what is developmental editing

What Is Developmental Editing?

If you’re considering hiring a professional editor, you’ve probably come across the term “developmental editing.” Like many industry terms, the specifics can seem opaque to first-time authors asking What is developmental editing? Understanding the definition of developmental editing is important for authors considering working with a professional book editor.

One of the first questions to ask when you’re considering professional editing is What type of editing do I need? Not only are there a plethora of options, but terminology is not completely standardized throughout the industry. Depending on who you’re speaking with, publishing professionals may use different terms for the same type of editing. Specifically, professionals who work directly with authors (like us Blue Pen) often use different terminology than in-house editors.

​And even professionals who use the same terminology may offer slightly different deliverables for each services. Editors structure their developmental editing process differently, so even after reading this article, be sure to discuss the developmental editing service with your editor so you understand exactly what is involved.

To give you a starting point, let’s explore the benefits of developmental editing, who can benefit from this type of professional book editing, and what to expect during your developmental edit.

What does a developmental editor do?​

Developmental editing is the starting point in many professional editing processes.

Developmental editing is a high-level type of editing. That simply means that it addresses high-level or story-level aspects, such as:

  • Plot
  • Structure
  • Characterization
  • Setting
  • Pacing
  • Voice

High-level changes often result in sweeping revisions to the manuscript, including removing and rewriting large sections of the work. This should be done first so that you don’t waste time and resources perfecting every sentence and word only to cut or rewrite the chapter or section.

Developmental editing may also be called structural editingcontent editing, or substantive editing. Note that the latter two terms are sometimes applied to line editing as well. Line editing, especially when applied to fiction, tends to be a type of heavy copyediting.

See what I mean about non-standardized terminology?

What does developmental editing mean?

During a developmental edit, the editor will read through your manuscript, often taking notes in the margins, and will provide you with detailed, comprehensive feedback about your story’s high-level elements (listed above).

Note that developmental editing looks very different for fiction and nonfiction books. Developmental editing for fiction covers story arcs, characterization, and plot. For nonfiction, developmental editing focuses on structure. Since the events are true and aren’t open to adjustment, developmental editing for nonfiction explores whether the events are presented in the best and most effective way possible. Does anything need to be cut, expanded, or reordered?

At Blue Pen, a developmental edit includes heavy in-text comments, an edit letter that’s typically eight to ten pages, and a voice or video call to discuss the notes. The edit letter also includes an action plan that prioritizes suggested revisions, and we encourage follow-up emails to discuss any questions you have during your revision process.

Here is an example of a developmental edit letter from Blue Pen.

Developmental editing is complex, and each editor has their own style and preferences. That means that deliverables can vary significantly among professionals. You should always clarify exactly what you’re getting with your developmental edit.

For example, some editors may also make changes to the document using Track Changes. Many do not include a live call, like Blue Pen does, and editors may set limits on the number of follow-up emails.

What does developmental editing NOT include?

Although terminology can vary, developmental editing is commonly confused with a couple of other services. It’s important to understand exactly what you’re looking for, as using the wrong term when searching for an editorial professional can make finding a good fit difficult or impossible. And it can lead to miscommunications during your editing process.

Developmental editing is not…

Ghostwriting: During developmental editing, the editor provides insight into the high-level aspects of the manuscript and will craft a plan that you can implement during your revision process. However, the editor does not implement this plan for you. They do not rewrite or add sections. A professional who makes these types of changes for the author is known as a ghostwriter.

Book Coaching: While developmental editing may include a live session to discuss the notes, along with follow-up emails, further guidance typically requires an additional fee. Book coaching takes many forms, but it involves working closely with the author as they plan, write, and/or revise their manuscript.

Do I need developmental editing?

You can’t go wrong with a developmental edit; it will never make your manuscript worse. That said, it’s not right for every author and manuscript. If you have deadlines coming up, for example, a developmental edit may not be right for you. Here’s a checklist to make sure this is the best service for your needs.

  • You’re prepared to devote significant time and energy to implementing developmental feedback.
  • Your budget allows for this in-depth service.
  • You have not yet hired a line editor, copyeditor, or proofreader. Or if you have, you understand that large sections may need to undergo low-level editing again following your revisions.
  • You have revised and edited your manuscript to the best of your ability and have addressed all high-level issues you could identify yourself.

Are there any alternatives to developmental editing?

The most common alternative to developmental editing is a manuscript critique, also known as a manuscript evaluation.

manuscript critique addresses the same high-level aspects as developmental editing. However, it is less in-depth and therefore less expensive. Authors often choose a manuscript critique over developmental editing in order to meet their budget or when they are not prepared to spend time doing deep revisions.

Authors also sometimes choose to pursue a manuscript critique before developmental editing. By doing so, the author addresses the largest and most pervasive issues before the developmental edit, allowing the editor to dig deeper into the manuscript during the developmental pass.

How do I hire a developmental editor?​

Working with a professional editor for the first time can be overwhelming. It’s crucial that you understand the basic editing process and the differences between different types of professional editing.

An experienced professional will help you understand those differences so you can make an informed decision for your book’s editing process, but because many editors specialize in certain types of editing, such as developmental editing, you would need to make those decisions ahead of time if you plan to work with an individual freelance editor.

At Blue Pen, our team includes developmental editors, line editors and copyeditors, and proofreaders. That makes it easy to find the perfect team for your editing process.

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