Offering Solutions to Developmental Problems

When we write editorial queries for the author, we need to identify what the problem is and why it’s a problem for the manuscript—in other words, we can’t just slap generic slogans on a manuscript (“Use fewer adverbs!”) and think that’s editing.

Effective Editorial Guidance

Part of the editorial guidance we need to offer in an editorial query is a potential solution. It’s important to get in the habit of stating the solution even when you think it’s obvious (delete the digression, fix the timeline, reconcile the inconsistency). What’s obvious to you may not be obvious at all to the author.

It isn’t enough to say, “I don’t understand Joe’s motivation.” (Or, worse, “What is Joe’s motivation here?”) That’s critique and it has its place but it’s not development. We also have to show the author how to fix the problem. Showing the author how to fix the problem is not taking over the author’s role. We’re not actually rewriting anything and we’re not requiring the author to follow our advice.

The author may misunderstand the problem if we don’t provide concrete solutions. For example, if I feel readers will need to know specifically what the character’s goal and motivation is but I don’t specifically state that, the author may think “Readers don’t have enough information about the protagonist” means “describe what she looks like and where she lives.”

Solutions Shouldn’t Create More Problems

When you offer a solution, it’s important to take as much time and space as you need to provide sufficient guidance and to consider potential problems that could arise from the author taking your suggestion.

For example, if you want the author to provide more details of world-building, what kind of details are needed? How can the author accomplish this without stopping the story in order to deliver exposition? Where and how could the information be placed in the story?

If you want to suggest that the author create a scene showing something (Joe breaking up with Marilyn, for example), you need to identify where that scene would go. Then you would need to figure out if doing so would create follow-on problems. If a scene is added showing the breakup, then maybe a scene where Joe describes the breakup would need to be revised (since the reader will already be aware of the information).

This isn’t just so you can help the author solve the problem but so that you can see when you’re asking the author to do the impossible or even just the entirely unrealistic.

Know Your Author

It’s important to consider your author’s abilities when you’re proposing solutions. A beginning author is probably going to need simpler solutions than a more experienced author. As I mentioned above, our solutions can contain the seeds for creating a whole new host of problems, so it’s important to consider that ahead of time.

An experienced author who has written several novels usually does not need as much hand-holding as a beginning author does. If you tell an experienced author, “There’s a lot of exposition in Chapter One,” they are likely to know what you mean and not need to have everything spelled out. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t give suggested solutions but it does mean you have to present yourself as more of a partner and less of a teacher.

When working with a beginning writer, you might explain more: [AU: Info-dumping is too much exposition (telling) in one lump. This interferes with the pacing of your story and can make your reader lose interest. Readers rarely need as much backstory as you think. A good rule of thumb is to tell the reader only what she needs to know to follow along, and only when she needs to know it. For the scene below, I’ve highlighted areas where information could be cut without affecting the story at all.]

An experienced author would know what info-dumping is and would probably find such an extensive comment overkill. That said, it’s always better to err on the side of overexplaining versus underexplaining—“Yeah, yeah, I get it” is preferable to “I have no idea what any of this means or what I should do or how I can fix this disaster!!!”

When working with a more experienced author, it’s often more helpful to share your experience of reading the manuscript rather than trying to teach the author: [AU: In Chapter One, I found myself losing interest at the digression about the life cycle of moths. I felt you had too much exposition there. And you can cut back on the description of how an entomologist is trained. I’ve highlighted the parts you could delete without affecting the overall story.]

You’re still providing guidance (the specific pieces of info-dumping that can be deleted) but you’re not overdoing the explanation. Be careful not to let reining in your explanations turn your dev edit into a critique, however. The author still needs to know what the problem is, why it’s a problem, and how to solve it.

Unless you know the author very well, humor is almost never appreciated: “There you go again, yakking away! Put a muzzle on it!” can seem light-hearted to you, but to an author who has poured her heart and soul into her work, it can seem dismissive and cold. Even if you do know the author very well, it’s probably better to stick with neutrally phrased comments.

Getting Acquainted

Getting to know your author does not require five phone calls and three lengthy email exchanges. Just ask a few cogent questions before you get started, and you’ll have a good sense of your author’s experience:

  1. Ask if the author is previously published. An experienced nonfiction author may make some amateur mistakes in a novel but is probably accustomed to getting editorial feedback and won’t be intimidated by it. But someone who has never had so much as a letter to the editor published is best treated as a beginner.
  2. If the author is previously published, find out in what way. If the author has had novels published by major publishers, they’re more likely to be experienced with the editorial process versus someone who has simply self-published (not always, of course, but usually).
  3. Ask what the author thinks their strengths and weaknesses are and find out if they have any particular concerns about the novel. This will help you gauge the author’s familiarity with common development issues and the terms we use to describe them.
  4. Use your own judgment. Review a few chapters of the manuscript before you start. You’ll probably be able to judge the author’s skill level from the first fifty pages. (Some editors recommend looking at later chapters because the first three chapters have often been workshopped and may not bear any resemblance to the latter part of the manuscript.)


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