Developmental Editor: 8 Details Authors Should Know

Posted on Dec 29, 2023

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Most writers will tell you that the first draft of a book is the hardest. “The Hell Draft.” It’s usually rife with fundamental errors, inconsistency, and screaming. It’s all necessary, but there is a step (or person) who takes your draft from something you think works to something that fulfills the vision in your head.

Those blessed being are developmental editors.

Shannon Hale said, “I’m writing a first draft and reminding myself that I’m simply shoveling sand into a box so that later I can build castles.”

Whether you hate or love first drafts, they’ve got to be written or the book won’t exist. That part is clear, which almost makes it easy. But what do you do after you have the first draft? Probably a revision. Then maybe a self-edit. Then what? Hire an editor? What kind of edit happens first?

A book usually goes through several rounds of editing, and we’ll cover the difference below. But the first round is called the developmental edit and comprises of very different details than you usually think of when it comes to the classic definition of “editing.”

Let’s talk about what developmental editors do, how to find them, and how to work with them most effectively.

Here’s what authors should know about a developmental editor and the process:

  1. What is developmental editing?
  2. Developmental Editor Process
  3. Where to Find
  4. Vetting Editors
  5. Working With Them

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What is a developmental editor?

A developmental editor is a professional editor who works with you on the structure and content of your book, including individual chapters, elements of fiction, and consistencies.

While other rounds of edits focus on smaller things like sentence structure, grammar, verbiage, and typos, the developmental editor helps with bigger picture issues, like plot, focus, target audience, and other elements of the content itself.

Developmental editors shouldn’t tell you what is right or wrong, but should have discussions with you to work together to accomplish your goals and appeal to the correct audience. They will want to understand your goals and intentions as a writer and will help you fulfill that, not necessarily their idea of what you should or shouldn’t do.

A developmental editor isn’t there to shape the book based on their opinions. They’re there to make sure your goals with the book come out as you intend them to.

This is something you’ll want to look for and thoroughly vet when you search for a developmental editor, but more on that process below.

Developmental Editor VS Copy Editor

The difference between a developmental editor and a copy editor is very different, with the developmental one focusing on the content itself and the copy editor honing in on grammar, punctuation, and sentence structures.

A copyeditor can tell you that a grammar rule is hard and fast, and here is the fix, but a developmental editor might ask questions, have you defend your points and choices, poke holes in your arguments, point out plot inconsistencies.

Sometimes having to explain yourself out loud to someone being critical of your work helps you realize your problems without them even having to say it. To understand the role of a developmental editor, it’s easier to think of them as a writing partner, rather than an editor.

They’re going to work with you to tackle the problems in the story. The conversation is more back-and-forth problem-solving and less red ink.

Here are a few other differences between these types of editing:

Developmental Editing:

  • Characterization clarity and consistency
  • Plot holes
  • Pacing
  • Order of events
  • Missing or lacking fictional elements
  • Plot consistencies
  • Timeline consistencies

Copyediting:

  • Sentence syntax
  • Spelling
  • Punctuation
  • Word choice
  • Sentence clarity
  • Paragraph sizes and breaks
  • Overall grammar

It can be easy to confuse the types of editing, but this comparison will help you see that these two editing types are incredibly different and therefore have entirely separate processes. Let’s take a look at what that process looks like for a developmental editor.

What does a developmental editor do?

As writers, we often become too intimate with our work to realize the problems with it.

This can happen for several reasons:

  1. Being emotionally invested and personally connected with the work makes it harder to see its flaws.
  2. The world of your story lives in your head. You know the intricacies, you know the characters, and you understand your goals with it. You have every bit of backstory. That doesn’t always translate in a way that’s understandable to readers.
  3. Through multiple revisions, we rearrange scenes, delete scenes, lose track of subplots and character arcs, and ultimately forget what’s actually on the page. This can create a story that makes perfect sense to you, because you’ve read every iteration, but may be complete nonsense to a new reader.

Because of this closeness with the story, we need an outside perspective to spot the problems we can’t see. Someone to see the big picture. It’s like we’re nose-to-canvas with a painting, seeing only a few colors and swipes of paint. An observer several feet away can see the whole thing and take it in as one piece.

Developmental editors will read your manuscript and then, your editor will typically give you a write-up of feedback.

That opens the discussion for you to explain your intent, ask questions, and have a conversation about better ways to accomplish those goals before you jump into your first revision. You might do multiple rounds of developmental edits. Different writers and editors have their own preferences for format and process, so be sure to discuss those things beforehand.

“A book that is made up of only great sentences is not necessarily a great book.”  – Mokokoma Mokhonoana 

While you can self-edit your book, many authors find that they need a book editor, as having an extra set of eyes on their draft can help close gaps early on in the writing process.

Where to Find a Good Developmental Editor

There are several ways to find quality developmental editors. It’s a good idea to start poking around for editors before your book is ready for one, because it is often a lengthy process.

The good news is, once you’ve found a great editor, you typically don’t need to hunt for a new one for a long time. And if you do eventually need to find another developmental editor, you’ll be versed in the process.

Here are six ways you might start your search for a developmental editor:

  1. Look at the interior flap of books. If you think a book is well-edited, you might look into who did it and see if they’re open to new clients. A few things to keep in mind here include their schedule and your budget–for example, if you’re a new indie author, you probably shouldn’t reach out to Stephen King’s latest editor. But if you found another indie author in your genre and loved their book, it might be worth getting in touch with their editor.
  2. Referrals from other authors. This is a great reason to network with other authors–most are happy to recommend people they had good experiences working with. If you have authors you can reach out to (and whose books you enjoyed), you might ask them if they recommend any editors. Even if you don’t have author friends, many writers recommend editors to their platforms. For example, many AuthorTubers have videos on how and who they hired to edit their books.
  3. Research editors who specialize in your genre and have proper qualifications. The most important thing in a good editor is that they’re suited for your project. Make sure they’ve worked in your genre before and have proper qualifications, whether it’s academic qualifications or years of relevant experience with good testimonials. When you create a short-list of editor options, you’ll reach out and make sure they have an interest in working on your particular project, but it’s easy to chuck a few options off the list by looking at their genre experience.
  4. Check out this list of resources:
  5. For more tips, check out our post on how to hire a professional book editor (3 steps).
  6. Join Facebook groups of book editors and make a post. Many editors flock to groups to not only learn from each other, but to advertise their own services. Checking groups like this will help you get a long list of potential editors you can vet and choose from, which can increase your chances of finding one you want to work with long term. This is especially important if you’re writing a book series.

Tips for Vetting Developmental Editors

Once you’ve got a list of possibilities, it’s time to narrow down your editor options. Here are five tips for determining if an editor is right for you and how to work with a book editor for best results.

  1. References. Like I mentioned, a great way to have a headstart vetting editors is through referrals from authors you trust. Reviews, particularly on editors’ websites can be curated, or even faked. Hearing it from the mouth of someone you know doesn’t have an ulterior motive is one of the most reliable ways to find an editor.
  2. Testimonials. That said, don’t forget to read any reviews and testimonials you can find, especially through websites the editor themselves does not control.
  3. Pre-interact. Reach out with questions to get a feel for their schedule and process, as well as checking for interpersonal compatibility. If you’re particularly sensitive and the conversation goes in a way that sets you on edge before you’re even receiving feedback, maybe that’s not a great fit. And vice versa, if you’re looking for brutally honest feedback and you get the vibe that the editor is a people-pleaser, that might not work out either. Having a few conversations before hiring the editor can help you weed out editors who you can’t work long-term with.
  4. Sample edits. If the conversation goes well, you might request a sample edit. Sample edits are easier with line and copy editors, because you can get a feeling for their style and process in a page or two. For developmental editors, this can be a little trickier. Some editors might have an example of their previous work available for you. Otherwise, you can pay them a fee to give you feedback on the first chapter of your book. While editors often supply free sample edits, don’t ask for more than they’re offering. Editing is a service, and they deserve compensation, even if it’s just one chapter.
  5. Reevaluate with every project, especially if there’s a genre or goal shift for your next project. Authors have a tendency to want to stick with the same editors, but that isn’t always the best option. Keep an eye out to make sure each collaboration makes sense. Most editors specialize in certain genres, and you might be better off switching to someone else if you shift genres.
  6. Talk and get to know them. Don’t make it all so formal. Your book editor is a person, not a machine. You’ll find that by chatting and getting to know them—more like a job interview than a blind hiring process—you can decide which perspective you want in a person editing your book. Ideally, they’d be your target audience of the book. Most developmental editors are avid readers. Find what they like to read, and hire someone who fits your target audience.

How to Work with a Developmental Editor

While writer-editor teams will all have their own styles and preferences, here are a few general tips for working with your developmental editor.

1. Leave your hang-ups at the door

It’s easy to be offended or defensive about critique if you’re not accustomed to receiving feedback on your work. Try to get yourself into a receptive headspace before you even hire an editor.

Your writing is not you. Editors are here to help.

If you know you’re going to be defensive and obstinate, try practicing accepting feedback in a lower-stakes situation, like working with writing partners. If you’re paying for a service, you can’t be angry when you receive that service.

2. Communicate

The best way to get the most of your developmental edit is to focus on clear communication. Communication is a two-way street–you have to be good at receiving the messages and sending the messages.

Discuss your goals for the piece, establish parameters before you enter a contract, let them know if you have a scheduling issue, and be as receptive as you can to their feedback.

Ask and answer questions as clearly as you can. Be respectful in your correspondence and respectful of their time. 

3. Remember you hired them for a reason

It’s so easy to be combative when someone is literally pointing out what you’ve done wrong. But this is what you asked them to do. Every time you want to be defensive, tell yourself that they’re helping you, and this is what you want. You’d rather hear it from an editor before it’s published than from readers afterward.

If you did the due-diligence in vetting for a good editor, it’s time to trust them and the decision you made.

4. Keep deadlines

Writing is a solitary job, until you hire an editor. If you’ve established a timeline for sending in chapters, getting your revisions done, or whatever other items your editor is relying on you for, stay on schedule. If you have an unexpected conflict, be sure to communicate that.

Likewise, if your editor is consistently dropping due dates and not getting you the materials you need in a reasonable time, hold them accountable. Your time is also valuable.

Apart from writing it, hiring the right developmental editor is one of the most pivotal things you can do for your book.

Be sure to put in the time and do your homework before you hire an editor, then put forth the effort to keep that relationship strong and effective. Your books and readers will thank you!

If you choose to edit your book yourself, make sure to grab our book editing checklist below for tips on what to look for, as well as a tips on hiring a book editor for your project!

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