Growing Your Developmental Editing Mindset

Beginning developmental editors sometimes ask me how “awful” books make it onto the New York Times bestseller list, and how can we worry about what makes a story “good” when obviously quality doesn’t matter to readers? How do “bad” books make it through the editorial process?

In other words, your existential crisis is common and in fact predictable.

I have a happy message: our work does matter. But being a good DE means understanding a few basic principles. Embracing the answer(s) to this question is the first step on the road to developing a DE mindset.

First, criticism is subjective. Taste is subjective. Two equally competent editors can disagree about what a ms needs; two equally informed readers can have opposite opinions about the quality of a book. This goes back to there being no “right” answer.

Sometimes what we’re seeing in a “bad” book is merely a book that meets its audience’s expectations. If you like novels with dubious characters of ambiguous morality undertaking antisocial actions, a sweet small-town romance is going to be your Kryptonite. To its audience, it may be perfect.

But, okay. Lots of popular stories aren’t well-written, not by anyone’s method of measurement. So, what does that mean for us?

Understanding Readers

I was at a writer’s conference recently, listening to Lee Child talk. He’s a thriller writer well-known for his Jack Reacher series. Each new release always lands on the bestseller lists. He reported that the number one thing readers say to him when they meet him is: “I finished your book.”

Now, you and I may wonder what is significant about that. I “finish”—that is, “finish reading”—a lot of books. I read, easily, two hundred books (novels and nonfiction) a year. Most years more. That doesn’t even include what I read for work.

So, think about those readers for whom finishing the book is an accomplishment. Literally what they are excited about is the book held their attention long enough for them to read it beginning to end.

Politics, luck, and marketing aside, that’s the group that puts books on the bestseller lists. Those are the readers a book has to reach to sell a lot. Not the people like me, who are going to read a bajillion books a year anyway and have expectations shaped by the fact that I know what excellent fiction can do.

I’m not sneering at people for whom finishing a book is a notable achievement. I’m just saying that is a person whose expectations of a novel are vastly different from mine.

Popular doesn’t necessarily equate with “good.” Popular may equate with recognizable storylines told in an entertaining way, or action that moves quickly from start to finish. People always point to Dan Brown as an example of a terrible author who has achieved unmerited success. At the sentence level he is, at best, workmanlike. So people call him a terrible author. But his books carry you from page to page. He’s a good storyteller, but at best a mediocre writer.

In a similar vein: I was reading Michelle Richmond’s The Marriage Pact last year. It was one of those novels that could have used an editor who actually edited—but it was also a bestseller. I didn’t love the book but in the book club I host, I learned that most people were engaged by the premise. They were pulled along by a storyline that included perfectly ordinary main characters doing perfectly ordinary things who suddenly found themselves in the middle of a dangerous conspiracy. That kind of thing engages readers. They get to be terrified in a vicarious way. I rolled my eyes and counted all the plot holes. But what feels like a failure of craft to me isn’t necessarily a problem to the vast majority of readers.

This is one reason why I say we have to read widely in genres we want to edit. We have to understand what reader are looking for when they read. Someone reading Agatha Christie-type puzzle mysteries is looking for a different experience from someone reading a Harlequin romance.

Another thing I try to do is look at popular books to see what makes them tick. It’s easy to dismiss these works but they are popular for a reason. So, I challenge myself to find out what that reason is.

That said, we can encourage our authors to improve their craft while still appealing to their audiences. We wouldn’t suggest, for example, that a thriller writer slow down the pace in order to build up the emotional backstory, but we could suggest ways to make the protagonist something other than a cardboard cutout.

Recently a former student asked me to review some edits on a project she was struggling with. “His audience seems to like his work but . . . .” And I knew what she meant. Caricatures rather than characters, scenes stolen directly from popular movies, dialogue I know I’ve heard before. She couldn’t ask the author to rethink everything but I did suggest that she urge the author to dig a little deeper, beyond the most superficial of plot events and characterizations.

In other words, she could point out the most egregious thefts and suggest that the author use plot devices that hadn’t been used ten thousand times before. And just possibly have a female character who wasn’t either a screaming fishwife or a fawning handmaiden.

It turned out that the author was pleased to have some ideas for how to refresh his work. Writing a good story is a difficult business and sometime we forget how hard it is to do well.

Developing a DE mindset means understanding that not all readers like the same things you do or share your pet peeves or are even looking for the same thing from a story that you are. Cultivating this understanding of other readers is one way we can grow our developmental editing skills beyond mere personal opinion.

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