How to Create Defensible Edits

When you’re doing a developmental edit—looking at the big-picture overview of a novel—you’ll generally be expected to provide two main services:

  1. editing the manuscript itself, including comments (queries) that help guide the author’s revision
  2. providing an editorial revision letter to guide the author. The letter highlights your main concerns with the manuscript and advises the author of various ways to fix these problems.

The editing on the manuscript itself will show the author exactly where the problem areas are. Note that the line editing you do as a developmental editor may address awkward sentences or obvious grammatical errors just as a copy editor would do, but do not confuse your job with copyediting.

That is, your main concern is always the big picture. You don’t need to spend half an hour deciding whether “magenta” is really the best word to describe that shade of purple. Leave that decision up to the copy editor. (For more: How to balance line edits and developmental editing.)

If, on the other hand, you read in one sentence, “Joe disliked bananas,” and a paragraph later read, “Joe ate the banana split with relish” flagging the inconsistency would be your job because effective characterization is the purview of the dev editor.

Overall, you’ll be looking for consistency of plot, clear and believable characterization, appropriate world-building, and a compelling storyline (among other things). When the novel wavers from these standards, it’s your role to point this out and suggest possible ways to solve the problem.

The most important rule for editors: Don’t add in errors. A secondary but still crucial rule is to ensure that any editorial suggestions you make are clear, understandable, and defensible.

Don’t add in errors may sound simple to avoid but I would say at least twenty-five percent of the full ms edits I see include editorial errors. That is, the editor made a change to the ms that created an error. Sometimes the editor has added in a typo. Sometimes the editor has changed correct facts (“She was born in the Welsh marches”) to incorrect facts (“She was born in the Welsh marshes”) (a march is a borderland, not a wetland). Sometimes the editor has changed correct grammar (“He was lying in wait”) to incorrect grammar (“He was laying in wait”).

It is one thing to overlook a problem in a manuscript. It’s another thing to create a problem in a ms. It’s unacceptable, which is why every edit you make must be defensible.

What does defensible mean? In the context of developmental editing, it means that you have a good reason (other than personal opinion) for suggesting an edit. In other words, you’re not telling an author that she should change the name of her main character to Brutus because you don’t like the name Joe. No one cares that you don’t like the name Joe.

It’s common for new DEs to suggest edits based on what they would have written if they had written the book. That’s not defensible. No one cares that you would have made that character a race-car driver. What matters is whether the book works as the author intends.

You must have a specific and logical argument for why an edit is needed. “Joe’s motivation isn’t believable” is an example of a defensible argument. If the reader doesn’t buy a character’s motivation, then the novel doesn’t work.

Here’s another defensible edit: “In Chapter One, Mary remarks that she hates wearing red but in Chapter Three she’s wearing a red shirt with no explanation. Please reconcile.” Inconsistencies abound in book-length fiction and your job is to keep track well enough to spot them when they occur.

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