As an author, it can be hard to know which developmental editor to choose because each editor’s process is so different. And unlike a line edit, copy edit, or proofread, it’s more difficult for an editor to do a sample developmental edit. You can ask a developmental editor for past client references or their portfolio, but even then it’s difficult to tell what exactly the editor contributed to the book.
I’ve found that the best way to make sure I’m the right fit for a potential developmental edit client is to explain my process thoroughly so they know exactly what they’ll be getting.
How I Approach a Developmental Edit for a Novel
The following steps are generally how I approach a developmental edit for a novel.
I ask the author what craft elements they want feedback on.
Before I begin, I’ll ask the author to identify any craft elements they specifically want me to look at so that I can give them feedback on those aspects of their draft. This is an important part of setting expectations with the author so that they have an idea of what I’ll be looking for as I read. Of course, often the areas that authors want me to give feedback on are things that I would cover in my editorial letter anyway, but hearing their requests helps me prioritize certain craft elements over others in my editorial suggestions.
I research comp titles and craft elements.
If there’s enough time between my initial conversation with the author and starting edits on their manuscript, I try to do some research that will get me in the right frame of mind to approach their project. For me, research means reading books, reviewing notes from relevant editorial classes I’ve taken, and listening to podcast episodes about a particular craft element (especially Print Run Podcast and Publishing Crawl).
For instance, if an author knows that dialogue is one of their weaknesses and they want me to pay special attention to it in their draft, I’ll read a book by an author who is excellent at dialogue and I’ll listen to a few podcast episodes about creating great dialogue. Or if I’ll be working with a specific genre or format (like historical fiction or a graphic novel), I’ll try to read a similar book, especially if the author already has comp titles in mind for the project.
I read the manuscript.
Most of my editorial work is done on screens, so when it comes to a developmental edit, I like to print out the entire manuscript and read it on paper. As I read, I jot down notes in the margins and on a notepad to keep track of things that are confusing, inconsistent, or really great in the novel. Reading the draft on paper forces me to slow down instead of skimming and scrolling too quickly, which allows me to approach the manuscript as a reader, not an editor.
By that I mean that I’m not tempted to correct typos or get caught up in the edits I’ll suggest; instead, I put myself in the reader’s shoes. As Carol Fisher Saller suggests in The Subversive Copy Editor, the editor’s “first loyalty [should] be to the audience of the work you’re editing: that is, the reader.” For me, that means that I’m reading the manuscript first as a reader so I can reflect on what I was confused about, what I loved, what I wanted more of, what I wanted less of. After I’ve read through the manuscript as a reader, I put on my editorial hat, taking into account the gut reactions I had reading, and think about how to help the author create a better reading experience for the readers.
I reflect on what’s working and what’s not.
After reading the manuscript and taking notes, I reflect on my reading experience by thinking of the manuscript’s weaknesses and how the author could tackle those weaknesses in revisions. I start a list of craft aspects that I’d like to address in my editorial suggestions, ranging from higher-level aspects like character arc, themes, pacing, and point of view to line-level or more specific aspects like inconsistent dialogue from a character, a scene that doesn’t seem believable, or a chapter that doesn’t fit.
I also think over the craft elements that the author wanted me to pay special attention to. For example, if an author wants the tone of the book to be decidedly dark and moody, I’ll think about spots in the draft that felt too light or out of place with the desired tone.
The reflection process involves mulling over the story for a few days or a week, depending on the timeline of the project. Sometimes, I talk through my suggestions to myself as if I were explaining my ideas to the author. (This sounds odd, but it works!) I also turn to books, podcasts, and online articles about editing and revising to work through some of my suggestions for revisions. For example, for one developmental edit of a novel, I listened to Publishing Crawl’s podcast episodes on crafting characters and used these episodes as a sort of guided meditation to think through the main character’s arc. I took notes as I listened and used these notes to hone the revision suggestions I presented to the author.
Once I’ve solidified my suggestions in my mind and worked through specific craft issues, I dump my suggestions into a Google Doc, which becomes the rough draft of my editorial letter.
I write an editorial letter.
After I’ve collected my thoughts in a Google Doc, I begin by grouping similar thoughts (such as character development, how to bring various storylines together in the ending, or inconsistencies in characters’ accents) and editing them from random thoughts into constructive, useful feedback for the author. My editorial letter gives the author feedback both on what I saw as I read the draft and what they requested feedback on, and the letter tends to be stream of consciousness.
I don’t want the author to view my editorial letter as a list of problems that they need to fix. Rather, I want my letter to get them thinking about how to revise the weaker aspects of their novel. That’s why I often suggest multiple ways the author could strengthen an aspect of their manuscript because my main concern is letting the author know about areas that were confusing or not as strong as they could be rather than telling the author how to change something. I reiterate that they’re free to think of different ways to approach revisions. It’s their novel, after all, and if an author doesn’t agree with a particular suggestion, they don’t have to follow it. (In fact, if an author doesn’t understand or like a suggestion I have, that’s often a great topic to talk about in our phone call.)
I leave comments in the manuscript.
A developmental edit does not typically involve lots of tracked changes or line editing in the manuscript; most of my suggestions are big picture. But for some topics that are more line-level suggestions (such as historical authenticity, inconsistent-sounding dialogue, or sensitivity issues), I’ll leave comments in the manuscript where appropriate so that the author has concrete examples, and occasionally, I’ll include some line edits to show the author one possible way to strengthen the writing.
I’ll also leave comments in the manuscript to show the author examples of weaker or stronger parts of their draft. It’s important to include positive comments so that the author feels encouraged as they read through my comments. Reading someone’s suggestions about your writing can be difficult (as a writer myself, I’ve definitely felt this), so highlighting areas that are fantastic and well-written boosts the author’s confidence.
I talk with the author on a phone call.
After I send the author the manuscript with comments and the editorial letter, I want them to take a few days (or a week) to read through my suggestions and comments and digest them. This time to reflect and synthesize my suggestions with the author’s own vision for their novel is crucial: if we jumped on to a call too soon after considering my suggestions, the author might be defensive or overwhelmed by the suggestions.
Once the author has had time to think through my suggestions, we have a phone call. This phone call is the author’s time: I’m happy to lead the conversation, but it’s more useful to the author if they ask questions they have or bounce ideas off me. As an editor, this is a rewarding moment in the developmental edit because I get to hear which revision suggestions resonated with the author and what ideas they have for revising the book.
I’m available over email as the author revises.
As the author revises their manuscript, I’m happy to answer occasional questions over email. I’ll admit: This part of the process is slightly tricky because while I do want to be available to the author, I only budget about an hour or so of follow-up time for emails in my pricing for a developmental edit, so I have to set some boundaries when it comes to time-consuming follow-up emails. That said, I’m happy to add another phone call to the contract if an author needs more time to talk through revisions with me.
Each editor tackles projects in a different way, but this developmental edit process is what works best for me. If you’re an author and have questions about my process or about developmental edits in general, let me know in the comments below. And fellow editors, I’d love to hear how you approach developmental edits!
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