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  • Lana Wildman

Developmental Editing for the Self-Published Author

What is developmental editing?

Developmental editing is, as the term suggests, editing that occurs in developmental points through a project.


In traditional publishing, developmental editing is requested when an editor believes a manuscript, whether fiction or non-fiction, has merit, but it needs work. A developmental editor (D.E.) may be brought in for an objective assessment as to commercial viability, nuances of the subject matter, difficulties with the character development, or other issues that can be improved. The DE. might, for example, question whether there is sufficient interest among the targeted political demographic in the ideas the author presents, or whether a certain subplot in a novel should be handled a different way given a national sentiment rising from recent public events.


The D.E. will write an editorial report outlining her final questions, conclusions, or suggestions. Manuscript notes might be provided to detail specifics as to what the author can do to improve problems points. For example, he may point out a number of claims that are contradicted by opening statements, and suggest a rewording that might strengthen the introduction while leaving room for the contradictions to be examined later.


Developmental editing should not be mistaken for line editing, copy editing, proofreading or beta reading. Wordsmiths themselves differ as to which tasks belong under the line editor header or the copy editor header, but generally speaking, the line editor will go through the completed manuscript line by line, looking at the sentence structure, pacing, flow, and how word choice contributes to the author’s intended tone and voice—mostly issues of style. The copy editor comes after the line editor, looking at grammar, spelling, punctuation, and syntax—the mechanics of language—and some basic fact checking.


The proofreader comes at the end of the process, right before printing. He looks for all the errors the copy editor missed, as well as consistency in things like numbering, margins and line breaks.


Beta readers are usually members of an author’s target audience, less commonly professional editors. Beta readers get an early version, but the response is more about what they liked or disliked in the reading experience, whereas developmental editors can identify the why behind the appreciation or lack thereof.


When do I need developmental editing?

For those choosing the self-publication route, working with a developmental editor is 100% optional, but not if you want to turn out the best possible book. There are a several points in which you may want to turn to a developmental editor.


First, if you have been staring at your outline and piles of notes and still aren’t sure what you’re doing, you can pull in someone who can get enough distance from your thoughts to see the whole forest for the trees. This D.E. should be able to look at all your pieces and envision how they fit together, what order they should be presented, and what may be missing. Once these are identified, you can figure out how to go forward.


Another place to turn to someone in a D.E. role is when you get stuck, the point at which every time you sit down to work, you hate it, nothing feels right, and you’re resisting it with every fiber of your being. If you know where you’re going and you’re just bored with how long and tedious it’s all turning out to be, you can maintain discipline and get through. If you’re stuck, though, it may take an outsider to help tease apart the logjam.


He or she should be able to ask you some pointed questions to identify problem areas, such as “The research you’re citing looks pretty old—do you need to shore up your data?” or “I don’t think you’re writing for middle management, it feels more like your ideal audience for this book would be small business owners trying to hire managers.” Or “This character is just not believable…she’s a life coach with million-dollar clients but she’s oblivious to her own teenage daughter’s withdrawal.”


If you get started well and can complete a good first draft without running into trouble, you’ll still want someone to look things over for you. I know, you don’t want to invite someone to tell you that your labor of love has problems, large or small. However, if you are serious about putting this book out into the world with your name on it, you owe it to yourself and your readers to make it the highest quality book you possibly can.


Your D.E. will be able to zero in on things that disrupt the reading: inconsistencies, unanswered questions, impossibilities, or other strange things that you don’t see because you’ve been staring it all in the face for so long. Their final suggestions may be minor, such as using certain wording throughout instead of the phrase you’ve been employing, or major, like re-ordering several sections so you can include an authoritative response to research that just came out, or changing a character’s back story to be more relatable to your readers.


Where can I find a developmental editor?

If you’re not expecting to turn out a New York Times Best Seller, you don’t have to hire a developmental editor out of Chicago or New York who works with manuscripts year round. You can locate a freelance editor with experience who will be able to give you beneficial recommendations. If you follow or are part of any self-publishing group on LinkedIn, Facebook, or other social media, get recommendations. Many D.E.s can be found online under their own names or as part of a writing service agency. You can also find excellent editors on such freelance platforms as Upwork.


Regardless of where you find your editor, do your due diligence in hiring. You usually get what you pay for, so while it may be tempting to hire the cheapest rate you’re offered, if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.


How do I work with a developmental editor?

If you’re satisfied with the fee and confident that your expectations will be met, check references from former clients. Any editor who is professional and worth their fees won’t be offended that you ask. They will provide you with a list of a few clients you can contact to ask such questions as “What was it like to work with Joe?” or “What all did Suze do for you and was she worth her fee?”


If possible, find someone with experience in your field who will be familiar with your terminology and industry standards. Lacking this, an experienced editor will still be able to treat your work thoroughly and objectively.


Your editor will ask you questions about how many pages you have written and what concerns you’ve already noticed. She may charge a flat fee or by the hour. It’s fair to ask how long he thinks it might take. When you hire your proposed developmental editor, be sure you’re both on the same page as to what you want them to do and how they will provide their response. The more detailed work you request, the higher the fee will be. Remember, you don’t need a line or copy editor or proofreader right now, so be sure you’re not paying for that.


Do I really need a developmental editor?

Developmental editing is one step in writing a book that is easy to overlook and rationalize away. You’ll spend a lot of money producing a book with no guarantee that you’ll earn it back, and it’s tempting to skip it, assuming your line or copy editor or your proofreader will catch any big problems. They might, yes, at least some problems, but that’s a dangerous stance to take. Your final editor may assume you’ve already worked out the kinks and not bring anything up. You may end up printing something that turns out to be so problematic that you spend even more money reprinting and trying to retract the first book that was distributed.


All this is not to say that you’re a bad writer. Engaging a developmental editor only acknowledges that with projects of larger scope, it’s easy to become myopic and lose sight of the big picture. We all naturally focus well on our areas of expertise, and seeking a different perspective will help us to connect everything as well as possible.


A poorly edited book has good odds of ending up an embarrassing waste of effort and time. However, writing a book with a professional team can yield returns you never anticipated. In addition to the impact you’ll have on your readers and your community, there’s no way to measure the satisfaction and pride you’ll have when you realize that you wrote a really good book!


Lana Wildman is a business ghostwriter and developmental editor in Kansas City.

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