What is Developmental Editing?

Sophie Playle

If there’s one thing that drives me bonkers in the editorial world, it’s the lack of coherent descriptions for all the different editorial services.

The silver lining is that editors have the freedom to define their own services and authors can find editors who offer just what they need. Even so, the lack of concrete definitions can be frustrating because it makes it hard to have a meaningful conversation around a service that’s defined in so many different ways.

Developmental editing’ seems to be one of the terms that creates the most confusion. Over the years, I’ve surveyed dozens of editors and fiction writers about how they define developmental editing. In this post, I’m going to summarise what I’ve heard from various sources and offer some conclusions. Thanks to everyone who contributed to the conversation!

Developmental editing is an umbrella term

This is undoubtedly one of the major causes of confusion. Developmental editing includes several different types of editing, but it’s also a type of editing in its own right. Some people use the term ‘developmental editing’ synonymously with manuscript critique/assessment and beta reading – and each of these terms are defined differently by different people, too.

Take a moment to stop banging your head against your desk in frustration. I’m going to attempt to break down each of these services for you. First, though, just know this:

All types of developmental editing address the big-picture storytelling issues associated with a manuscript.

This could include issues to do with: plot, story, characterisation, structure, tension, theme, genre, narrative style and so on. A developmental edit may or may not address market suitability – i.e. how much potential the story has for success based on the premise, execution and market trends. Developmental editing does not address grammar, spelling, punctuation or sentence structure.

So that’s developmental editing in a nutshell.

Here’s how it breaks down even further:

Developmental editing

A developmental edit looks at all the big-picture storytelling issues outlined above. Normally, feedback is presented as both an editorial report and as notes in the manuscript pages themselves.

An editorial report (sometimes known as an editorial letter) is a separate document that summarises the editor’s assessment of how well the author has handled the different storytelling elements. It usually contains suggestions on how the author might improve the manuscript by strengthening certain elements. For example, the editor might observe a lack of cause-and-effect between major plot points and suggest that by reaffirming the primary story goal, the author can cut superfluous scenes.

Notes in the manuscript may include comments on where storytelling techniques can be strengthened in the manuscript itself. Whereas an editorial report summarises how a manuscript can be improved, manuscript notes highlight specific instances of where storytelling technique can be improved. Sometimes the editor will extensively edit sections of the manuscript to demonstrate how the author might practically address one of the issues discussed – e.g. the editor might rework a scene to show how focusing on a single character’s point of view can create more tension and intrigue.

Manuscript critiquing/assessment

The terms manuscript critique, manuscript assessment, manuscript appraisal and manuscript evaluation seem to be generally interchangeable, although some editors differentiate between them. The consensus, though, is that this service looks at all the big-picture story telling issues associated with developmental editing, but the editor doesn’t make any changes to the manuscript. Instead, they provide only the editorial report.

This report can vary greatly in depth, length and focus. Some editors may offer a few pages of general feedback, and others may offer twenty or more pages of detailed analysis and suggestions. Some editors may focus on assessing the market value of a manuscript (and might refer to this as a manuscript assessment), and others may focus on helping the author develop their personal literary vision (and might refer to this as a manuscript critique).

Beta reading

A beta read is not technically a professional service, though many editors offer it. A beta read is literally a test read. The author should ask people who represent their target readership to read their manuscript and provide feedback on their enjoyment as a reader. (For more info, see: What Are Beta Readers?)

When an editor offers a beta reading service, sometimes they really provide a manuscript critique/assessment. The feedback might be more opinion-based or shorter than a full critique, which is reflected in the fee. Sometimes editors will choose to call their service a beta read because their clientele is more familiar with this term.

How does a developmental edit work?

Developmental editing is called what it’s called because the manuscript is in development and the editor edits the text to improve the story (rather than the mechanics of the writing). The editor and author work collaboratively on the manuscript, though the author will always have the final say in what changes make it through to the completed draft.

Because the manuscript is in development and because the author and the editor are working collaboratively, a manuscript may go through several rounds of editing. The author and editor might communicate exclusively through comments and tracked changes in the manuscript, or through several email exchanges, or by phone or Skype – the type and amount of back-and-forth communication can vary greatly and should be agreed upon in advance.

Manuscript critiquing/assessment, on the other hand, doesn’t generally include much (or any) back-and-forth communication with the author. Instead of being collaborative like a full developmental edit, often a manuscript critique/assessment will provide feedback (as an editorial report) on where the manuscript is currently, objectively as possible – then it’s up to the author to digest the feedback and revise their manuscript on their own.

Because of this, a manuscript critique/appraisal is a great way for more experienced or knowledgeable writers to get valuable feedback on their work. Alternatively, it can be a useful tool for novice writers as it shines a light on both the manuscript’s strengths and weaknesses so they know where to plug the holes in their knowledge of writing craft.

Who needs a developmental edit?

A developmental edit is most useful to newer authors who are struggling putting writing theory into practice. Most writers would benefit from the insight and suggestions a developmental edit offers, but newer writers or writers working on a particularly difficult manuscript would get the most out of the service.

Writing craft is a tricky thing to teach because it needs to be broken down into separate components to be studied and understood. However, when it comes to writing a novel, each storytelling component (plot, characterisation, theme) can’t be tackled one at a time. Instead, everything weaves together to create a whole; characterisation informs plot, and plot informs theme, and theme informs character, and so on. It’s seriously tricky stuff.

A developmental editor can help an author deconstruct and rebuild their novel-in-progress so that all the storytelling components work together to create a better novel.

One editor I spoke to had an interesting perspective. ‘The development of a story is the author’s job,’ she said, and went on to say that she doesn’t think it’s right for an editor to have such a heavy hand in the development of a novel. Perhaps this is true. But a novice writer would likely learn a great deal from working with a developmental editor, and would be able to apply what they learn to future works – a sentiment I’ve heard many authors echo.

A clearly defined service

One of the most important lessons I’ve learned about the editing industry over the years is that service definitions are fluid. You may have read this article fervently disagreeing with my definitions, or you may have been nodding along in agreement.

Either way, it all comes down to this: if you’re an author looking to work with an editor, make sure you know exactly what you’re getting; and if you’re an editor offering services to authors, make sure you clearly express what you’re offering.

No matter what the service is called, this is crucial.

If you’re an editor and would like to learn more about developmental editing, check out my online courses.

Sophie Playleis a professional fiction editor. She specialises in developmental editing, critiquing and copy-editing, and loves working with authors and publishers who are passionate about high-quality storytelling. Speculative fiction, fantasy, science fiction and literary fiction are her genres of choice. She's an Advanced Professional Member of the Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading and has a Creative Writing MA from Royal Holloway, University of London. Find out more: liminalpages.com

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