Focusing on the Big Picture: An Analogy

One of the first things I teach newer developmental/story editors is to focus on the big picture. That means looking for problems with a novel manuscript’s plot, character development, and setting. It means noticing perspective/point-of-view problems, flabby scenes, unnecessary exposition. It does not mean pointing out every unnecessary adverb or overused word.

For people who are accustomed to copyediting, this can be a difficult challenge – they have trained themselves to notice misplaced commas and awkward phrasings and their radar goes off when they encounter one. They feel they MUST fix the sentence-level problem.

Similarly, newer story editors often want to fix everything that’s wrong in the manuscript so that no one will ever accuse them of missing a problem. Thus, their edits list three-thousand-and-one things for the author to correct.

But trying to fix everything at once and/or focusing too much on the sentence level is counter-productive in developmental editing.

Think about how most things are made or built. They are never put together in one fell swoop. You mix the cake, bake the cake, then frost the cake. You don’t try to frost the cake while you’re mixing it. Similarly, if as the editor you’re trying to tweak the sentences when the story has no central conflict, you’re not actually helping make a better story.

In other words, we’re not worried about the overuse of dialogue tags when the story is so boring we have to drink three gallons of coffee to get past the first chapter. We’re working on helping the author mix the cake at this point. They need the right ingredients in the right quantities: character arc, goal-motivation-conflict, a believable story world.

Only when those ingredients are in place and the cake is properly baked do we need to worry about whether that comma really goes there.