What Is Developmental Editing? – How to Find a Great Editor

Shannon Clark
November 16, 2023 | 9 mins

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In a previous article, we looked at the different types of editing authors should consider when finalizing their manuscripts. And at the top of that list (after manuscript assessment), is developmental editing.

Let’s discuss.

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Developmental editing sets the stage for later editing by looking at the manuscript as a whole—the high overhead look.

Below, we’ll look deeper into the nuts and bolts of developmental editing, when and if you need it, and where to find a developmental editor for your manuscript.

What is developmental editing?

In his book Developmental Editing: A Handbook for Freelancers, Authors, and Publishers, author Scott Norton defines developmental editing as the “significant structuring or restructuring of a manuscript’s discourse.” In other words, developmental editing takes a high-level view of the manuscript to see if the puzzle pieces fit together.

This can include a focus on the following:

In his book, Scott goes on to say,

“In the industry, opinions vary as to what constitutes “significant” re-structuring. At the University of California Press in Berkeley, we define developmental editing as intervention that moves content from one chapter to another, or rearranges the lion’s share of a chapter’s contents within itself, but that falls short of writing new material. It’s a tough definition to apply, because developmental editing almost always involves some writing, usually of transitional sentences at the beginnings and ends of passages. 

To be clear, developmental editing is not copyediting, line editing, proofreading, or any of the more narrow points of manuscript analysis that look at the manuscript from a line-by-line or paragraph level.

It’s a big-picture overview of whether a manuscript, or a book draft, has everything it needs to be successful.

If you consider a developmental editor like an automotive engineer, their job is to look at how the car (manuscript) is built:

  • Its frame—Is the manuscript’s structure sound?
  • Weight distribution—Does content flow effortlessly or feel stagnant or blocked in certain places?
  • Engine location—Is everything in its proper place? Do chapters or sections need to be moved around?
  • Design—Does the manuscript deliver on its promises?
  • Handling—How does the manuscript “drive”? Is it clunky and hard to follow or smooth and easy to read?

Based on a vehicle’s assessment, an automotive engineer can tell whether a car can do what it says (0-60 in three seconds?). Similarly, a developmental editor can look at how a manuscript is built and assess whether it is designed for the task.

Some additional questions a developmental editor may ask:

  • Does it argue all points convincingly or leave gaps in logic?
  • Is the tone appropriate for the intended audience? 
  • Is the pacing good? 
  • Do the transitions work? 
  • Is there too much fluff? Can it be cut back to create more impact?
  • Does it keep its initial promise?
  • For fiction books, are the characters fully developed? Is the story easy to follow?

How do I know if I need developmental editing? 

As authors, it’s easy to be so close to your work that it’s hard to be objective. Having someone who is not attached to the manuscript look over it and give feedback is one of the best ways to determine what type of editing it will need.

For initial reviews of your work, you have three options: formal, informal, and personal.

Option 1: Get a professional assessment (formal)

Paying someone to review your work is not always necessary; however, if you don’t have someone you trust to give constructive feedback on your manuscript hiring a professional can offer clarity and direction.

When you’re investing financially in the success of your book, every dollar counts. Having someone point you in the right direction will help streamline your book editing process and get you on the right track at the start.

Option 2: Grab an alpha reader (informal)

Different from a beta reader that comes after your manuscript has been edited, an alpha reader is someone that you trust to take a first look at your manuscript and give you honest feedback. It’s usually a more casual process.

An objective family member or colleague who can share first thoughts gives you a solid advantage going into the editing process. Their responses can help you determine which kind of editor(s) you’ll need.

Alpha readers are often not professional readers or knowledgeable about reader requirements, so you can offer them a set of questions like the ones below to help them narrow their reading focus.

For fiction: 

  • What is your initial impression of the book? 
  • Did you find any parts of the book (story) hard to follow?
  • Did the storyline make sense?
  • Do you have a favorite character? If so, which one and why?
  • How was the pacing? Were there any areas that went too fast or too slow?
  • Did you understand the main conflicts in the story? Do you feel they were resolved? 
  • Do you have thoughts about the ending?
  • Do you have any additional feedback that you believe will help make this a better story?

For nonfiction:

  • What is your first impression of the book?
  • Did you find any parts of the book hard to follow?
  • Did any sections of the book feel too long or too short?
  • Did the order of the chapters make sense?
  • Did any parts of the book feel repetitive?
  • How was the tone? Was it approachable?

Option 3: Go with your gut (personal)

You are the closest one to your manuscript. You know where you struggled during the writing process which on a surface level is a good indicator of where you’ll need help. 

For example, if you’ve written a novel, did you have trouble with character development or getting the structure of your story just right? Did you have issues with head hopping or dialogue? Are you unsure about the flow of certain scenes in your story? Do you feel like the story could be “tighter” but unsure what needs to be changed? 

If you’ve written a nonfiction book, are you confident that your audience will get what you’re trying to convey? Do you tend to be long-winded or have difficulty expressing your thoughts? Does the content sound too technical when you want it to have a more casual feel? 

As the writer, you can probably pinpoint the general areas that need improvement, which is a great place to start. You can also use an AI editor or other tools to quickly pinpoint parts of your story that could use more work.

Ultimately, if you think your manuscript could be improved with developmental editing, it probably can be. 

Where can I find a developmental editor?

When you begin your editor search, you’ll want to have a clear picture of what each type of editor does so that you’ll know what to expect when you reach out.

While all editors work to improve your initial book draft, there is no such thing as a one-size-fits-every-manuscript solution. On occasion, there may be some crossover in skill sets, but if you request a specific type of editor, like developmental, you want to know what the job description entails so you’ll know the best questions to ask. 

There are several places you can start looking for a developmental editor. 

  • Recommendations. If you’re a member of a writer’s group, have other authors in your network, or subscribe to author newsletters, just ask for a recommendation. Writers can be very generous when sharing about great editor experiences, so ask around and make a list. 
  • Check your favorite book. Sometimes authors will thank their editors in the acknowledgments section of their book. This is also a great way to find great book cover designers. If the editor’s company name or information is not provided, you can usually Google their “full name + editor” to find their contact information. If you find multiple editors with the same name, check their portfolio on their website or reach out and ask if they edited the book where you saw their name. 
  • Contact an editing company. There are several companies online that provide developmental editing services. They usually maintain a database of editors who provide different types of services. Typically, you’ll either search through their database manually or fill out a questionnaire and you’ll be matched up with the company’s recommendations. For the latter, you’ll likely be asked to upload a small sample of your manuscript for review. 

Here’s a list of popular editing company options (in alphabetical order).

You can also find editors on general freelancers’ websites like Upwork and Fiverr

Things to keep in mind when working with a developmental editor

Once you find a developmental editor, there are a few things you’ll want to keep in mind.

Your editor relationship is a partnership

Unlike other forms of editing where the editor manipulates text by adding, deleting, or adjusting it, developmental editors work with the author to create a more balanced manuscript as a whole. This means that a developmental editor will often recommend adding content to built-out sections of your manuscript that feel incomplete.

Writing or rewriting is the responsibility of the author, not the editor. If your editor is doing the writing, they’ve moved into ghostwriting territory.

Developmental editing creates a strong foundation

Holes in the foundation of a manuscript will grow larger during other editing stages, so it is critical to plug these up as a first step. For this reason, a developmental editor may suggest moving entire chapters or sections around to help with content flow, plotting, tension, etc.

Keep an open mind

If you’re working with an experienced editor that you’ve vetted, they’ve probably worked with a lot of manuscripts. As such, knowing what works and what doesn’t is part of their purview. As an author, you’ll have to decide early on whether you’re going to trust their expertise.

Giving your editor the space to do their job will make the experience easier for everyone.

Focus on the finish line

If you find that your editor is way off base and making suggestions that sound more like a recreation of your book idea, then the editor may not be a good fit for you; however, if their suggestions are reasonable, but you find yourself feeling defensive or justifying your actions, take a step back and breathe.

It’s normal to feel super close to “your baby”, especially if this is your first book. You’ve invested in the process and come this far. But remember, your developmental editor wants to help you become a published author – just as much as you want to be one.

Try to stick it out and trust that their expertise will shine through in the end.

Final thoughts on developmental editing

The ultimate goal of the editing process is to produce the best manuscript and, eventually, best book possible. But if you don’t start with a structurally sound manuscript, you’ll end up with a well-edited manuscript with holes.

Developmental editing is one of the most important steps you can take to prepare your manuscript for publishing.

Not every manuscript needs this type of high-level editing, so having someone that you trust (alpha reader or professional) take a first look before you begin any type of editing process is crucial. Having a fresh pair of eyes assess the manuscript in its current state will give you a good feel for whether or not developmental editing might benefit you. 

As the “big idea” person, the one who started your book journey, trust your gut. Sure, you can find an amazing professional to make your book sparkle, but the final decision on which way the wind will blow is up to you.

Choose your editor carefully by taking your research seriously.

Whether you’re a self-publisher or an author preparing your manuscript for traditional publishing, how and where you start the book development process is a good indication of where it will end. If you start at the foundational level, you’ll build a solid book that can stand on its own.

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