Developmental Editing and “Sensing” Problems

I’ve heard developmental editors talk about “sensing” that a story isn’t working, even going so far to say that “sensing” problems is their job. And sensing that something is going wrong is a useful skill for a developmental editor to have—all of us do, to one degree or another.

But developmental editing isn’t about “sensing” things; it’s about bringing a critical framework to bear on a manuscript. Sensing—that is, operating on instinct—may be where the process begins but if it ends there, all you wind up with is a mass of pet peeves and “here’s how I would have written it” commentary.

The job of a developmental editor isn’t to sense things. It is to assess and evaluate a story based on our informed judgment and expertise and to recommend potential solutions based on our understanding of how storytelling techniques work. Of a multitude of possible directions, we select the one that most closely coheres with what author’s goal and what the story is trying to be.

Sensing that a character arc is off (for example) is just the first step in what a good developmental editor does. After that, they interrogate their reaction. What story elements, specifically, are creating this impression? What is the specific failure of craft that is causing the problem? How does this intersect with related problems (such as plot problems)? Is it something many readers are likely to experience as a problem with the story or is it just the editor’s pet peeve? What, specifically, does “off” mean? Does it mean the character arc is unbelievable, unearned, or something else?

Those concerns must be clearly articulated and the editor’s conclusion must form an argument. Not just “fix this” but “here are the reasons I conclude this is a problem, why I think you should address it, and how you could fix it.”

If you’re just sensing things about a manuscript, what you’re doing is reader feedback. It’s a good first step but it needs to be supported by other steps, including a clear understanding of what developmental editing is and is not.

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