Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

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November 28, 2022

Debunking the Myths of Developmental Editing

by Tiffany Yates Martin

Myth Busting stamped on an envelope

Thirty years ago, when I started in this business, having a writer directly hire a freelance editor like me was a relative rarity. With few exceptions you got an editor when you got a publisher—full stop.

But the explosion of indie and small-press publishing has seen a similar explosion in the services available for authors—which has also come with a roster of myths, hype, and confusion.

If you feel overwhelmed by all that noise regarding developmental editors, here’s a mythbusting primer on what you need to know.

Let’s start with the biggest myth:

You always need to hire a developmental editor

No, you do not. Authors have been successfully authoring for centuries, and yet the explosion of freelance developmental editors available for hire is a very recent phenomenon.

Yes, the publishing industry has changed—rarely can published authors expect the kinds of intensive hands-on in-house editing of a Max Perkins or Sol Stein these days; competition is far fiercer than it was; and indie and small-press publishing mean authors may get no editing at all unless they hire it themselves.

But the fact is, editing and revision are among the core skills that should be in an author’s toolbox.

Hiring an expert editorial eye can be wonderfully beneficial to your story and your writing in general—but let’s acknowledge the fact that developmental editing is a pricey proposition, often extending into multiple thousands of dollars. That is not within reach of every author—but finances are not and should not be a barrier to success in this field.

If you are self-pubbing or working with a small press that may not offer adequate editing, hiring a knowledgeable, experienced editor can be enormously useful in making sure your story is as effective and competitive as possible. (Learn how to make sure you’re getting that here.)

If you’re traditionally publishing you will have a dev editor—although it may not be as intensive an edit as you may want.

But there are other ways to get the objective feedback you need to see your story clearly—like good critique partners and beta readers­­­­. (You can find a beta reader questionnaire here to help elicit useful, actionable feedback; and find other alternatives to a professional edit here.)

What a good dev edit does is hold up the mirror to an author’s work so she can see whether her vision is conveyed effectively and fully on the page, and help her pinpoint areas where it may not be—and figure out how to address them.

I often liken it to hiring a professional contractor to manage a home renovation project. Will their expertise and experience make the job go faster, easier, and more smoothly? Very likely. But can you do the job without a general contractor? Of course you can. It may be more challenging, it may take longer, and there may be a sharp learning curve to get the results you want—but it can be done. (This self-editing checklist can also help.)

Dev editors are experts and know everything

Not always. In the explosion of services offered to authors since the indie- and small-pub revolution, there is a wide variety of skill and experience levels. There’s no official certification, standards, or governing body for developmental editors, so caveat scriptor—writer beware. (Learn what to know when hiring a pro here.)

Developmental editors are always right

Not necessarily. Not only do skill and knowledge levels vary, as in the above point, but storytelling and writing—as with any art—are subjective. A good dev editor is ideally reflecting back to you what’s actually on the page and helping you ascertain how well it fits your intentions and how effectively it’s coming across to a reader—and suggesting ways you might deepen, develop, or clarify these areas.

But these suggestions are only that. Ultimately this is your story and your vision, so take the edits that resonate and disregard those that don’t. (One caveat—sometimes a writer’s strong knee-jerk rejection of a suggestion may indicate a “darling” that could be hampering the story. Take time to let it sit and percolate, and consider whether the story might be stronger without it.)

Dev editors will "fix" your manuscript

That’s not what dev editors do. They aren’t a magic bullet or wand that will make your story publishable or a bestseller. They are a tool like any other tool in the writer’s toolbox—one that can help you see your work more clearly, deepen and develop it more fully and effectively, and get your intentions on the page. But the author is the one who must make the decisions of what to incorporate (or not) and how, and actually do the revisions, and that’s the hard stuff. A good editor can be your sherpa up Revision Mountain, but they can’t make the climb for you.

Dev editors know your story better than you do

No, they don’t. If an editor suggests they do, walk away. Good dev editors are working hard to understand your intentions, the story you want to tell—and to help you do that in the most effective way. We are drawing from the benefit of (ideally) extensive knowledge of craft and extensive experience working in the industry in helping to determine what is most effective and marketable. But you are the expert on your story; we are just the midwives helping you get it out.

Dev editors will pick your story—and you—apart  

Not exactly. Yes, a good dev edit is usually extensive and wide-ranging—and intense, what one author I work with called a “literary root canal.” But an editor isn’t (or shouldn’t be) looking to pick the story apart. I liken our job to that of a home inspector—our focus is to shine the light into every single corner and crevice and note areas where we see the story could be strengthened. We’re here to help you shore up the building so it stands strong, not to take it down. And editors can—and arguably should—also point out what’s already working well.

An editor’s overall approach should be respectful, constructive, and actionable. If they denigrate or dismiss you or your work, or try to take your story over and push their own ideas (rather than suggesting ideas drawn from your manuscript and supported with solid reasoning as to how they may serve your intentions), or tell you what’s “wrong” without suggesting ways to address any issues, find another editor. It’s not you—it’s them.

Dev editors should be successful authors themselves

Not really. Editing and writing are two closely related but very different skill sets, and just because someone is good at one doesn’t mean they are good at the other. Just as great conductors aren’t expert players of every instrument, or great coaches always star players, or great directors always great actors (or even good ones, often), great editors may not be great writers—and vice versa.

Judge an editor based on their editing: their experience, knowledge, and how well they seem to understand your work and intentions (from a sample edit, which I recommend never hiring an editor without)—not by their writing track record (or lack of it).

I’ve been a longtime contributor to Writers in the Storm, but scheduling conflicts mean that this will be my last post as I step away for now. It’s been a privilege and a pleasure to be part of this wonderful, supportive, knowledgeable, and inspiring writing community.

I hope you’ll visit me at www.foxprinteditorial.com, where you’ll find free resources and downloadables for authors, more of my writing on writing in my blog, info on my workshops and classes, and more.

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About Tiffany

Tiffany Yates Martin

Tiffany Yates Martin has spent thirty years as an editor in the publishing industry, working with major publishers and New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, and USA Today bestselling and award-winning authors as well as indie and newer writers. She is the founder of FoxPrint Editorial and author of the bestseller Intuitive Editing: A Creative and Practical Guide to Revising Your Writing and leads seminars and workshops for writers around the country. Under the pen name Phoebe Fox, she's also the author of six novels, including the recently released The Way We Weren't (Berkley/PRH). Visit her at www.foxprinteditorial.com.

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19 comments on “Debunking the Myths of Developmental Editing”

  1. Excellent post, Tiffany. Thanks for sharing so much with Writers in the Storm. I understand the need to step away. I will miss your posts in the future and hope that maybe you'll drop by once in a while. Wishing you much success in your future endeavors!

  2. Great article and thanks for sharing resources like the checklist and links to other articles.

    I agree that other writers can offer excellent developmental feedback as an affordable option as long as they're willing to risk being completely honest with their thoughts and opinions. As you mentioned, there's usually a love/hate thing going on when I read the feedback and have to work to fix things I was too close to see were missing on the page which is always a reminder of the value of a developmental editor even beyond your first few books.

    Thanks for your contributions here and best wishes!

    1. Agreed, Tracy--getting the feedback you need from non-editors can be more challenging...but doable. That's why I created the questionnaire for beta readers--customizing something like that can help direct readers toward actionable, useful feedback.

      I just hate to see professional dev editing held up as a requirement for every writer to succeed--it's not, though a good one can be invaluable.

      Thanks for the comment and your good wishes--I'll still be here enjoying the blog as a reader!

  3. As always, you're the knowledgeable voice of reason who never talks down to readers, but is instead engaging. Your contributions here will be dearly missed, but I have your (beloved) book, have bookmarked your site, & am signing up for your blog, which I should've done long ago. I wish you nothing but continued success, it's deserved.

    1. That's such a welcome thing to hear about work that truly is my passion, Christina--thanks so much. I'll miss writing for WitS but will remain part of the community, and look forward to seeing you over at FoxPrint!

  4. Versed article with good links. Thanks for sharing your thoughts and knowledge. I'm closing in on finishing my book for the second time and seeing where I may need a third round. I'm trying to gather as much information about editing as possible so your thoughts are timely. Luther Dixon

    1. Glad it's helpful, Luther. I linked to my Get It Edited guide in the article, which may also be helpful if you plan to look for and vet an editor to find the right fit. I also linked to my Self-Editing Checklist, I think, also on my site on the "Editing Toolbox" page, which can help assess your own manuscript. Good luck, and thank you for the comment!

  5. Thank you, Tiffany, for this excellent critique of developmental editing. You offer a candid and useful examination of what a developmental editor can and cannot do.

  6. Tiffany, thanks for an excellent post. I've done it both ways. On my early novels I did not have an opportunity to use outside editing, and on the last two I have. I will continue to pay for editing because I have found an editor I trust, and because when I review their comments it forces me to stop and think about a line, scene, whatever. The extra attention is worthwhile. (And I accept at least 90% of my editor's comments.)
    Thanks again!
    James
    PS Sorry to see that you're leaving WITS. I've really enjoyed your work.

    1. When you find a good editor who is a great fit, that's gold. 🙂 I am a huge fan of what expert editing can do for an author, but don't think it's the only path.

      Thanks for your kind wishes--I will still be around in the WitS community!

  7. Tiffany, I have no idea how people get through books with no other eyes but their own. For me, as a scene writer, it's vital. I get the scenes out of order, write them, then stitch them together. And there is always a hole I thought I filled or a cohesive theme that I think I wrote to.

    I am always wrong, because no one pair of eyes can fill every hole or smooth every plotline.

    Maybe if you're Mark Twain or Ernest Hemingway, you can. But little 'ole normal writers like me? Nope. You need those experienced editor eyes!

    1. Outside eyes can be deeply helpful, yes. But that doesn't always mean hiring an editor--and frankly an unskillful editor can do more damage than good. I think there's a line of thinking out there that every author must hire an editor with every manuscript if they want to be marketable/competitive, and it just isn't always true.

  8. Wow, what a great article! This one should be a must-read for all new writers and even some not so new. A wonderful wealth of information you've posited here, including the whys behind the myths.

    I totally agree with you that no editor is the end-all for shaping or editing a story and that it often may take working with several before you find one that gets you, one that you can trust, one who can delight in what's working, and shine their light onto the areas that aren't in such a way that their suggestions help rather than hurt.

    This is a post that I'll be linking on my website for writers to turn to for help. Enjoy your break! You will be missed.

    1. Thank you, Diana! I will miss writing for WitS too, but I'll still be here as a reader.

      I SO agree that finding the right "fit" with an editor is as essential as finding the right fit with a therapist. 🙂 Thanks for the comment and your kind words.

  9. […] “Debunking the Myths of Developmental Editing” by Tiffany Yates Martin, a blog posted on the Writers in the Storm: a blog about writing. A blog awarded by Writer’s Digest as one of the 101 Best Websites for Writers. She starts with the myth of “You always need to hire a developmental editor,” and goes from there. A must-read for all writers, in my opinion. […]

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