Writers in the Storm

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April 23, 2018

The Developmental Edit: Are you (emotionally) ready?

Kathryn Craft


A developmental edit can feel a lot like sending your child to school for the first time. You’ve had several years to exert your influence on his upbringing and must now allow others into his journey. You may be ready to push the little bugger through the school door! Or you may be standing outside, your arms wrapped tightly around this child of your heart, wanting to run home for a few more years of one-on-one.

You may worry: What if my child performs poorly? What if my parenting inadequacies are discovered—or worse, what if the teacher doesn’t think I’m any good at parenting?

These relatable concerns can be countered with more exciting questions: What if he matures while we’re parted? What if his performance issues result in new parenting tools? What if new aspects of his personality are stimulated? What if it really does take a village to raise a child?

A story you submit for publication will be seen, much like the child going to school, as a freestanding work—and as such may be lauded, bullied, quoted, misinterpreted, picked apart, and psychoanalyzed by a public who will bring to it their own sensibilities, prejudices, insights, ideas, and experiences. You will no longer be able to come to your story’s defense. Whether or not you can handle that will be foreshadowed by how you handle a developmental edit.

Are you ready?

Signs of readiness for a developmental edit

  1. You are asking the right question.

You don’t send your child to school expecting a grade on your parenting, do you? No—you want the teacher to appreciate your child for his special qualities and help him acquire the skills necessary to maximize his potential in the world. Instead of, Am I any good? ask, How can I maximize my story’s potential?

  1. You are ready to let the manuscript speak for itself.

Your story will be entering a conversation, and it has one chance to speak: through the words you’ve put on the page. Rest assured that you have submitted your best possible work and sit quietly while the editor reflects upon what she heard. If it seems she didn’t “get it,” use her guidance to identify the disconnect between what you intended and what she heard.

  1. You are willing to allow—and then dismiss—your emotional reaction.

If hiring an editor, you must have thought your manuscript could be improved, or at the very least, you realized you were no longer the best judge of this. Still, it can sting when you hear you aren’t as far along on the novel’s journey as you thought. Allow this disappointment to remind you of how much you want to reach readers. Let it wash through and revivify you—then roll up your sleeves to make it happen.

  1. 4.  You trust that the editor has your best interests at heart.

Both writer and editor want to play on a winning team. Trust that by capitalizing on your story’s strengths and bolstering your weaknesses, your editor is trying to help you bring your project to its fullest fruition.

  1. You are open to receiving frank reader feedback.

Try to open yourself to your reader’s perspective—she may provide you with feedback that is not at all what you expected. If she doesn’t seem to “get” it, you may have led her astray through unintentionally accumulating detail. Allow that even misinterpretation is useful feedback.

  1. You own the decisions you’ve already made but are ready to revisit them.

Someday, this conversation about your work may happen in a reader’s living room with her book club, and those readers might not agree with every choice you made. You need the quiet, non-combative confidence that comes from having a reason for what you’ve done—and allowing for difference of opinion anyway. At this point, you need to see it from the editor’s perspective, too, and make your best decision as to how to move forward.

  1. You are in this for the long haul and want to build your skill set.

Like schooling, publishing success demands diligence applied over the long haul. You may need another round of edits, since once you’ve made changes, you may have unwittingly introduced new issues. This is the nature of education.

  1. You are clear about your goal.

Publication is not your end goal—it is simply a means to an end. The goal is to connect with readers—whether that be an agent, an acquisition editor, or a bookstore browser—in a way that results in repeat sales. That's how any entrepreneur stays in business.

Even with this emotional intelligence profile, it still may not feel good to read your developmental editor’s evaluation. But you’ll be better able to negotiate the collaboration, and the work it inspires will enhance your story’s meaning. You’ll feel that rush that always comes when your writing grows in both confidence and nuance. Your love for your characters will grow as their characterization deepens.

In my experience, it is those who treasure these benefits from a developmental edit who have what it takes to go the distance throughout the publishing process.


Have you hired an independent developmental editor? Did any aspect of the process hijack you, emotionally? Do you have anything to add to this checklist?

About Kathryn:

Kathryn Craft  is the award-winning author of two novels from Sourcebooks, The Art of Falling and The Far End of Happy, and a developmental editor at Writing-Partner.com, specializing in storytelling structure and writing craft. Her chapter “A Drop of Imitation: Learn from the Masters” was included in the writing guide Author in Progress, from Writers Digest Books. Janice Gable Bashman’s interview with her, “How Structure Supports Meaning,” originally published in the 2017 Novel & Short Story Writer’s Market, has been reprinted in The Complete Handbook of Novel Writingboth from Writer’s Digest Books.

29 comments on “The Developmental Edit: Are you (emotionally) ready?”

  1. I did hire a developmental editor for my current WIP, and I consider it one of the best investments I've made in my writing career.

    1. That's great, Kathy. Was it hard to hear what the editor had to say, at first? What contributed to your readiness for the experience, do you think?

      1. This is my fourth book, Kathryn, so hopefully I've gained some perspective and am starting to believe that the words aren't my flesh and blood. Even so, it was tough sometimes to hear the criticism. One especially hard thing was that my editor found a major flaw in the first couple of chapters. It was a good catch, and I fixed it. But, since we weren't having a dialogue, that comment came up again all the way through the manuscript. I kept wanting to yell, "Yeah! I know! I fixed this already!"

        1. "The words aren't my flesh and blood." Such great perspective, born of your experience—thanks for sharing it here Kathy! I'm sure that must have been frustrating to keep reading what seemed to be the same comment, but still a great lesson in how an early issue can compound throughout a manuscript—and important for someone who might be of a mind to disregard that aspect of the evaluation. Good for your for embracing the fix. Made me laugh though!

  2. Much wisdom here, Kathryn. There's a unique trust that develops as you work with the same one, over multiple books. You learn to trust each OTHER.

    1. Yes I agree! But of course trusting requires that you are open to collaboration in the first place. This seems so obvious, saying it, but in practice it isn't always true. If you are not open to ideas that might improve your story, then hiring an editor is a complete waste of money. You are not paying them to stroke your ego.

  3. Oh, Kathryn! When I "signed up" for my first developmental edit, I had no idea what was to come. By the time my wonderful editor, Tiffany Yates Martin, had finished the three contracted passes for that first book, I felt pummeled. But I knew I wanted to put out the best book I could and her suggestions were spot on. As she saw that I was willing to work with what she gave me, our trust in each other grew and her comments were more incisive because, as she told me, she knew I could-and would-fix what needed to be fixed. Best money I ever spent, but not a process for the faint of heart!

  4. This is such a wonderful post for unpublished authors to read, Kathryn! My thoughts as I read through: if you aren't ready to answer these questions, you're not ready to release your book into the wilds of publishing. 🙂

  5. As someone who both works as a developmental editor and who has had her various manuscripts combed through, torn apart, critiqued, and vastly improved by developmental editors, I have to say that this is a wonderful post, Kathryn. You are so correct in pointing out that this valuable collaboration only works if the writer is emotionally ready to "hear" the editor's suggestions and to think about long-term goals for herself as a writer, rather than trying to race toward the publication finish line. Thanks for a great post.

    1. Nice to have another editor weigh in, Holly! Writers sit at home dreaming of publishing "some day" without giving a thought to the notion that they'll have to surrender absolute control—and that very often, this is to the betterment of the manuscript. (P.S. I miss you! Great to see you here today!)

      1. I'm on a lot of Indie facebook groups, and I see this attitude quite often. Usually borne of financial limitations, nurtured by an unhealthy obsession with the brilliance of one's early works, it is not conducive to the work of a developmental editor. I try to convince them, though.

        1. "...borne of financial limitations, nurtured by an unhealthy obsession with the brilliance of one’s early works..." Well put, Ann, and more palatable coming from a client than from me! The financial limitations I get. Many start to write in their retirement years, on a fixed income. Still, we must get our writing educations somewhere, and sitting in on a generic conference session, while a great place to start, is not the same as having someone focus solely on the specific challenges of your own work.

  6. Having worked with you (and your amazing developmental editing skills!) many times Kathryn - I applaud all of this! I would also add, that a writer must not only be ready to learn but want to be a better writer than where they are right now (and that means letting go of ego, something I see many writers having an issue with). Learning was a huge part of what I did with your edits and advice, and having that desire to be a better writer and fill my toolbox to access again and again. I learned story structure, elements of genre, premise, character arcs, inciting incident, narrative flow, and so much more - AND I was able to apply this to future stories. In a way, working with a good editor is like investing in a mini-MFA. And I'm glad I did! 🙂

    1. Thanks for your kind words, Donna—I love working with clients like you! I think of developmental editing as an MFA that is all about your manuscript, and a PhD in self! That's where the emotional readiness comes in. 😉

  7. Dear Kathryn, when I hired you as my developmental editor, I knew my manuscript was the rough work of a beginner, but I had no idea what I ride I was in for. Thirty-six pages of notes took me awhile to digest, but I knew you were right. It took three months before I thought to myself, "Okay. I can do this."

    The book that resulted (after one more pass by you and another by a copy editor) is far better than I could have originally imagined.

    Since then, I have offered to beta read and critique the works of a few newbie writers. Oh my goodness. I'm seeing in them what you saw in me, and it is damned hard to give that feedback accurately, without crushing their creative spirits. Hats off to you, Kathryn, you do this so well!

    So for anyone reading this post, your developmental editor is your best friend, your mentor, your cheering section, and your professor. And worth every penny. Thanks for the MFA, Kathryn!

    1. I think we need a certain naiveté when we start out on this crazy road. If we knew how high the learning curve ahead of us was, or how it was sprinkled with cinders that at times might cause us to slide back down, I'm not sure we'd make the climb. Many times, my job feels like I'm pushing way the cloud so people who thought they'd reached the pinnacle can see that they still have a ways to climb. I have great empathy for them, because I recall my discomfort at such moments!

  8. As the author who has lived with your book for so long, you can lose perspective, and a great developmental editor can make all the difference in making sure you give the reader the best story possible. Totally agree with you here!

  9. I'd rather hear constructive criticism from a developmental editor than from a reader - at that point it's too late to consider changes. Thanks, Kathryn!

  10. I have a friend that has always published indie. I mentioned I wanted to hire an editor to go over my stuff. Her reply was well she'd been doing this long enough she didn't need one. Then she got a three book contract with a major publisher. Amazing the work she had to do to her "baby". I was thinking see you do need one. I never said anything to her, just the thought in my mind was how interesting that she thought she already knew enough, but obviously maybe not quite enough.

    1. Hi C. K., thanks for your comment, which raises an interesting point. While some seasoned authors like the collaboration of working with developmental editors, I know many who would never dream of letting anyone but the contracted editor have a look at it. That acquiring editor might well want changes, even after an independent editor offered suggestions, because they want a top-notch product that fits within their business model.

      Where an author ALWAYS needs to hire an independent editor, though, is when self-publishing. A publisher—which is the role this author has assumed, seasoned or not—would never think of going to press without an editor looking at the novel first. Why should an indie publisher's standards be any lower?

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