People often ask me how developmental editing differs from standard, or line, editing. Sometimes, I’m surprised how many writers are either unfamiliar with the term, or have little idea what it entails. Then I remember – until I took a short editing course a few years ago, which focused on different types of editing, I too had never heard of developmental editing.
It’s also called “structural editing”, but I prefer the term “developmental editing”, because the root verb “develop” describes the process more accurately. Evaluating the structural elements a of a fiction manuscript, through examining plot, use of prologues and epilogues, chapter division and chapter order is just one aspect of a much larger process.
When someone asks what I do as a developmental editor, I tell them that I workshop the theatre of the story on the page.
Halfway through my first developmental editing project, I started to see similarities between how this process worked with a narrative on the page, and how I used to work with narratives for the stage as a theatre director. I’d been struck by the fact that so much of what I was doing felt “natural” to me. Then I realized I was using much of the skill-set I’d developed over decades in my theatre training and practice.
Sometimes, when someone asks what I do as a developmental editor, I tell them that I workshop the theatre of the story on the page. Or that I work with the author to enhance and develop their voice and style. Another developmental editor might describe their work differently, but both of these theatre-based metaphors speak to me, and to what I bring to the process.
I’ve always been an analytical thinker – theatre directing helped me strengthen my ability to think visually, so it’s easy for me to translate words on a page into a three-dimensional image of a scene and characters. I can then ask myself: “What’s working? What’s missing?”
I also see similarities in the way I’d work with actors in rehearsals as a director to the way I interact with authors as an editor. However, the author is the uber-actor – the embodiment of all the characters. A balance of encouraging, coaxing, inspiring and challenging seems required to foster both processes of creativity.
Alan Rinzler, a developmental editor who’s clearly been in the business a long time, describes the role elegantly and succinctly:
“Developmental editors offer specific suggestions about the core intentions and goals of the book, the underlying premise, the story, character development, use of dialogue and sensory description, the polish, narrative voice, pacing, style, language – the craft and literary art of the book.”
Having just completed a novella manuscript a few days ago with my long-term client and dear friend, Emmanuelle de Maupassant, I’ve been noticing how the story-world is still alive in my mind and imagination. The story of Italian Sonata, with all its layers of meaning and metaphor, its panoply of characters and their individual desires, the ancient castle within which much of the action takes place, are all still vibrating in my psyche, like an image on a screen affected by slight static. It’s as if I can’t quite let go of it yet, and with that realization, came another.
Fiction writing is for most writers, a solitary task. The importance of undistracted time, and the self-imposed isolation this often necessitates, is something many writers struggle with, at least some of the time.
In the role of the developmental editor, you actually companion the writer along the way. You enter the story-world, and interact with the characters, alongside the author. As the project progresses, you might even begin to have in-jokes with the author about their character’s traits and actions.
The writer is receiving regular feedback, and support as the chapters are revised and revised again, and as the work comes together. They are no longer quite as alone in the creation, and I wonder if this would assist some types of writer personalities to complete their projects more often, or more successfully. A developmental editor would have certainly helped me as a younger writer and a social extrovert. Carving out the essential periods of solitude was once something I struggled with.
As the characters and story-world of Italian Sonata seemed reluctant to evict themselves from my psyche, I thought it might be an ideal moment to record some of the things I did, working as a developmental editor, and all in a days’ work. I’d like to thank Emmanuelle for giving me permission to “deconstruct” elements of the editing process to reveal more about the role of the developmental editor in guiding the work from draft to publication.
Before you read further, I’d like to clarify that I’m discussing the work-in-progress of someone who is an extremely talented and capable writer. Emmanuelle writes evocative, compelling prose, and presides over her story-worlds with a queenly grace. She possesses a brilliant ability for social critique and her sometime cynical humour is often mischievously afoot in her scenes, as she explores the hypocrisy inherent in the machinations of polite society. She is mistress of complex plots and even more complex characters. Her imagery is often resonant, and is, at times, capable of evoking visceral reactions in me. I particularly admire her prowess when writing in the Victorian era. She and I share a love for the Gothic fiction aesthetic and genre, so I was very excited to embark on this project with her.
For a writer, I believe working with a developmental editor is like donning a magic cloak that enhances your writerly super-powers, and minimizes or neutralizes your weaknesses. Wherever you are in your development as a writer, the right developmental editor should lift your work to the next level. Additionally, through the process of working with an editor, your writing skills should improve, so you begin your next project a stronger, more capable writer. Developmental editor Alan Rinzler calls this “constructive collaboration.”
Wherever you are in your development as a writer, the right developmental editor should lift your work to the next level.
In other words, the draft of this manuscript was already, on many levels, in good shape. Yet most writers know that overwhelming feeling of holding so many details in their head at once: it’s easy to overlook flaws and inconsistencies in the draft.
Lists are a succinct (and fun) way to capture lots of information. As the skill-set of individual developmental editors will differ, depending on their background, talents and training, I’d expect another editors’ list to have common elements, but also contain elements unique to their approach. An editor must be able to be responsive to the needs of the individual writer, and the manuscript. This list is not intended to be definitive: rather it’s a snapshot of elements I contributed to this manuscript, this story. As developmental editor, I:
- Re-ordered some chapters to more clearly show the passing of time and build suspense more effectively between linked sub-plots.
- Contributed some chapter titles, and re-worked others.
- Chopped up some chapters and advised upon new ordering.
- Evaluated one mini-scene in a certain chapter which seemed unlikely, conceived a plot outline that placed that scene more credibly amongst new action, and guided the author to write a new chapter that revealed more devious elements to “the villain”
- Reminded the author of plot elements that had not been carried through in a credible way.
- Advised when characters were acting “out of character” and created plot notes to help get them back on track.
- Affirmed the author’s use of metaphors to express certain themes, and helped her refine and develop them, also acting as “location scout” for places throughout the novel for these themes to be elaborated on.
- Suggested actions to better reveal complex, conflicting emotions for the character(s)
- Ensured character’s entered and exited rooms when it was important to show they had done so.
- Wrote the occasional line of dialogue when a character (and the author) was stuck for words.
- As it was a story set in Victorian times, I advised on a few elements to more clearly evoke time and period. (Although, I didn’t have too much to do here, as the author is brilliant at writing in this era).
- Read out parts of prose aloud, and corrected to enhance the beauty or clarity or rhythm of expression.
- Helped author find a different approach to sections of descriptive imagery when they “snagged” and couldn’t quite complete something.
- Picked up minor story elements that held tantalizing erotic potential, and encouraged the author to follow this through in action, over several chapters, what one character initially, only playfully, mentioned in dialogue.
- Noticed when a character was doing too much talking, with no indication of actions.
- Took the final lines of the last chapter, and re-situated them as the last lines of the Epilogue ie the final, last words.
It seems apt to end my list there.
These tasks sprung out of the fundamental task of working through the manuscript, chapter by chapter, revising each sentence and paragraph, referring at times to a plot synopsis for the bigger picture.
I hope to have captured something here of what a developmental editor actually does: most things on my list would be beyond the role of a line editor.
Your developmental editor should provide that fresh objective eye; assisting you to hone your story-world and your characters, allowing you, the writer, to relax a little, stop sweating the details, and get on with the output and completion of the prima materia.
The ultimate magnum opus should soon be in sight …
What an editor contributes is, for the most part, invisible in the final published piece of work. Perhaps that’s a sign of a skilled editor. Yet, without the input of the editor, a piece of work is likely to turn out quite differently.
Finally, for this constructive collaboration to be successful, there is one vital quality that must be present between the author and their developmental editor: trust. I feel hugely honoured and humbled by this trust, given to allow me to suggest and affect such changes to a piece of work.
Italian Sonata was officially released a few hours ago. A huge congratulations to Emmanuelle, and I’m wishing the novella every success! Head here to pick up your digital copy: https://books.pronoun.com/italian-sonata/ or to Amazon.
More information on my Editing and Writing Services
Read about my “Sample Chapter Edit Offer”
Alan Rinzler’s excellent articles (and his site) on developmental editing and more:
More about Emmanuelle de Maupassant