Solving for X

A while back I took a class on the algebra of symmetries and it turned out to be taught by a philosopher masquerading as a mathematics professor. Algebra, he told us, comes from the word al-jabr, which means restoration by balancing. “Restoring the unknown,” the teacher said. That is what algebra is. I like to think of it as making the unknown known, which is not unlike editing.

He went on to talk about how having a zero around is very helpful when you’re solving for X. “Doing nothing is an important skill,” he said.

Who knew there was a Tao of mathematics? Doing nothing is an important part of the process of making the unknown known. True of mathematics and true of story development.

  1. Sometimes, when you’re not sure what is going wrong with the ms you’re working on, a good solution is to not do anything right now. Come back to the project tomorrow with fresh eyes.
  2. We don’t need to remark on every possible problem that we see in a ms. If we are already advising the author to create a stronger central conflict, develop clearer character arcs, and attend to the setting, we risk confusing and overwhelming them if we also talk about their overuse of adverbs and the number of unnecessary dialogue tags they’re using. Sometimes the best thing to do about a story problem is nothing.
  3. Often we try to be too accommodating to clients. They don’t have a big enough budget, so we cut our fees; they have a looming deadline so we rush to complete the project. But sometimes the best thing to do is just let the client make their objections and then . . . do nothing. I don’t mean, “Don’t bother answering them back.” I do mean, “Don’t do anything to solve their problems for them.” For a client with a tight budget, a sympathetic, “I understand, this is a big investment” shows you hear them without making you responsible for their problem. Don’t be in a rush to give away your work.


Using global queries for recurring developmental problems

For problems that recur throughout a series of paragraphs, a scene, a chapter, or an entire ms, developmental editors will sometimes use a shortcut: “You do a lot of info-dumping throughout; I recommend cutting it back.” The problem with this approach is that if the author could identify where the info-dumping is occurring, they wouldn’t be doing it in the first place. The author needs more guidance.

Conversely, in an attempt to provide this guidance, editors sometimes provide a full description of the problem each time they encounter it. So, on page 1 they write a query that says, “The highlighted paragraph is an example of info-dumping, that is, providing more information than the reader needs to understand what’s happening. The problem with info-dumping is that it slows down the pacing of the story, interferes with the forward action, and risks losing the reader’s engagement. I recommend deleting this paragraph.”

That’s a perfectly good query. But then the editor uses a similar one on page 2 and on page 3, three similar queries on page 4, and two on page 5.

This isn’t necessary.

I often use a global query that says what the overall problem is, why it’s a problem, and how the author can fix it. Then I refer back to that query when I encounter more examples of the same problem. Using a global query means I don’t have to repeat myself as much and the author doesn’t have to feel like I’m hammering them over the head with the problem – but I’m still doing my job.

A Global Query Example

Here’s an example of how I might phrase such a query:

“AU: Here and throughout, there’s a fair amount of unnecessary exposition – that is,  more information than the reader needs to understand what’s happening. This is often referred to as info-dumping. The problem with info-dumping is that it slows down the pacing of the story, interferes with the forward action, and risks losing the reader’s engagement. I’ve highlighted areas that can be deleted without affecting the overall story.”

Then, when the author encounters highlighted areas, they know this is info-dumping and can be deleted.

Some Caveats to This Approach

When using a global query:

  • If I think a particular bit of info-dumping doesn’t need to be deleted but needs to be placed elsewhere in the story or integrated differently, I’ll write a new query that says that. You can extrapolate this to mean that if any instance of a recurring problem requires a different solution from the one provided in the global query, you should write a new query regarding that particular instance. This is a good opportunity to educate the author: why is this instance of the problem treated differently from the others?
  • If it’s been a while (ten or so pages) since the last instance of the problem, I will remind the author about what the highlighting means (“As above, unnecessary exposition here. Consider deleting.”) I don’t need a full explanatory query, just a reminder.
  • If there is more than one recurring problem, do not try to color-code your edit (“blue highlights are for info-dumping and yellow highlights are for head-hopping.”) The author should not need a decoder ring to understand your edit. If there is more than one recurring problem, use highlighting for one and some other solution for the other. For example, in the info-dumping and head-hopping example above, highlighting could be used to identify the info-dumping, and line edits could be used to help the author see how to correct the head-hopping. In such an instance, you could use a global query to describe the head-hopping once overall and then use brief queries elsewhere in the ms (“As above, the editied section contains head-hopping. Edit OK?”)

The global query is placed where you first encounter the problem. You fully explain the problem and how it affects several paragraphs/chapters/whatever is true. Don’t worry if this query becomes lengthy. Unlike CEs, DEs don’t get brownie points for concise queries. We don’t need to belabor them but we do need to provide enough information for the author to understand what the problem is and to have a clear handle on how to fix it.

I generally use the phrase “global query” to refer to a recurring problem. For an overall query that summarizes the collected problems in a scene or chapter, you can use a general query, which we might call an overview or overall query: “AU: This chapter introduces us to Sweetie Pie, that adorable scamp, but nothing of consequence happens and the reason why Marcel takes such a dislike to SP is unclear. To solve these problems, I suggest . . . .”

I always place such queries where the author needs to encounter them in the revision process (for example, at the start of the scene that needs a rewrite) so that the problems don’t come as a surprise.


Diagnosing conflict problems in a manuscript

When editing fiction, you’re likely to encounter manuscripts that have problems with the conflict. Conflict, as you probably know, drives narrative.

Consider this: Just now, I wanted a cup of tea so I went and made one.

So what, right? I mean, you may be perfectly happy that I am now sipping some of Twining’s English Breakfast, but we couldn’t call that a story.

Try this instead: Just now, I wanted a cup of tea, so I went to the kitchen to make one but discovered the tea canister was empty. So I grabbed my car keys and my mask to make a quick run to the grocery store, but my car wasn’t where I parked it.

Now we’re getting somewhere. We don’t know where yet but we know we’re at the start of a story.

In the most simplistic terms, we can say that the difference between “I wanted some tea and got some” and “I wanted some tea and found out my car was missing” is that in the first case, nothing got in the way of my goal and in the second case something did.  Similarly, the difference between story and not-story is that something gets in the way. We call that something the conflict.

The Relationship Between Character Goals and Conflict

When you’re trying to suss out a conflict problem in a manuscript, you may have trouble because outside of the most formulaic of approaches, conflict doesn’t show up in just one particular way in a manuscript. So the easier way to get at conflict problems is to look at goal-motivation: What does the protagonist want, why do they want it, what’s getting in their way? Often authors make it too easy on their protagonists and nothing much gets in their way, or they give the protagonist a kind of negative goal (“don’t let anything change”) which is hard to translate into actions that the protagonist can take and that would drive the plot.

Conflict isn’t “what the character wants” it’s “what’s getting in the character’s way?” What the character does in response drives the action of the story.

Often you can find the conflict or problems with it in the synopsis, if the author provides one. If not, sometimes writing one yourself is very revealing. In a synopsis, you briefly describe the main characters, what their situation is, and what drives any change in either the characters and their situation.

So, riffing on that, you can often see that characters want certain things, or seem to want certain things, but the author either isn’t making it difficult enough or doesn’t make the character(s) want it enough. We end up with a college student who enjoys art classes but her parents want her to be an engineer, and she guesses that’s okay, although she does have a couple of fellow students who aren’t that nice to her and she’s struggling a little with time management.

NO. She has to be passionate about art (or, for a nice twist, engineering). She has to persevere despite her parents threatening to pull their funding, and even though the senior professor in her major thinks only men can make truly great art, and her best friend stole her idea for the final project and is doing it better than she could.

Your author might have set up the first situation but the second one is not that far-fetched from it, right? And seeing that the author would have a much better idea of how to amp up the conflict, even if they didn’t take your exact advice.

Notice that the conflicts are with people important to the protagonist—the senior professor in her major, not the grad student she can easily go around. The best friend, not some random jerk. It’s maddening to deal with a random jerk but it’s heartbreaking for your best friend to betray you.

Conflict Questions

To determine if a problem with conflict is at the heart of your author’s overall problems, ask yourself these questions:

  1. What is the story’s central conflict? Remember to look for goal-motivation if you’re having trouble spotting this.
    1. What are the inner (internal, maybe unacknowledged and unspoken) goals and the outer (external, stated) goals of each main character?
    2. What are the motivations of these characters? Why do they want their goals?
  2. How does the conflict play out in the storyline? That is, what do the characters do to get their goals, or to stop someone else from reaching theirs? How do these actions and reaction drive the plot/story events?
  3. How is the conflict resolved?

If you can’t answer these questions with a careful reading of the ms, or the answers seem less than compelling, then a problem with conflict is almost certainly your author’s biggest challenge. Your aim should be to help guide the author in the direction of a more effective conflict.

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Maybe the pandemic has impacted your clientele and you’ve lost the indie clients you’ve relied on, or maybe you’re going through the sophomore slump of keeping your business running while trying to market while trying to maintain a personal life. Maybe you’re ready to change genres or add new services but aren’t sure how to do this without losing your current clients. Or maybe you’d like to make more money or work more efficiently.

We’ll talk about all of these issues throughout the class. Each student will develop a plan for going forward in 2021.

This class includes four weeks of lessons with feedback and online discussion, plus a one-hour coaching call with the instructor (Jennifer) after the end of class to help you solve problems and finalize your game plan.

Lessons cover:

  • building your client base while juggling multiple demands on your time
  • shifting and expanding your services: changing or adding genres you edit, moving or expanding from copyediting to developmental editing (or vice versa)
  • making the most of your time: efficient time blocking/scheduling
  • avoiding no-shows and downtime
  • quoting projects correctly and making more money per client
  • evaluating and implementing efficiency-related practices and tools
  • creating an online (website/blog) and social media strategy for marketing
  • deciding on business-related priorities for the coming year (financial, work-life balance, etc.)
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  • networking virtually
  • overcoming imposter syndrome
  • dealing with perfectionism, resistance, and other self-defeating habits
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How and what to fact check in developmental editing

Fact-Checking in the Editorial Process

Fact-checking is verifying that the information included in a ms is accurate: World War I took place in the early twentieth century, production of Hummers stopped in 2010. An author (even a novelist) who gets facts wrong irritates and alienates readers, so one of our roles as dev editor is to ensure that basic facts are accurate.

For the most part, we’ll just use our common sense: if a fact as presented in the ms doesn’t square with what we know of reality, we’ll double-check it.

However, an author should not expect you to be a subject-matter expert (unless you are a subject-matter expert and you’ve agreed to take on this fact-checking burden).

When fact-checking, you’ll need to set limit on your own behavior—spending two minutes to confirm a fact versus going down a rabbit hole of research for three hours.

Some mss have more room for factual error—historicals, for example, will have many details that could be wrong. But even when we’re editing contemporary novels, we need to do a certain amount of fact-checking so that inaccuracies don’t make it into print.

Our authors rely on us to help make sure they aren’t making mistakes. For the most part this just means using our general knowledge to alert us when something seems unlikely. It doesn’t mean that we suddenly have to become experts on ship-building just because the ms currently on our desks features a ship-building protagonist.

You may feel that setting a rule of doing no fact-checking at all helps solve the problem but that’s evading one of your responsibilities as a developmental editor. It’s quite common for authors to predicate plot events on things that could never happen, at least not how they describe them. (Throwing an iPhone away doesn’t magically end Apple’s ability to produce a call history, to take a recent example I encountered.)

Some fact-checking is required for you to address such implausibilities effectively.

Fact-checking can be a time sink, so we have to manage our time wisely. But we also can’t just be lazy and say, “This doesn’t seem right; please double-check.” (Nothing annoys an author more than to be asked to check something s/he knows is accurate!)

We have to give a specific, defensible reason why we think the author is in error, and usually that requires a little research. So, that is a time commitment we have to factor into the fee we ask for any project. The real skill is in being able to get the answer you need quickly and move on.

Sometimes we make fact-checking more complicated than it is. For example, suppose you’re editing a ms set in the early Middle Ages that references Vikings in Dublin. You don’t have to research the history of Vikings to verify whether Vikings were in Dublin in this time period. A quick Google search of the term “vikings in dublin” tells us there was a Viking settlement there in the ninth century and that the name “Dubh Linn” was first documented in the eighth and ninth centuries. No further investigation is needed to accept that the story’s protagonist could have hired Viking mercenaries in Dublin.

In some types of historicals, strict accuracy is not that important as long as what happens seems like the kind of thing that could happen. For example, a colleague of mine writes historical romance, and in her opinion, as long as the romance is well-written, readers will forgive some stumbles in accuracy as long as there aren’t glaring anachronisms. But that is by no means universally true. For this reason, some historical writers want to work with editors who can help backstop them—they want editors who have significant familiarity with the time period to help them catch errors they have inadvertently overlooked.

There’s a sort of agreed-upon convention that readers will accept one big coincidence in order for a story to get moving (often it’s an inciting incident) but you can’t keep throwing coincidences at them and expect them to believe it. So a reader will believe Mary, running away from a mugger, hops on the train and just happens to collide with her old friend Bob, who is big enough to scare off the mugger. Things like that do happen, so we’ll accept it. But that’s it. Mary can’t also happen to run into her friend Hilda, who recognizes the mugger and goes with Mary to the police station where the detective taking their report happens to know just where the mugger lives . . . .

The same is true of historical fiction: one historical inaccuracy in the service of a story is generally accepted but readers will not accept a whole crop of them. For instance, I recently read an entertaining Revolutionary War-era novel where the heroine takes command of her father’s ship after his death. It’s a pretty unlikely scenario, although it’s something that potentially could have happened, and the author tries to show how the crew’s acceptance of the protagonist’s leadership is possible. But if the author were then to ignore all other gender conventions of the time period, it would stop seeming believable.

I don’t fact-check in the sense of hunting down references for every statement of fact the author makes. But if something strikes me as implausible for the time period, then I will verify my facts before I ask the author to verify hers.

A related consideration is, “Should a DE point out anachronistic phrases and idioms?”

Historical novels aren’t written in the language of the period in which they’re set, so there will always be some anachronistic word usage no matter what. The English that would have been spoken in, say, the Middle Ages would have been a form of Old or Middle English. In any case, probably half of the words used in the ms (if not more) would not have been used at the time. We certainly aren’t going to expect readers to follow along with an historical novel written in Old or Middle English.

So what we want to do is note word choice that jars the reader—that not only is modern but sounds modern. This is true even if the word actually existed during the time period in question.

In some instances, readers will accept a modern-sounding historical novel as long as that is the style of the novel as a whole. Or they will accept an “old” sounding historical novel as long as that is the style of the novel as a whole. What they generally won’t accept is a pastiche—some modern phrasing mixed in with archaic/old phrasings.

Another concern is to be aware of anachronistic concepts—ideas that people in the time and culture would be unlikely to have. Notions of privacy, individual rights, family obligations, and more vary widely in time and place. A character in sixteenth-century China should not be indistinguishable from a twenty-first-century American.

Overall, I recommend setting specific expectations about fact-checking with your client ahead of time.

Growing as an Editor

People with a growth-oriented mindset are happier and more successful than people with a fixed mindset (see Carol S. Dweck’s Mindset, among others).

Growth versus Fixed Mindset

People with a growth mindset are those who think they can learn and grow through hard work, persistence, and thoughtful feedback. A fixed mindset assumes that people are born with certain talents and aptitudes—they either have them or they don’t and there isn’t much one can do about it either way.

A fixed mindset stifles learning and keeps people from persisting: “I guess I’ll never be any good at this so I may as well give up.” When a setback comes, a person with a fixed mindset often considers that a message from the universe: “I’m not meant for this.”

But success in editing, especially freelance editing, requires a lot of hard work and persistence. That can’t happen if you give up too soon.

You may think you have a growth-oriented mindset but sometimes people shift into fixed mindset thinking when they set goals. “I want to be the best developmental editor there is!” may seem like a suitable goal, but it assumes that there’s an endpoint—a fixed place beyond which you won’t grow.

For that reason, I encourage editors to adopt a “get better all the time” goal. Even though I’ve been editing for more than twenty years, I’m constantly learning new things—not just new tools that may not have existed before but new ideas about how to edit effectively, deeper understanding of how story works, and greater knowledge of the advantages and drawbacks of the framework I bring to the editorial process. One of the things I love about development is that it supports this kind of learning.

But that approach also keeps me humble: I don’t know everything, and I have more to learn. This helps me keep an open mind and makes me pull back when I start to sense that I’m being too dogmatic about some principle or concept.

If you’ve ever struggled with imposter syndrome or lack of confidence, a growth-oriented mindset can help. “I’m getting better all the time” is much more believable and provable than “I’m the world’s best!” Plus, “I’m going to keep trying” is more productive than “I guess this is as good as I’m going to get and I’m disappointed with these results.”

Remember, “I’m getting better all the time” beats “I’m going to be the best.”

Setting client expectations

What Does the Client Want?

Because editorial functions can go by different names, the first rule of freelance editing (whether developmental or otherwise) is to figure out what your client wants. If your client says, “This manuscript needs a good editor,” you need to verify what that means. You may think it means a thorough review of the plot, characterization, and setting, whereas the client may just want you to make sure all the words are spelled correctly.

A client may come to you wanting a copyedit but really needing development. The two shade into each other—a heavy copyedit can look a lot like development. A developmental edit that requires a lot of line editing can look a lot like a copyedit.

What we have to do is make sure we’re on the same page as the client. We have to describe exactly what we do (“I’ll look at issues like character development”) rather than assume that saying “I’ll do a DE on your ms” means that same thing to the client as it means to us.

Make Editorial Recommendations

But the job of developmental editing isn’t merely doing what the client wants. We’re not fry cooks filling orders. We’re educated professionals who often know better than the client what the ms actually needs. In essence, the job of the DE is to teach the author how to write a better story. Part of the job, then, is making recommendations about what a particular project requires for that to happen.

Sometimes editors are afraid of getting blowback from clients who want one-stop shopping or who don’t want to listen to their recommendations. Remember, just because someone wants us to work a certain way doesn’t mean we have to.

When you’re first starting out, you’re probably not going to feel you can be very choosy about your clients, but here’s the problem: Suppose your client asks you to do a combined DE/CE (which I talked about in a previous blog post). Suppose you agree because money. Some errors slip through because how can they not? Readers bring these errors to the author’s attention. Who gets blamed?

Now your client is unhappy with you for doing something that was against your better judgment in the first place. There is nothing more frustrating than this situation.

Instead of thinking in terms of blowback, think in terms of setting expectations: “This is how I work, this is why I recommend a separate CE round, this is my fee.”

Many dev editors provide samples of previously edited material (used by permission of the author) to show various levels of editing—”This is generally how I do a dev edit, this one is a light copyedit, that one is a combination.”

Heading Off Scope Creep

Setting expectations from the start helps keep the project you’re doing from becoming never-ending. If you agree to do one round of editing, that does not also include three hundred hours of personal coaching while the author is trying to finish the revision.

It’s very common for the scope of an editing project to change, what we call “scope creep.” In some cases, it offers the opportunity for creating additional income. When you deliver the ms, if the author does want those three hundred hours of personal coaching, you can charge for that separately.

The problem occurs when we don’t push back against scope creep. It’s one thing for the author to send a few emails after you’ve delivered the edit, asking you to clarify a point you made or to ask if you think a solution s/he’s devised will work. It’s another to be on the hook for questions the author asks for the rest of her career.

So, be as clear as possible: “I provide two hours of email support after the edit is delivered; by request I can arrange additional coaching at my hourly fee of $X.”

Many times authors don’t realize that what they’re asking is different from what they agreed to. Almost always when I’ve brought this to their attention, they’ve recognized right away that they pushed the boundaries and they adjust their expectations accordingly. In other cases we will work out additional compensation for the additional work.

Some authors want the dev editor to actually fix all the problems in the ms, which is far beyond the scope of what a dev editor does; that’s a coauthor or ghostwriter, and you would have to charge significantly more. Some writers need more teaching than we can provide in an edit; in those cases, you may be able to begin a coaching relationship with the author.

How to Handle Client Quirks

One common question I’m asked is, “What should you do about authors who send their materials in strange fonts or nonstandard file formats?”

In general, we develop mss in Microsoft Word. It’s possible to use Google Office for this as well (though that has some drawbacks, such as people being able to view your edits before you’re finished or making changes to the ms while you’re editing).

Although sometimes editors are asked to proofread a PDF or in some other file format, for development it’s best to use Word. If the client insists, it’s easy enough to use virtual sticky notes on a PDF to leave queries, but unless you have the right software, you won’t be able to do any line editing.

Some software that authors use, such as Scrivener, automatically export to PDF, so they will sometimes think that’s the file they should send to you. Other times they’ll save a Word document as a PDF, thinking that’s more professional.

It’s perfectly fair to expect the client to provide an appropriate file format with the appropriate formatting such as a standard font. Most formatting issues take only moments to correct, so if the only quirk is that the author has used two spaces after the period, or has used a weirdly undecipherable font, I’ll just fix it instead of kicking it back to the author/client and waiting three months for them to get around to it.

If it’s not an easy quirk to address (perhaps the author has sent you the file on floppy disk), then just state what the author needs to do instead.

Plot Twist!

After the events of the last few weeks, I’ve been seeing a lot of editors on Twitter saying things like, “We can never again tell our authors their plot events are implausible!”

And I smile along with everyone else. But of course it’s not true. “It really happened” has never been a measure of whether a particular event is plausible in a novel.

Even if an author is basing a novel on true-life events, readers still expect to see that plot events follow the laws of cause-and-effect, that significant plot twists are foreshadowed and don’t just drop out of nowhere, and that characters have goals that drive plot events.

It doesn’t matter if at the eleventh hour the author bought a winning lottery ticket and saved their house from foreclosure. Readers aren’t going to buy that – and they’re not going to consider it a satisfactory resolution to a novel.

A plot event has to seem true, as if it could happen, given the story world, the characters, and the theme.

There is life and then there is story. They are two different things. We want story to reflect or illuminate life in some way but story does not and should not imitate life, or we would all wander off by page thirty to find something good to read.

So, rest assured: you haven’t written your last editorial query suggesting the author rethink the plausibilty of a plot event!

How (and why) to keep developmental editing and copyediting separate

The Importance of Separate Developmental Editing and Copyediting Rounds

As I mentioned in my previous blog post, indie authors often want editors to combine DE and CE in one round of editing. I mentioned that one problem with doing this is the likelihood of overwhelming the author.

Another problem is the complexity. There’s no point in copyediting the first three chapters if you think the author should cut them and start with Chapter Four.

But if you don’t copyedit them and the author decides to keep them, then the novel now has three uncopyedited chapters. You could copyedit them but that undercuts your “Start with Chapter Four” recommendation.

That’s just one way in which trying to combine DE and CE functions can quickly become overly complex. Another is that asking the author to make changes in, say, a certain character’s story means that revisions will be made throughout the ms, potentially creating more problems. The new material will not have been copyedited.

The revision process always adds in errors and discrepancies. The author cuts those first three chapters and forgets to add in some necessary backstory that was deleted. A separate CE round will catch this.

For these reasons and more, I strongly discourage fiction authors from thinking they can get away with a combined DE/CE. This is especially true of beginning writers (and unfortunately, they’re the ones most likely to have small budgets).

One additional difficulty with doing a combined DE/CE is that the author will blame you when readers criticize the book. Most of us find private-pay clients through referral, which means we have to make sure our clients are happy. When we know they won’t be, we have to decline the opportunity.

Which leads me to an important point: just because someone wants our services doesn’t mean we have to provide them. We can find clients with more realistic budgets. And of course just because I discourage combining DE and CE in one go doesn’t mean you can never work this way. Sometimes we do what we have to do.

Getting Another Editorial Eye

You may be asked to provide DE and CE in separate rounds so that you avoid the major problems of trying to do both at the same time. However, I discourage this practice as well.

Having a second pair of editorial eyes on a project before it’s published is crucial to making sure egregious errors are caught. You know how it’s almost impossible to proofread your own writing—you try and try and still miss typos? The same is true when you try to do both DE and CE on the same ms, even in separate rounds. You get too familiar with the words and you overlook the problems.

Performing a Combined DE/CE

If the ms is in good shape and the author more experienced, performing a combined DE/CE might be workable, but even in that case, you should recommend that the author get at least a proofreader in to review the final ms.

I wouldn’t try to do a combined DE/CE on a manuscript that has massive development problems; a wholesale rewriting of the ms means that some threads may need further attention—which they won’t get if no other editor looks at the ms.

By the same token I wouldn’t try do a combination edit on a manuscript where the author can’t spell her own name correctly. Any changes she makes at the developmental level will include rewriting, and her inability to spell her own name will show up on the rewritten parts (the parts that no editor will ever see).

When I’m doing a DE, I don’t make a lot of edits to the actual manuscript itself; I leave that up to the author (although I will suggest phrases, etc.). In a combined DE/CE, I make more in-text edits because this simplifies the process for the author. Any edits or revisions I make will be sentence-level edits, not DE-type revision or rewriting. Developmental revisions still need to be left up to the author. But rewriting an awkwardly stated sentence is something I go ahead and do in a combined DE/CE.

Also, I try to ensure that the solutions to developmental issues I address don’t require massive rewriting, even if massive rewriting would serve the story better. This is the trade-off the author is making when asking for a combined DE/CE, and you should make the author aware of it before you get started.

I wouldn’t attempt a combined DE/CE until you have a fair amount of DE experience. I also wouldn’t attempt it unless you have extensive CE experience. Many people think they know what copyediting it is when in fact they are unfamiliar with style manuals or have never edited a manuscript to conform to one. Get that experience first.

What to do when a manuscript isn’t ready for development

Several times in the past few weeks, colleagues have asked what to do when a manuscript isn’t in shape for a developmental edit. Maybe there are obvious issues that the author should correct before hiring an editor—a lighthearted romance that weighs in at 200,000 words, an unfinished draft, a first draft.

Working with the Unready Author

Basically these editors want to know how to tell a potential client to come back later. The short answer is: say something like, “I recommend X [trimming 100,000 words, finishing the draft, revising the draft] before you pay for editing. Here is RESOURCE and RESOURCE.”

Providing a little bit of help is good karma, plus it encourages the author to return to you later, as you are someone who is obviously easy to work with.

The long answer is, my goodness, don’t turn away a potential paying client merely because their ms isn’t ready for a developmental edit!

The Getting-Ready-for-an-Editor Process

What we might call the “getting ready for an editor process” may seem obvious to you, and if you’re a writer, it may be how you work: you write and revise your novel, trying to apply the skills you’ve learned over the years—plotting, character development, world-building—until you can’t see how to make the story any better without help. Only when you’ve done all you know how to do would you think about hiring an editor.

I can tell when I’ve reached this stage because my revision process is starting to consist of adding in commas and taking them out again.

As an editor I’ve come to learn that this process is not how all writers work. In fact, it is apparently not even all that common. Often writers will get a draft written and think that now’s the time for an editor to help them make sure they’re on the right track. And they’re not necessarily wrong about this! (More on this aspect in a moment.)

Working with Completed Manuscripts

I don’t work with a lot of indie authors; most of my DE career has been in freelancing for publishers, where the situation is a little different. But when I do work with indie authors I expect them to have completed the full ms and to let me take a look at it before I quote a project fee. If an author says, “I expect to have the ms done on May 1,” I will encourage them to send it along on May 2 so I can make a quote.

It is extremely important for me to do a brief evaluation of the ms before I schedule the edit. I need to know what the main problems are. I need to be able to realistically estimate how long the edit will take. And I need to determine if the ms is “ready” for editing.

Alternatives to Traditional Developmental Editing

By “ready for editing” I mean if the author has sent along an early draft and it has obvious beginner problems such as no clear conflict and not much of a plot, then a full developmental edit is overkill. What the author needs is some guidance regarding how to write a story, not how to revise one.

If I know this ahead of time, I can offer options. I can provide a ms assessment (a revision letter outlining the main problems with the ms with suggestions regarding how to fix it, but with no line edits/ms queries). This is a less time-intensive approach so it costs less than a full DE, which the ms/author isn’t ready for anyway.

Sometimes, I can see the ms will need two rounds of development. In the case of fiction, sometimes if a ms has a lot of dev problems, I’ll devote one round to the bigger problems (say, plot problems, pacing, and show v tell) and another to more scene-level problems like dialogue or setting.

Looking at the ms will help me determine what services to offer and how to ensure that the author and I have the same expectations of the edit. In other words, it doesn’t really matter what shape the ms is in as long as I see it before I finalize my project quote.

Sometimes the shape of the ms is so pitiful that I will provide a list of resources and a suggestion to come back when they’ve figured out what story they’re trying to tell but this is rare. I can usually do something.

Coaching for the Author’s Process

All of that supposes the author has actually finished a draft. I do get a fair number of inquiries from people who are stuck at various points in the process. For example, I work with a lot of nonfiction authors who want to write fiction. They will often come to me very early in the process needing help working out their ideas. They’re used to planning their mss ahead of time, since that’s common in nonfiction, and they want help in figuring out how to make the plot work or how to amp up the conflict, etc.

So, I’m not going to do full development with those people, because they don’t have a full ms for me to work with. I typically work out some sort of coaching arrangement, which I usually charge in hourly increments, and I’ll respond to outlines, chapters as they are written, hop on the phone for brainstorming, etc.

We work out the details in advance and I do a lot of boundary-setting so everyone knows what to expect.

Other times I am consulted by authors who are seeking traditional publication. They have already had beta readers and/or dev editors working on the project and often have even acquired an agent but their ms isn’t selling and they are hearing a variety of responses from acquisitions editors that they need help understanding in order to formulate a plan regarding next steps. So, this is more of a consulting gig, and I wouldn’t try to do development on the ms (though I would read and potentially evaluate it).

For these reasons, I don’t ever use language limiting when in their process that writers can reach out to me. Once they have, I work with them to figure out what they need at this point and whether I’m the right editor to help them.

Much of the time I’m not, not least because I charge a lot and for indie authors this doesn’t always make economic sense. Other times, the author is writing in a genre I don’t know enough about (horror) or has subject matter I don’t edit (graphic violence). But I do make referrals to other editors (many colleagues have made referrals to me over the years and this is how I keep those good vibes going).