Using Book Reviews to Practice Developmental Editing

To get better at developmental editing you have to do developmental editing! But it’s not always easy to figure out how to go about that. Previously I’ve talked about being a beta reader as a way to gain practice as a DE. And, the self-paced Naked Editing class allows you to follow along as an editor completes a full developmental edit on a ms. 

But I’d like to talk about another option, and that’s using book reviews to help you practice your DE skills. I recommend reading reviews by professional book critics versus random Amazon readers. Professional reviewers/book critics are more likely to notice germane issues (versus minor pet peeves) and to recognize that spelling “colour” with a u is not evidence of lazy editing but rather evidence that the author is British.

Most major newspapers (such as the New York Times) have book review sections. These typically cover literary fiction and bestselling commercial fiction. You can also check out book review blogs for specific genres. The quality of the reviewing on such sites will vary but a little research can help you decide which are worthwhile. A place to start finding book review blogs is this search engine on the Reedsy site. One of my favorite book review blogs is Smart Bitches, Trashy Books, which covers the romance genre.

I recommend finding a book review the points out several important flaws in a novel. While it is certainly enjoyable to read a well-written book, and we as editors can learn something from well-written books, to truly build our skills we need to take on novels that have developmental problems.

Once you’ve identified a novel that has made a critic tear out their hair, read the novel yourself, bearing in mind the critic’s concerns. Do you agree? What other problems do you see? Can you see any connections between the problems? For example, if the novel doesn’t really seem to go anywhere and at the same time it’s not clear what the protagonist wants or what’s driving them, you can probably see that lack of goal and motivation is connected to the lack of an interesting plot. Here’s a list of the types of problems we look for when assessing a ms.

Try writing a revision letter based on your conclusions. In a revision letter, you outline your main concerns about a manuscript, using examples from the text to support your points. You describe the problems and suggest potential solutions. It is in suggesting solutions that we push this practice beyond mere “reader reaction.” (Reader reaction is basically what occurs in critique and beta reading.)

Here’s an example: Recently I read the NYT’s review of LA Weather and came across the criticism that there were too many implausible events in the novel. Aha! A big dev problem. This is common when authors are letting the plot drive the story. Given this criticism, I thought about ways I might be able to encourage the author to make these implausibilities more plausible (for example, by making sure the plot events are character-driven—the result of a character’s goals and motivations). I also thought about ways I might encourage the author to reduce the number of plot events by making each plot event more memorable and meaningful—selecting fewer plot events and giving each more page time. Try doing something similar for a novel of your choice, using a book critic’s review as a jumping-off point. 

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