Ask the Editor: Line Editing During a Developmental Edit

From my inbox: “I’m a little confused about how much line editing is expected during a developmental edit. Are we expected to smooth over all of the tics in the author’s writing that might occur on every page of the manuscript – overuse of dialogue tags, confusing or awkward syntax, overuse of adverbs, etc? I ask because I have a prospective client who would like a developmental edit, but his writing needs a fair amount of massaging on the sentence-by-sentence level, too.”

This is a common question in development. It’s not something that has a definitive answer and it will depend on what you’re trying to do as an editor, the kinds of clients you want (or already have), and the specific projects you’re working on.

In general, I try to discourage developmental editors from doing too much copyediting (focusing on sentence-level concerns such as word choice and awkwardly stated sentences). Getting too focused on CE-type edits distracts from the overall purpose of addressing the big-picture problems.

In general, I recommend reserving any intensive line editing for a second round of editing, since during the developmental revision process, the author is likely to change a fair amount of text, deleting some of the problem sentences and adding new ones.

If we try to ask the author to do too much, we risk making our priorities unclear (do you want the author to fix the sentence you’ve called out or do you want her to delete the whole scene as you also suggest?)

And we risk overwhelming the author with more to do than she can reasonably handle in one revision (I like to keep the Pareto Principle in mind here: 20% of the problems cause 80% of the mess in a ms, so if we can just get the author to fix those 20%, she’ll have vastly improved her ms.)

In actual practice, what your edit will cover is basically a matter of negotiation and setting expectations. Everyone has a different idea of what “editing” means so it’s up to us to explain what we mean by it, and that way no one is disappointed with the end result.

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