Mastodon The Writing Desk: From Passion-draft to Product: What Developmental Editing Can Do For Your Book ~ Guest Post by Editor Nikki Brice

20 June 2017

From Passion-draft to Product: What Developmental Editing Can Do For Your Book ~ Guest Post by Editor Nikki Brice

Congratulations! You’ve spent months, years even, pouring your creativity and talent into the first draft of your novel, what I like to call the passion-draft. Then, like any serious artist, you’ve honed and refined your work, with a view towards turning it into a readable product. You can’t do any more with it. What’s the next step? You’ve heard of some shadowy thing called ‘developmental editing’, but you can’t just quite pin down what that means, let alone whether it might help you. Well, allow me to shed some light on the situation…

What is developmental editing?

You’ve probably heard the term developmental editing, but what does it actually mean? Well, that’s a tricky one. The answer is: it means different things to different people. Why? Because editors and authors use different terminology for this level of editing, particularly in relation to how it’s delivered. But the bottom line is this – it’s the big-picture stuff. Forget grammar, punctuation, formatting dialogue and looking at word usage; polishing the prose is a useless exercise if there’s redrafting to do. Think of it this way: you don’t get a top-notch valet on your car if the mechanic warns you there’s something going seriously awry under the bonnet.

So what does developmental editing cover?

This list will give you a flavour of what a developmental editor can help you with, although it is by no means exhaustive because each manuscript is unique.

  • The opening of your story – does any prologue work? Will the reader keep turning the pages?
  • Characterisation – are your characters believable and do they have depth?
  • Pace – does your story drag where it shouldn’t and whizz where it should savour?
  • Plot – is it engaging and plausible? Do subplots work?
  • Dialogue – is there too much, too little, is it varied, does it flow? Does your tagging work?
  • Point of view – are you using point of view consistently and in a way that complements your story?
  • Structure – does it work for your story? Does it suit your genre?
  • Final chapters – does your ending work? Will your reader sigh with satisfaction?
These are seriously fundamental issues, ones that absolutely must be right or your book won’t cut the mustard with agents, publishers or readers.

Surely I can skip the developmental stage of editing?

Many authors do skip this stage. Experienced authors probably can. But for other writers it should be viewed as an investment in their work, a mark of a professional attitude towards their writing. If there’s a problem lurking in your manuscript, you need to know about it. If your story lacks pace, uses muddled points of view or has one-dimensional characters you really don’t want to be notified by an agent, publisher or online reviewer. I have heard publishing professionals confess that the slush pile is so huge manuscripts are rejected for the most minor of errors. You can no longer assume that an agent or publisher will pay for editorial services as long as there’s a spark of talent in the manuscript.

More and more they expect to see a draft that’s almost ready for publication. Use your creativity and imagination to produce your passion-draft. After that, take a professional view and approach your project with a business head on. I know that goes against the grain, but I’m serious. Getting your book out there these days requires more than talent. Selling your book (whether to an agent, publisher or online reader) is like running a business; so invest in your product to make it the best it can be.

What does developmental editing look like?

That depends on the editor and the author. A developmental editor will offer one or both of these services:

A critique (aka a manuscript appraisal/assessment, editorial letter/report – do you see what I mean about the different terminology now?) which is delivered as a written report addressing both the strengths and weaknesses of the book, and what needs working on. Examples from the manuscript will be used in the report, but the manuscript itself won’t be touched. The author can then use the report to redraft where necessary.

A marked manuscript (this form of developmental editing is often referred to as structural or substantive editing) where the editor will go through the manuscript itself, usually using tracked changes and comments, tends to be a much more detailed process, normally involving collaboration with the author and, possibly, more than one redraft.

Isn’t it something I can do myself? Or ask a beta reader?

There are certain steps an author can take to make their own work clearer and more consistent, with fewer typos. Developmental editing, however, is not something an author can carry out on their own work. Better to engage an experienced professional who has the distance needed to see what’s what. It’s extraordinarily hard to objectively assess a piece of creative work into which you’ve poured your heart and soul over many months.

Beta readers should not be dismissed, but may not be just what you need at the developmental stage. It’s a different service entirely from developmental editing, although there’s no reason why an author can’t use both. You need to research carefully what you’re getting. Some beta readers charge for their services and will provide a short report. You need to know whether that report is simply a few lines about whether the reader enjoyed your work or not, or something more detailed. The price of the service (more of which shortly) will give you a clue; if it’s next to nothing, then what you’ll get back may well be minimal.

Other beta readers don’t charge and what they offer can be little more than a read through and a yes or no on the enjoyment issue. The idea is that you’ll then reciprocate with something they’ve written. It’s an idea with great pros, but just remember: the reader is unlikely to have the editorial experience to tell you why something isn’t working and what you might be able to do to fix it. But if you just want a sense of whether someone out there would find your project remotely readable and enjoyable, go for it.

What should I look for in a developmental editor?

So, you’ve decided to take the plunge. What sort of editor should you choose? Research is the key here. Unless you’ve had a recommendation, you need to find someone you can trust with your work. The internet is always helpful for research, of course. Do you have a favourite literary mag? I love Mslexia, a magazine aimed specifically at women writers but, frankly, it would be a great asset to any writer. It’s a top-notch publication in terms of quality and while they can’t vouch for services advertised in there, it’s a good place to look.

Once you’ve found an advert or website that appeals, here are some points to consider:

  • Look for an editor with respected qualifications and relevant experience.
  • Check out the editor’s website, LinkedIn profile, Twitter account and so on. Get a feel for the person. You’ll want to have a good working relationship. 
  • Some editors specialise in a particular field. For instance, Sophie Playle who runs Liminal Pages ( is a specialist editor of speculative fiction, and boy does she know her stuff. 
  • Email the editor and introduce yourself, explaining a little bit about your project and what you’re looking for. You’ll get a good sense of whether you’d get on with the editor. A good editor will always be realistic but constructive and encouraging. If an editor doesn’t seem terribly interested in your project, they’re not the editor for you. 
  • Look for flexibility. If you just want general big-picture feedback, that’s fine. But if there’s something on your mind – you know your middle is saggy, or your subplot is weak – mention it and ask if the editor will bear that specific issue in mind. 

Will I have to remortgage my house to pay for this?

The question of cost is a difficult one. Editors have different charges and it depends what level of developmental editing you’re looking for. A critique will generally cost much less than a full developmental (structural/substantive) edit where the manuscript is worked on in collaboration with the author. The cost of either service will vary depending on other factors such as the length of the manuscript and the urgency of the job. (But it’s a no, by the way; you shouldn’t be remortgaging your house…)

So there you have it: the nuts and bolts of developmental editing that can take your book from a passion-draft to a product you can be proud of. Questions? Comments? Fire them my way and I’ll do my best to help.

Nikki Brice 
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Abut the Author

Nikki Brice runs the editorial business Splendid Stories and helps authors of both fiction and non-fiction to make their story splendid. Over the last four years she has immersed herself in everything from erotica to theology and prides herself on offering authors a positive and supportive service, tempered with realism. Find out more about Nikki at and find her on Twitter @SplendidStories

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