Facts About Becoming a Story Editor/Developmental Editor
You probably landed on Club Ed because you enjoy reading novels and wonder what it would be like to be a book editor. Either that or you already are a book editor, in which case most of what I’m going to say here will be information you already know. (But you might enjoy our intermediate- and advanced-level classes, which you can find here and our blog posts about editing-related topics, here.)
Developmental editing (DE or dev), which is often called story editing when referring to fiction, is a type of editing that focuses on the big picture: Do the characters take actions for clear reasons? Does the plot make sense? Do the story events take place in a clearly evoked setting?
It is not about putting the commas in the right place or making sure the words are spelled correctly. That’s copyediting and proofreading, not developmental editing. In DE, we don’t care about the commas.
This site is intended for freelance developmental editors—that is, DEs who aren’t employed by publishing companies but run their own businesses. This allows much more flexibility for the very many people in the world who need it. (More than forty percent of the US workforce freelanced in 2020, up from thirteen percent in 2013. More than twenty-five percent of Americans now freelance full-time, up from seventeen percent in 2014.)
According to the Occupational Outlook Handbook, more than 120,000 people currently work as editors in the US, and more than 11,000 full-time openings are expected each year of the coming decade, including both self-employed and staff positions. Median pay was $63,400 in May 2020. Freelancers are more likely to earn more as competition for staff jobs keeps wages lower.
But editing, developmental editing in particular, is not an entry-level position, especially for a freelancer. You can’t just announce that you’re open for business and expect to do well and gain clients.
To succeed, freelance editors typically need a bachelor’s degree in English, journalism, communications, or a related degree along with writing and editing experience.
However, even if you don’t have a college degree, if you have a love of books and read a lot, you can still succeed—you may just need to do some outside reading about the critical analysis of literary texts. (How to Read Like a Professor, by Thomas C. Foster is one of my favorites—it’s a straightforward introduction to what literary criticism is.)
The Skills and Abilities Editors Need
Freelance editors have some characteristics in common. For one thing, they’re self-starters: no one is going to be watching over your shoulder to see whether you’re marketing or just watching YouTube videos. And it helps if you’re organized and have the ability to focus for long periods of time.
You have to love words and stories but you can’t be wedded to being “right.” In developmental editing, unlike copyediting, there is no right answer. There are recommendations we can make that will help authors get closer to telling the story they want to tell, but these are never more than that: recommendations. You have to be comfortable with having your advice rejected as often as not.
This is not a job where you get to indulge your pet peeves about writers who use “different than” instead of “different from.”
We are not gate-keepers: as freelancers we are partners in our clients’ journeys, supporters and cheerleaders, but we are not the ones who make a final judgment about what gets published and what does not, or what succeeds and what fails.
You have to enjoy nurturing other people’s creativity and staying out of the limelight yourself.
It’s that age-old conundrum: if you don’t have editing experience and all the editing jobs require experience how do you get experience?
First, and most important, almost any kind of job you have or have had almost certainly has transferrable skills if you think about it in the right way. So, for example, if you’re an English teacher, well, you already know how to talk about stories and how to teach others. Talking about stories and teaching others are huge elements in effective developmental editing.
If you’re a nurse, you understand how to prioritize by importance: the Code Blue patient gets attention before the broken foot patient; cleaning and dressing a wound is step one before you offer the patient information on how to lower their cholesterol levels. This kind of triage takes place in developmental editing, too.
Second, invest in professional development. Obviously I’m biased because I run an education company, but I don’t think it’s realistic to say you know how to edit if you haven’t learned what the accepted practices are. Good classes will help you learn what an effective editorial query is, how to manage author relationships, how to spot story problems, and more. But you can also learn a lot by reading books about the writing craft, reading novels critically, hanging out with writers, and otherwise immersing yourself in the world of words.
Third, get practice in offering feedback and critiques, such as by offering to be a beta reader. Or, if you’re a writer yourself, become a critique partner with another writer.
Depending on where you start (if you have any related experience, etc.), it is likely to take you anywhere from one to five years to be ready to start taking on your first paying clients.
You don’t have to drop everything and become a full-time editor; there is plenty of room for part-timers or gig workers (taking a project on when you have time).
It is more difficult to gain traction as a part-timer but it is also a great way to edge into freelance developmental editing without having to quit your current job or while dealing with chronic illness, elderly parents, childcare, and similar issues.
I always recommend that people interested in developmental editing take the self-paced Naked Editing class to see what the process is like. The Naked Editing Book Club gives you a chance to join other editors in reading and discussing published books from a developmental editor’s perspective. And the Beginning and Intermediate Developmental Editing instructor-led classes or the self-paced DE 1 – 6 are ways to further explore the field of developmental editing for fiction.
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New to story editing? Begin at the beginning.