Developmental Editing Dos and Don’ts

I generally begin any developmental edit with a quick read-through intended just to familiarize myself with the story. I make developmental notes for myself as I perform that first read-through, including areas where I’m confused or questions that arise.

Sometimes my questions are answered and my confusion cleared up by the time I reach the end of the manuscript, so my notes are just meant to capture my initial reaction, not guidance intended for the author.

I have had occasion to review the work of other developmental editors, and it’s clear that some of them try to perform a developmental edit with one read-through of the manuscript. Often they have queries that ask a question that is answered later in the manuscript. This is the kind of thing that is likely to annoy the author.

That’s not to say that a question you have early in the book that’s answered later in the book can’t be queried. You just have to be clear that you know what the author is trying to do but feel s/he has failed to accomplish it. For example, say Jack’s motivation isn’t clear in Chapter One but it’s explained in Chapter Two. You can’t just say, “I don’t understand Jack’s motivation,” because the author’s reaction will be, “I specifically say what it is in Chapter Two! Maybe if you’d read the thing, you’d get it!” What you can say is, “Although Jack’s motivation is identified in Chapter Two, readers need a clearer sense of why he’s doing what he’s doing in Chapter One. Otherwise they’re likely to feel unsympathetic to his plight.”

That’s why I focus my developmental efforts on that second read-through. By then I already know the story arc and can more effectively offer the author assistance in resolving big-picture problems. I’m stressing this point because you need to be sure you’re allowing sufficient time (and are earning a sufficient fee) to actually perform a thorough, competent developmental edit.

Some basic points:

  • Do give praise (but be careful how you say it—an editor once said to me, “Well, at least this new novel is funnier than your last one.” Um, ow?)
  • Don’t attempt a DE on the first read-through. You can fix typos and similar nuisances as you run into them, but you need to have the entire narrative arc in mind before pinpointing the big-picture problems.
  • Do review How to Read a Like an Editor. Entering into the right type of critical mindset is important.
  • But don’t overdo it. Review your edits and queries after a day or two away from the manuscript and delete the least important ones. You want the author to focus on the main problems in the ms.
  • Do ask for a synopsis and pitch letter (or back cover copy) if the author has them. This can help you understand what the author is trying to accomplish.

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