developmental-editing

DEVELOPMENTAL EDITING: ALL YOU NEED TO KNOW

What is it? Do you need it? Where can you get it?

DEFINITION: WHAT IS DEVELOPMENTAL EDITING?

In the good old days, developmental editing used to have one precise meaning. It now has certainly two, maybe three, and possibly four meanings. In short: no wonder you’re confused. And no wonder it’s unclear whether developmental editing is something you need or not.

But let’s start with those definitions. Here goes.

Developmental editing – traditional definition

But we start with the first, core, and most precise definition. To quote the ever-reliable Wikipedia:

“A developmental editor may guide an author (or group of authors) in conceiving the topic, planning the overall structure, and developing an outline—and may coach authors in their writing, chapter by chapter.”

In other words, any true “editing” took place before the writing. It was a planning and design function, in essence. Because competent authors can probably take care of planning and design perfectly well by themselves, such editing was always relatively rare and, in fiction, extremely rare.

I’ve authored getting on for twenty books now and have never once had a development edit. I’m damn sure I never will.

Developmental editing as industry euphemism

But of course not all authors are perfect and, now and again, publishers have to deal with a manuscript they’ve commissioned, but which turns out to be absolutely dire. Think celebrity memoir of the worst sort. Or a multi-million-selling author who’s long since stopped caring about how he or she writes, because they know the money will roll in anyway.

So what to do?

Well, the standard solution in trade publishing is to do what is euphemistically called a ‘development edit’. What that actually means is that an editor takes on the role of something akin to a ghostwriter. They rip out everything that’s hopeless and rebuild.

I’ve known a Big 5 editor who had done this a couple of times, and he said it was soul-destroying. He didn’t get any bonus for doing the work. He didn’t get a share of fame or royalties. He didn’t go on the chat shows or the book tours. And he was always dancing on eggshells with the Famous Author, because the author in question was very prickly about having his work slighted in any way.

Even though the work in question sucked.

Great.

So that’s the second meaning of a development edit: basically a euphemism designed to disguise what is basically a ghostwriting job.

Developmental editing in self-publishing

That second meaning – basically, “complete text overhaul” – has given rise to a third one.

Unless you’ve been sleeping under a particularly weighty hardback for the last few years, you’ll have noticed that indie authors – that is, self-published ones – have done rather well. They’ve gobbled ever more market share. Their books look better than ever before. They read better than before. They are marketed superbly. (So much so, that every single notable marketing innovation of the last few years originated with the self-pub industry. That’s astonishing. You can find out more about self-publishing here.)

Over time, whole sections of the market (romance, SF) have been pretty much eaten whole by these indie authors.

But let’s say you’re one of the modern breed of self-pub demigods. You publish 4-6 books a year. You have a backlist of 20+ titles. You know how to exploit all the key marketing channels at your disposal, and you exploit em good. You earn, for sure, a good six-figures. Quite possibly, you’ve hit seven. A million bucks plus in annual income.

Wow! Kudos to you, my friend. We mortals bow in awe.

But those demigods still have to write the damn books! And do everything else! And sleep!

How do they fit it all in?

Well, the answer is often that those authors complete their full-length novel in 3 months – something I’ve done just once in 20 years. They’re skilled and experienced writers and they’re also just plain good. That’s why they earn what they earn. (You can’t market rubbish.)

But still. A first draft is a first draft, and first drafts aren’t normally known for their wonderful excellence.

So these pro authors often work with a developmental editor. That editor’s task is basically to clean up the text. Solve plot problems. Clean up sentences. Add a bit of setting and colour, if those things are sometimes wanting. Make sure that if the hero starts with blue eyes, his eyes haven’t changed colour halfway through. And so on.

The author and editor will often form a team who know each other very well, understand each other’s roles, and produce genuinely excellent books together. That’s not how the traditional industry ever worked, except in crisis, but then again the traditional industry was never all that great at churning out authors earning six- and seven-figures a year.

That’s the third definition, but it brings us to the last, most relevant one:

Developmental editing as juiced up manuscript assessment

Now for me, the gold-standard method of improving a manuscript is quite simply the good old-fashioned manuscript assessment. You write your book. You send it to an editor. You get a report back saying, in essence, “this worked, this didn’t, here’s how to fix the bits that were off.”

That sounds simple, but it isn’t. And often enough the effect of good manuscript feedback is a total revitalisation of the work. Many, many times, I’ve known a manuscript assessment to be the single most pivotal moment in a writer’s path to publication.

But –

A manuscript assessment is mostly just that. A long, written report. In the case of Jericho Writers, you get a fabulous editor, a report of no less than 3,000 words, and a long track record of success. But what you don’t get, or not mostly, is a page-by-page list of things to think about.

And sometimes you need that too.

Sometimes you need the rounded, structural commentary of the report but with detailed page-by-page advice alongside – actual annotations on the manuscript. Comments written in Word. Sample edits made to the document itself.

That’s the glory of developmental editing. The big and the small. Both things delivered together.

This kind of service is what we, Jericho Writers, offer by way of developmental editing. Others offer it too. It’s a very, very good service. It’s the ultimate gift you can give your work.

(And yes. I know. That just sounds like a sales pitch – but read on. Developmental editing isn’t right for everyone. It’s probably not right for you.)

Developmental-editing

WHEN IS DEVELOPMENTAL EDITING RIGHT FOR YOU?

Honestly?

You want my most honest opinion here?

OK, here goes.

Developmental editing – traditional definition

Do you need help conceiving, structuring, planning and shaping the manuscript before you have written it?

Well, yes, maybe if you are hoping to write subject-led non-fiction. So if, let’s say, you’re an expert in optical physics. A well-known publisher wants a book on that subject for laypeople. They come to you. It probably makes sense for you to spend a day with your editor, planning the book that you will write.

Your subject expertise + the editor’s market expertise = a proposition that might actually sell.

I sincerely doubt that this situation applies to even 1% of those reading this article.

 Developmental editing as industry euphemism

Are you a global celebrity who has written a terrible book that needs reshaping by a pro?

No? Then you do not need developmental editing of this, second, flavour.

 Developmental editing in self-publishing

Are you a self-pub demi-god? Do you pump out 4-6 books a year and earn enough revenue to employ a pro editor?

If you do, then sure, you need developmental editing, but I don’t understand why you’re wasting your time reading this post. Go write another book.

 Developmental editing as juiced up manuscript assessment

Are you an ordinary writer slowly working your way to a manuscript (probably a novel) of publishable quality?

If you are – and I’ve been in your shoes myself – then I get why you are thinking about developmental editing. It’s a sensible thing to think about and, for maybe 10-15% of you, it’s a sensible thing to purchase.

The advantage of developmental editing is that it forces you to look at the big and the small. You’re asked to think about characterisation, and place, and story arc, and theme. And at the same time, your attention is being drawn to sloppy sentence structures, loose images, clunky dialogue, and erroneous habits of punctuation.

That is one hell of a mix and it is powerful. Yes. So developmental editing – such as we offer – is a great service. It’s awesome. It could do wonders for your manuscript.

But –

Here are some downsides:

  1. It’s expensive
  2. Many of the page-by-page points will be picked up in some way in the editorial report. You won’t normally get a complete list of (say) poor sentences, but you’ll be given examples, so you know what to look for.
  3. Very often the structural advice will demand some significant level of rewriting, which means the page-by-page comments may be less relevant.
  4. If your prose quality and general writing technique are reasonably strong, then the most important feedback will live in the editorial report anyway.
  5. If you go on to get an agent and a book deal, your publisher will end up paying for a full professional copy-edit (and proof-read), so they’ll end up addressing all the things that a developmental edit might have addressed – and more. That says, if your work is strong enough to do without the development edit, you should do without it. Someone else can pay.

Those things aren’t small. If you have all the money in the world, then yes, sure, hire a developmental editor. For the rest of us, the matter demands thought.

If I were advising a serious amateur writer on the subject of manuscript assessments, I’d say, “Get one if you can. It’ll probably be the biggest single jump you can make.”

If I were advising the same person in relation to a developmental edit, I’d say, “Think hard. It might or might not be right for you.”

Yeah. Helpful, I know.

Still not sure if a developmental edit is the right choice? Then you’ll probably find this article on the different types of editing really useful.

HIRING A DEVELOPMENTAL EDITOR: CONCLUSION

In the end, whether you hire a developmental editor or not is your call. It is a great service. It is expensive. The manuscript assessment alone does normally provide most (not all) of what you need.

If you’re reading this post and still don’t know what you want, or which way to turn, then do reach out. Our customer service team at Jericho Writers are not employed to sell; they are employed to help. We don’t offer sales bonuses. We don’t hire salesmen. A good proportion of our workforce are writers like you. We’re on your side.

I’m telling you all that, because if you want to get in touch with us to ask our advice, we’ll give that advice honestly, to the best of our ability.

I hope that helps. And whatever you decide, may you and your writing thrive. In the end, that’s all that matters.

About the author

Harry Bingham has been a professional author for twenty years and more. He’s been published by each of the three largest publishers in the world. He’s hit bestseller lists, had a ton of critical acclaim, and has been published in the US, the UK, France, Germany, Spain, Italy, China, Japan . . . and lots of other places too. His work has been adapted for the screen and he’s enjoyed (almost) every minute of his career. As head of Jericho Writers (and previously the Writers’ Workshop), Harry has helped hundreds of people find agents and get published. He’d love it if you were next. (More about us.) 

(You can read more about Harry here and here, and more about his books here). 

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