Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

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November 2, 2022

Think you don’t need a developmental editor? Oh yes, you do!

By Jenn Windrow

red pen developmental editing

The old myth that your story doesn’t need a developmental editor is just that… a myth.

Every writer, no matter how long they have been writing, or how many books they have published, needs a developmental editor.

Let’s look at what developmental editing is, and what it isn’t.

The different kinds of editing

There are three different kinds of editing that your book goes through before you publish. It doesn’t matter whether you are sending it to a traditional publisher or indie publishing, all books should go through all three processes.

  1. Developmental editing
  2. Copy Editing
  3. Line editing/proofreading

Developmental editing

Developmental editing, also called content editing, deals with the story, characters, POV, themes, pacing, and basically anything having to do with how the book reads. It is the hardest part of the editing process. The deepest part. And sometimes the most frustrating part. It can make you cry, want to give up, and hate your editor.

Developmental editors don’t want to make you feel any of the above, they just want you to put out the best story you can, so your readers have an enjoyable experience when they enter your world.

A good developmental editor will check:

  • Have you head-hopped or switched POV’s?
  • Is your character being stupid or acting out of character?
  • Are you sticking to your theme?
  • Is the pacing too fast, too slow?
  • Is the love insta-love or nicely drawn out?
  • Is the antagonist too obvious? Not obvious enough?
  • Did you tie up all the loose threads at the end or have you left some dangling in the wind?
  • Are your characters likeable?
  • Is your story likeable?

They dig deep into your story and give you feedback based on their thoughts. Do you always have to agree with that feedback? No. You never have to agree with it. It is your story, and you can write it how you like. But in my experience, they are usually right.

What if you don't agree?

I’ve edited for many people who have not agreed with my comments. That’s their choice. It doesn’t hurt my feelings. It doesn’t make me mad. They paid me for advice; I gave it. They can do with it what they like. But it helps to go into a developmental edit with the idea that the editor is only trying to help you make the story the best that it can be.

I edit a little differently than some. Because it is your story, I prefer to ask questions when I come across something that makes me go hmmm. Anyone remember that song? No, just me? Hmmmm. In asking questions, I feel it helps the author to think a bit about why I ask that question. Maybe it is just that you need to add more context for me to understand. Maybe the characters' motivations aren’t fleshed out enough. Maybe it just doesn’t make sense. Either way, when someone asks you a question, it makes you think deeper and in thinking deeper, you usually find those answers.

Once your book has gone through the developmental editing stage, you’ll make all the changes, and then move on to copy editing.

Copy Editing

This is where an editor, who is much better with grammar than I am, goes in and makes sure you have the correct punctuation, word usage, spelling. All the fun stuff that polishes the story before publication. Copy editors DO NOT dig deep into your story. Their job is to fix your grammar, not your story.

As a developmental editor, I DON’T copy edit. I couldn’t tell you where a comma or an em-dash goes. Honestly, I don’t care. I happily pay someone else to clean up that mess for me. I’m just lucky my best friend is my copy editor or she might have quit me by now.

Line Editing/Proof reading

Publishers call this different things, but it is all the same. Once your book has been copy edited and all the changes are turned in again, it’s time to do a final read through. Line by line. At this point in the editing process, you will be so sick of your own story you will understand how best-selling authors have spelling errors in their books. They are so over it they just want it to be done.

This is the last chance to polish that baby to perfection. Read every word, every line, every paragraph and look for those errors that you missed the first five hundred times. And it happens. They slip through.

Funny story, my first book, there was the line…

She placed the hair scrunchie around the gear shift.

Or at least that was what it was supposed to say. What actually got published was…

She placed the hair scrunchie around the gear shirt.

Yeah, it happens.

When I first started working with my editor on that book, I went into the process thinking that the publisher would be the one doing the final read through. I was so wrong. All the changes, that final read through, it is all on you. Those mistakes are all on you.

Why is developmental editing important?

Developmental editing is THE story. The words are yours, the characters are yours, but if you don’t allow someone who is looking at it with objective eyes to dig deep into the story, you will never know what’s wrong. You might have an idea that something just isn’t right. I know I do. In fact, I can send my pages off to my critique partners knowing the exact spot where they are going to ding me. And I do that because I know they will either give me a suggestion to make it work, or ask me a question that will ignite an idea.

Authors are really connected to their stories, they are so IN them that sometimes they can’t see what is not working. Or if they do, they don’t know how to fix it.

A good developmental editor can not only help you find those places, but help you fix them as well. They will take the time to bounce ideas around. They will help you soften a character. Make the plot twists more twisty. Strengthen your story so the reader won’t want to put it down. They will only improve your story.

How to find the right Developmental editor for you.

If you’re traditional publishing, you won’t get an option on which editor you’re assigned to. They usually give you to the person who works best in your genre. But that doesn’t mean you can’t change if you need to.

My first editor with my publisher came back with hardly any comments on my MS. I knew I wasn’t a bad writer, and the MS had gone through so many sets of eyes that it was fairly clean, but nowhere near the no-comment-from-an-editor good. I contacted the owner of the publishing house and expressed my concerns about the editing I received. She then dug into my MS herself and of course had a lot of suggestions. She became my editor on all the books I published through them.

So, even though you may be given an editor, if you question their process or don’t think you can work with them, you have the right to say so.

Now, if you are self-publishing, you need to search for your own editors. There are a lot of places where you can do that. Google, FB groups, LinkedIn, even word of mouth from writer friends. Once you find someone who you think you can work with, you need to find out if they are familiar with your genre. Not every editor is good for every genre.

I work closely with one of my best friends who writes historical romance. It’s not my thing, but we’ve worked together for so long that I am used to her writing. But if someone comes to me with a historical romance, I might pass up the job because there are certain aspects to the historical genre that I am not familiar with.

Where to start?

One of the best ways to see if you work well with someone is to ask them to do a sample edit. Two or three pages, just enough to see if you can handle their editing style. Most editors will do this. If they won’t, I would walk away and find someone else. Developmental editing is expensive and you don’t want to get back a completed edit, that you spent a lot of money on, to find out that it wasn’t up to your standards.

Questions to ask:

  1. Will they do a sample edit?
  2. Do they or have they worked in your genre?
  3. What is the cost?
  4. How long will it take for them to complete the project?

Once you have found an editor, make sure you read through their contract. Read the fine print before signing. This goes for traditional publishing, too.

No matter the editing path you’re taking, developmental editing is the first, and most important, part of the editing process.

Don’t skip it. Embrace it.

Have you worked with a developmental editor? What was your experience?

* * * * * *

About Jenn Windrow

Jenn Windrow

Jenn Windrow runs her own developmental editing company called Irreverent Publishing and has also worked as an in-house developmental editor for a small press. She’s worked in all genres, such as Romance, Women’s’ fiction, Sci-fi, Satire, Erotica, Thrillers, Historical, and Fantasy, ranging from five thousand-word short stories to over one hundred thousand-word novels.

When she’s not editing others' work, she spends her time playing in her own worlds. She’s published six books in the past four years, both in the traditionally published world and the indie published.

She loves characters who have a pinch of spunk, a dash of attitude, and a large dollop of sex appeal. Top it all off with a huge heaping helping of snark, and you’ve got the ingredients for the kind of fast-paced stories she loves to read and write. Home is a suburb of it’s-so-hot-my-shoes-have-melted-to-the-pavement Phoenix. Where she lives with her husband, two daughters, and a slew of animals that seem to keep following her home. At least that’s what she claims.

Top image by Lorenzo Cafaro from Pixabay.

12 comments on “Think you don’t need a developmental editor? Oh yes, you do!”

  1. Great breakdown on the different editing types. I know I didn't understand the difference as a newbie. I agree about being so into our stories we miss things--whether it's your first book or fifth or twentieth.

    1. Exactly! It truly doesn't matter how many books you have written, you can never skip the editing process!!

  2. As a copy editor (Jenn's, in fact), I read a lot of stories that SHOULD have had some heavy-handed developmental editing. I might provide observations about some of the things I see (especially if they're really obvious), but ultimately, my job is to fix the grammar and make sure everything (eye color, hair color, historical anachronisms--although not all copy editors do that) is correct. Don't underestimate the value a good editor can provide. Even professional editors who write fiction hire their own dev editor. They know they can't see their own mistakes.

    1. And I have heard you talk about them before. It has to be frustrating when you know you want to fix something, but it is not your job to do the fixing.

  3. Thanks for the breakdown, Jenn! I am close to needing a developmental editor for the first book in a trilogy.

    I ALWAYS need that continuity edit because I'm a story quilter - I write the whole book by scene and then stitch it together. It's the only way I'm able to finish a book but there are always holes where I don't "stitch" as well as I thought I did!

  4. Copyediting and line editing are very different. These terms are not used interchangeably. Please refer to the EFA's site: https://www.the-efa.org/rates/ and https://www.the-efa.org/hiring/member-skills/.

    Substantive editing and developmental editing are often used interchangeably. But I learned from an editor who was an in-house editor at traditional publishing houses for decades some super interesting distinctions. Once I learned the difference, I was floored that more seasoned editors didn't make these distinctions in their material!

    Here is one article that explains the difference between developmental and substantive editing: https://bookeditor-jessihoffman.com/developmental-edit-substantive-edit-difference/.

    In my business, I treat them separately.

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