What to do when a manuscript isn’t ready for development

Several times in the past few weeks, colleagues have asked what to do when a manuscript isn’t in shape for a developmental edit. Maybe there are obvious issues that the author should correct before hiring an editor—a lighthearted romance that weighs in at 200,000 words, an unfinished draft, a first draft.

Working with the Unready Author

Basically these editors want to know how to tell a potential client to come back later. The short answer is: say something like, “I recommend X [trimming 100,000 words, finishing the draft, revising the draft] before you pay for editing. Here is RESOURCE and RESOURCE.”

Providing a little bit of help is good karma, plus it encourages the author to return to you later, as you are someone who is obviously easy to work with.

The long answer is, my goodness, don’t turn away a potential paying client merely because their ms isn’t ready for a developmental edit!

The Getting-Ready-for-an-Editor Process

What we might call the “getting ready for an editor process” may seem obvious to you, and if you’re a writer, it may be how you work: you write and revise your novel, trying to apply the skills you’ve learned over the years—plotting, character development, world-building—until you can’t see how to make the story any better without help. Only when you’ve done all you know how to do would you think about hiring an editor.

I can tell when I’ve reached this stage because my revision process is starting to consist of adding in commas and taking them out again.

As an editor I’ve come to learn that this process is not how all writers work. In fact, it is apparently not even all that common. Often writers will get a draft written and think that now’s the time for an editor to help them make sure they’re on the right track. And they’re not necessarily wrong about this! (More on this aspect in a moment.)

Working with Completed Manuscripts

I don’t work with a lot of indie authors; most of my DE career has been in freelancing for publishers, where the situation is a little different. But when I do work with indie authors I expect them to have completed the full ms and to let me take a look at it before I quote a project fee. If an author says, “I expect to have the ms done on May 1,” I will encourage them to send it along on May 2 so I can make a quote.

It is extremely important for me to do a brief evaluation of the ms before I schedule the edit. I need to know what the main problems are. I need to be able to realistically estimate how long the edit will take. And I need to determine if the ms is “ready” for editing.

Alternatives to Traditional Developmental Editing

By “ready for editing” I mean if the author has sent along an early draft and it has obvious beginner problems such as no clear conflict and not much of a plot, then a full developmental edit is overkill. What the author needs is some guidance regarding how to write a story, not how to revise one.

If I know this ahead of time, I can offer options. I can provide a ms assessment (a revision letter outlining the main problems with the ms with suggestions regarding how to fix it, but with no line edits/ms queries). This is a less time-intensive approach so it costs less than a full DE, which the ms/author isn’t ready for anyway.

Sometimes, I can see the ms will need two rounds of development. In the case of fiction, sometimes if a ms has a lot of dev problems, I’ll devote one round to the bigger problems (say, plot problems, pacing, and show v tell) and another to more scene-level problems like dialogue or setting.

Looking at the ms will help me determine what services to offer and how to ensure that the author and I have the same expectations of the edit. In other words, it doesn’t really matter what shape the ms is in as long as I see it before I finalize my project quote.

Sometimes the shape of the ms is so pitiful that I will provide a list of resources and a suggestion to come back when they’ve figured out what story they’re trying to tell but this is rare. I can usually do something.

Coaching for the Author’s Process

All of that supposes the author has actually finished a draft. I do get a fair number of inquiries from people who are stuck at various points in the process. For example, I work with a lot of nonfiction authors who want to write fiction. They will often come to me very early in the process needing help working out their ideas. They’re used to planning their mss ahead of time, since that’s common in nonfiction, and they want help in figuring out how to make the plot work or how to amp up the conflict, etc.

So, I’m not going to do full development with those people, because they don’t have a full ms for me to work with. I typically work out some sort of coaching arrangement, which I usually charge in hourly increments, and I’ll respond to outlines, chapters as they are written, hop on the phone for brainstorming, etc.

We work out the details in advance and I do a lot of boundary-setting so everyone knows what to expect.

Other times I am consulted by authors who are seeking traditional publication. They have already had beta readers and/or dev editors working on the project and often have even acquired an agent but their ms isn’t selling and they are hearing a variety of responses from acquisitions editors that they need help understanding in order to formulate a plan regarding next steps. So, this is more of a consulting gig, and I wouldn’t try to do development on the ms (though I would read and potentially evaluate it).

For these reasons, I don’t ever use language limiting when in their process that writers can reach out to me. Once they have, I work with them to figure out what they need at this point and whether I’m the right editor to help them.

Much of the time I’m not, not least because I charge a lot and for indie authors this doesn’t always make economic sense. Other times, the author is writing in a genre I don’t know enough about (horror) or has subject matter I don’t edit (graphic violence). But I do make referrals to other editors (many colleagues have made referrals to me over the years and this is how I keep those good vibes going).

Beginning Developmental Editing for Fiction starts January 9, 2023

how to become a developmental editor

Intermediate Developmental Editing for Fiction starts February 6, 2023

how to become a developmental editor

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