Challenges in learning developmental editing

A questions I’m often asked is, “What are some of the biggest challenges people have in learning to become developmental editors?” This is usually from someone interested in developmental editing (particularly of fiction) as a career.

The biggest challenge for people who are already working as copy editors or proofreaders is being able to let go of that sentence-level mindset and step back for the bigger picture. It is very common for CEs to want to keep focusing on the smaller issues at the expense of the larger ones, or to focus on both in a way that will overwhelm the author. That is by far the biggest challenge I’ve seen my students face.

Another problem, not so common, is when aspiring DEs don’t know enough about how stories work. I’m not talking about superficial things like not knowing what the term info-dumping means, I’m talking about not being able to recognize what info-dumping is, once someone has described it for you.

If you’ve never read a novel where you’ve been bored by the details the author has chosen to include, you’re either not reading very widely (which is a disaster for an aspiring DE) or you lack the necessary curiosity – you’re not asking questions about how authors get their effects. If you’ve never been curious about that as a reader it’s going to be hard to develop that curiosity as an editor.

Beyond that, I think the biggest challenge is that learning to do development requires actually doing development. I teach a lot of classes on various aspects of development and I’m really glad people take them but there is a point where just taking another class isn’t teaching you anything and you just have to roll up your sleeves and start tinkering with the guts of someone’s manuscript.

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