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What Is Developmental Editing?

Developmental editing refers to editing that aims to improve the content and structure of a manuscript. Developmental editing is very different from its cousins, proofreading and copyediting, types of editing that ensure that a manuscript’s grammar, punctuation, and spelling are in accordance with rules codified in reference books such as the Chicago Manual of Style and The AP Stylebook.  By contrast, developmental editing takes on topics such as pacing, plot, characterization, and setting. There are no set rules to abide by; instead, the developmental editors draw upon their instincts, experience, and lifetimes of heavy reading to help a manuscript reach its fullest potential.

Most published books go through at least one round of developmental editing. Developmental editing is not for the fainthearted. It can lead to major changes in a book. Characters can be merged, entire plots can be tossed out, settings can switch hemispheres, and so forth. But, in the end, it’s all worth it. Books that haven’t gone through developmental editing are often baggy, unwieldy, and unfocused. 

Who Does Developmental Editing?

The most esteemed developmental editors have garnered their share of fame. You might have heard of Doubleday’s Gerry Howard, who edited David Foster Wallace and Bret Easton Ellis (and memorably writes about their feud here) or of Dutton’s Julie Strauss-Gabel, John Green’s editor, who was recently featured in the New York Times.Modern history’s most famous developmental editor is probably legendary Scribner editor Maxwell E. Perkins, who edited F. Scott Fitzgerald and Thomas Wolfe, and now has an award named after him given by the Center for Fiction.

The guidelines for recipients of the Maxwell E. Perkins Award should be serves as an elegant definition of the ideal developmental editor. It’s one who “has discovered, nurtured, and championed” writers. Developmental editors are close to authors. In terms of psychic distance, one could say that they are closer to the author than they are to copyeditors and proofreaders.

Developmental editors can be found in publishing houses where they are usually known simply as editors (or editors-in-chief, associate editors, or assistant editors)at publishing houses. Agents do developmental editing, though to varying degrees. Some of the larger agencies even have in-house editors who edit client manuscripts, either before submission and at times when the novel is already under contract with a publishing house.

There is also increasing demand for freelance developmental editors such as Fresh Ink Book Editing. Developmental editing can also be done by beta readers and critique partners. These are people, usually fellow writers, who will do developmental editing for you in exchange for you doing developmental editing for them.

What Form Does Developmental Editing Take?

Developmental editing comes in two basic forms: editorial letters and substantive editing.

Editorial letters tend to be the first step in the editorial process. They deal with big-picture changes needed in the manuscript. Although they might reference occasional scenes, they rarely reference specific dialogue and more often give a more birds-eye view critique of the manuscript. They are usually around three to five pages, but I’ve seen ten-page editorial letters before! Here’s a sample editorial letter from Fresh Ink Book Editing, given with permission from the recipient.

Substantive editing (also known as line editing) usually comes after one or two rounds of editing based on editorial letters. Substantive editing comes in the form of comments and markings in the margins and between the lines. These days, it’s all handled through the brightly colored manipulations of Microsoft Word’s Track Changes. Substantive edits are more targeted than editorial letters. They zeroing in on scenes and sentences in ways. Sometimes extreme substantive editing borders on copyediting. A substantively edited manuscript can be overwhelming. 

Substantive editing can sometimes verge on ghostwriting as editors might introduce new lines and word into the text.

Here’s a substantive edit from Fresh Ink Book Editing, given with permission from the author. It’s on the lighter side–the author didn’t need too much help polishing her sentences.

Should I Get Developmental Editing for My Manuscript?

If you want your manuscript to successfully complete that arduous journey to becoming a professional, published book, you should have some form of developmental editing. 

The question is really when should you get it. Should you wait until you have a book deal with a major publishing house?  Should you have it done before you submit your manuscript to agents? If you’re dealing with an editor at a major house who seems very busy, should you hire someone to clean it up before you submit it to him or her? Should you do it before you self-publish? The answer varies from person to person.

There was a time when editors at publishing houses did the bulk of developmental editing. Now, however, editors wear so many hats, that for many of them it is difficult to find the time to edit thoroughly. Agents took up a lot of the editing work that editors could not longer do, but now agents have become increasingly involved in other aspects of publishing, such as marketing, so that they too now do not have as much time to edit.

If you decide you want developmental editing apart from what you would receive from an agent or a publishing house editor,  you can hire a professional editor or rely upon critique partners or beta readers. (I do not recommend relying on friends who will generally only give positive feedback).