have it. To become a developmental editor of fiction, you first need to learn your craft, then set up your business, then find clients.

If that sounds like a lot of work, it’s because it is! There are obviously a lot more steps for each of those stages. But with a clear path, you can make a plan of action and be well on your way to becoming a developmental editor.

Sophie Playle profile picture
Sophie Playleis a professional fiction editor. She specialises in copy-editing and critiquing, working directly with authors. Speculative fiction, fantasy, science fiction and literary fiction are her genres of choice. She's an Advanced Professional Member of the Society for Editors and Proofreaders and has a Creative Writing MA from Royal Holloway, University of London. Find out more:

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