What should you expect from a developmental editor?

As a longtime developmental editor, I often get questions from authors about the editor-writer relationship.

How exactly do developmental editors work? How can I tell if I’ve found a good one? And will you correct my typos?

I can tell you that virtually all successful writers – from Ernest Hemingway to Kathryn Stockett – have worked with a developmental editor. Often these editors worked for the publisher and had titles like senior editor, executive editor, editor-in-chief.

These days, authors are able to hire their own independent developmental editors.

Constructive collaborators

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.

What developmental editors don’t do is correct spelling and grammar. That’s the job of a copy-editor, who works much later in the publishing process.

An author can recruit a developmental editor even before starting a book, to brainstorm ideas and make a clear plan. After that, they may call upon the editor at any stage from early drafts to final. For more on this, you might be interested in an earlier post called When do you need an editor?

What agents, publishers and readers want

I’ve been a developmental editor in traditional book publishing since 1962, and have worked one-on-one with private writer clients for many years. You can read more about that in my bio. But there are many developmental editors to choose from these days. That’s good for authors trying to get a book deal with a traditional publisher. Many writers have learned the hard way that agents and acquisition editors at commercial houses don’t want a manuscript that’s not ready for prime time.

Self-publishing authors – whether they intend to stay independent or try to convert their book to a commercial house — can also benefit from professional feedback to compete with the 11,000 new titles every year vying for a reader’s attention.

For my best advice on how to evaluate and select your own private developmental editor, check out  this post  Choosing a freelance editor: What you need to know.

Now, here’s what I believe every writer deserves and should expect when working one-on-one with a developmental editor.

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What to expect from a good developmental editor

Clear, understandable edits

When you get back your manuscript from a developmental editor, it should be filled with tracked changes – a function of Microsoft Word.

You’ll see the edits clearly, right on the page, with the existing words still visible so you can compare your original work with the suggested changes. You’ll see deletions, shifts in words, phrases, sentences, paragraphs, sections or chapters, and notes that explain, question or add new suggested writing.

In each case, with the click of a key you can either accept or reject the edits. You always retain full control over the final work.

Specific solutions

Never settle for a vague statement from an editor like “It’s too long.” There’s no one acceptable length for a young adult, paranormal, mystery, romance, biography or memoir. It should be as long as it needs to be, with no fat or excess. The constructive way to approach length is: Do we need this or not? Is it essential to the moment, short term or down the road? If not, put a line through it.

Similarly, it’s not very useful for an editor to say, “This character needs development.” A good editor will make specific suggestions, like adding new backstory or current time elements that demonstrate change, transformation, some major progress from the crisis to the last curtain. These might include specific events, actions, turning points, for example inserting a test of loyalty around a best friend’s dishonesty or going into a character’s mixed feelings in response to the death of a parent.

Creative input

A good editor will enter the author’s universe and come up with new and original ideas wherever needed to spike the story, deepen the personalities, add an unexpected dimension to the accelerating pace of the narrative, whether it’s fiction or nonfiction.

The editor might suggest for example, changing the heroine’s profession from a paralegal to a partner in the firm, which could add to her personality and create new dimensions in her relationships at home and work.

Writing

A good developmental editor can provide suggested new language for narrative, dialogue, and visual description. This draft language should include an invitation to revise and correct according to the author’s own literary style and taste. But an able editor can take the plunge and offer whole new ideas for the client writer to consider.

Developmental editors are not ordinarily ghostwriters, but they can and should be able to put the right words together as an example of what they want the author to do.

Respect

A good developmental editor may suggest “What about this?” and offer a new idea to solve whatever problem may be in progress. If the editor, however, suggests something you find unacceptable, remember this: You’re the boss. If you disagree, good editors will bury their own egos and totally honor the intentions, style, and underlying theme of a writer client’s work.

If your editor is inflexible, overbearing, or takes a “my way or the highway” tone, it’s time to terminate.

Instruction

A good developmental editor can help an author become a better writer, by including detailed explanations to accompany changes and deletions.

Here’s an example. I worked with an author who made a habit of lacing intrusive commentary and interpretation into every paragraph of action or dialogue. I deleted these as attempts to control the reader’s experience and subjective feelings about what was happening. In each case, I explained why it wasn’t a good idea. His next book had none of this tendency, with no further input from me.

Market sense

A good developmental editor can provide a sense of the market for a given book project. Developmental editors aren’t agents, but they should have a good idea of what the market is looking for and when. For example, publishers schedule special promotions for Valentine’s Day, Mother’s and Father’s day, beach reading, back-to-school and above all Christmas gift-giving.

Developmental editors often have a good sense of what agents are thinking about commercial trends among the publishers they sell to. They will also understand how a particular demographic of readers will respond to your book. And they stay on top of what is of interest in specific foreign markets like Germany, China, Russia, or Japan, since not all countries are reading the same thing at the same time.

Developmental editors also keep up with breaking news, cultural developments and global trends. This can help them suggest how to correct any gaps or misconceptions if an author incorporates these rapidly changing elements into the manuscript.

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What about you?

If you’ve worked with a developmental editor, hopefully the experience was a good one.  If so, (or if not) please share something about it here in comments, along with any advice for fellow writers.  I’ll watch for any questions.

36 Responses to What should you expect from a developmental editor?

  1. Rob Vitaro

    I recently hired an editor whose approach was to look for all kinds of problems that would flag my manuscript for automatic rejection – grammar, layout, content, and many other things. I got nervous at first when I didn’t get much feedback on the content – it’s my first novel. His response was that if he didn’t mention it, it wasn’t a problem. Considering he caught A LOT of grammatical problems and that I actually disagreed with him on his content suggestions, I think I chose the right editor for this manuscript. Had I chosen a developmental editor… who knows? I may have found myself disagreeing a lot because I have a very specific vision for this story. It’s interesting that you mention developmental editors can get involved very early in the process – I certainly see the value in using a developmental editor if you’re just not sure if your story “has it.”

  2. Alan Rinzler

    Rob,

    In my experience it’s impossible for one person to do all of what you describe. Developmental editors don’t correct grammar or layout, but are concerned with content: character development, story, narrative voice and other aspects of literary art and craft. A good developmental editor, moreover, will not change or ignore the writer’s vision for the book.

    Copy editors come later to fix grammar, spelling, typos and formatting issues like spacing between words and lines.

    From your description, I’d say yours was a copy editor.

    Your comment underscores the importance of confirming in advance, a prospective editor’s experience and track record. I recommend a close read of my earlier post on evaluating and choosing your own developmental editor, which you can find at this link: http://www.alanrinzler.com/blog/2009/07/02/choosing-a-freelance-editor-what-you-need-to-know/

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  4. Rob Vitaro

    Alan, I agree, my editor is a copy editor, and again, I think he was the right choice for me for this book, so no regrets. But for future books (leap of faith there), I may want to try a developmental editor.

    By the way, your articles are all very insightful, thank you for posting them!

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  6. J

    Interesting. I graduated from a program that required students to form groups to edit each others’ works, in every class. I learned to edit for prose, content and copy. Upon graduating, I knew that I wanted to be an editor…only fully realizing then that I didn’t know what KIND of editor I wanted to be. I didn’t know that a developmental editor’s work is different from a prose editor’s work, and a prose editor from an acquisitions editor. I still have so much to learn. Thank you for introducing developmental editor to me!

  7. Alan Rinzler

    J,

    Glad to hear you’ve decided to be an editor. The program you graduated from seem to use different language than what I’m familiar with to describe the various types of editing. In my experience what is normally referred to as a developmental editor is one who works with prose and content. In this case, prose means the literary style and content means character development, story, structure, and other elements of art and craft.

    So it appears that you already knew about developmental editing, but by another name. Meanwhile, copy refers strictly to copy-editing, which corrects typos, spelling, grammar, and other mistakes.

  8. Mansu

    Thanks for this article. Alan I’m glad you listed the responsibilities of a Developmental Editor. What’s the best way to find a good Developmental Editor/Copyeditor. Right now, I’m looking for a proficient copyeditor. Btw I’m sharing a bonus/leftover story from my upcoming book B.A.Y. Vol. 1. This is “The Story Of The Would’ves. A family that breaks the 2012 World Record for thinking and not achieving. http://slidesha.re/MB8V2J

  9. Alan Rinzler

    Mansu,

    You can read my best advice for finding a good developmental editor by going to this link: http://www.alanrinzler.com/blog/2009/07/02/choosing-a-freelance-editor-what-you-need-to-know/.

    Copy editors can also be Googled online. A copy editor is usually the last person to check over the book for spelling, punctuation and typos. Stay tuned for a future post on copy editors, what they do, how to find a good one, and a few cautionary notes.

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  11. Maureen Ogle

    As I said in the acknowledgments of one of my books, editors are the people who prevent us from making fools of ourselves in public. I’ve been blessed with one superb editor after another — only one bad experience in four books and a fistful of articles, scholarly and otherwise. It’s worth it to publish “traditionally” if only to have access to a professional “developmental” editor. As far as I’m concerned, good editors can take over the universe. We’d all be happier.

  12. Claude Nougat

    Alan, this is excellent advice and I agree that all writers if they’re serious about their trade should use the services of a developmental editor. The difficulty of course is to find a good one. But I also think it makes a difference if you’re traditionally published or an indie.

    Let me explain. If you’re trad pubbed, then you’re not paying for your editor, the publisher pays. If you’re indie, the relationship is more direct: you pay for the editor. Now that can be a disadvantage in my opinion, because you pay the guy and he may not be as honest as he might be otherwise because he might want to keep his job with you. Whereas the ditor paid by the publisher owes allegiance to the publishing house and maintaining its reputation as a “gatekeeper” and not to you the writer. So he’s going to tell you exactly what’s wrong with your ms and how to improve it,it’s in his interest.

    For indies, it’s not so easy. The editor will be tempted to let go, to allow for mistakes and redundancies, lapses in plot and character etc. Because in the end, he’s not in this with you the way he would be if you had a contract with the publisher he works for…

  13. SM

    I could totally use a developmental editor. It’s discouraging to have no direction early on in a story. A question: If I hired a developmental editor (which I desperately need), would my big 6 editor be offended?

  14. Alan Rinzler

    Claude,

    Most traditional publishers don’t supply developmental editing these days, unfortunately, since they expect agents to send them a manuscript that’s ready for production. There are rare exceptions but the editor-in-chief of a major traditional publisher told me recently that his staff has no time or skill to do developmental editing. Those days are gone.

    Regarding independent editors who are hired by the author, their livelihoods depend on the success of their author clients, so it’s against their own interests to be anything but honest, tough and specific about what needs to be revised. As an independent consultant and developmental editor myself, I can tell you that it would be an unethical dereliction of duty for me to allow mistakes, redundancies, or lapses in plot and character.

    When choosing a developmental editor I recommend that writers use the same diligence they would to hire the best possible doctor, lawyer, accountant or other helping professional. Check their credentials, their track record of successful clients with whom they’ve worked, their traditional publishing employment history, and clarity of financial terms.

  15. Alan Rinzler

    SM,

    A Big-6 editor wouldn’t be offended if you hired your own developmental editor. Traditional publishers don’t want a manuscript that still needs work.

    They’re grateful that you’ve taken the care to work with a professional prior to submission. It shows your seriousness about your work and your willingness to make a financial commitment to submitting the best manuscript possible.

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  17. Carmen Anthony Fiore

    I guess I’m a hybrid editor. I help my clients with the development of their story and also point out grammar errors, etc., which I guess, is because I’m a writer first and an editor second. I seem to see the work from an editor and a writer’s standpoint. A literary blend of sorts. But I strongly advise any writer, new or experienced, to get an editor you trust and to let him/her help you make the book better. But remember, editors only suggest. You, the author have the final say. But choose wisely, the novel you are writing will depend on myriad choice decisions. That’s where editors can help. Use them. They are worth every penny. I may be a writer/editor, but I also have an editor who is my first reader, and she’s a real annoying nitpicker, and that’s what I want her to be, so I can “kill all my darlings” and make a better book a reality.

  18. Crispin

    Dear Alan,

    I have thoroughly enjoyed reading your blog. I found it while researching a post I’m doing on what it is editors do. Thank you for sharing this wealth of information. Please, I would like your permission to quote you and also link back to this page. The quote I’m interested in is, “virtually all successful writers – from Ernest Hemingway to Kathryn Stockett – have worked with a developmental editor. Often these editors worked for the publisher and had titles like senior editor, executive editor, editor-in-chief.”

    My thanks again,
    Crispin

  19. Alan Rinzler

    Crispin

    Yes of course, permission granted. I hope you’ll explain what developmental editors do, as well — how they often start with an author before a word is written, how they support, challenge, and sometimes suggest characters, stories ideas, structure; and how they also line-edit and even suggest new language for character development, dialogue, and other aspects of the literary style.

    I mention this because not everyone is aware about the differences between developmental editors and copy editors.

    Thanks,

    Alan

  20. Crispin

    Thanks a lot, Alan. You’re very gracious. I’ll be sure to include the explanation.

  21. Phyllis

    Someone asked me to do developmental editing on her book, involving rewriting the conclusion, adding transitions between paragraphs, and adding some content. I’m wondering if this is beyond the scope o developmental editing, and if she is responsible for the content. Should I have set better boundaries with her? Thank you.

  22. Phyllis

    I wanted to add that this was an academic paper for submission to a publisher.

  23. Alan Rinzler

    Phyllis,

    Since this is an academic paper, I’d recommend suggesting a new conclusion, transitions, and other content by supplying polish and suggested language that doesn’t, however, change the underlying research or scholarly assertions.

    Your job is to provide clarity and style, not to create original information of your own. If you’re concerned about her content, tell this author what you think she might need to check out, but don’t presume to be the responsible authority.

  24. Aurora

    The editor of the first draft of my memoir’s manuscript gave me a ten page report: I found approximately two pages to be insightful advice I’ve taken on board or found helpful in some respect. The other eight pages?

    -I specifically state the book is addressed to a female within the first few pages: he thought it was addressed to a male
    -’shock’ I suffered racism because I look more white
    -suggesting I only thought people had said racist things to me because I have a persecution complex
    -minutes after I gave him the manuscript he said some sentences were too long. In person, he told me he had no idea what I was talking about. When he gave me the report, he went back to the ‘your sentences are too long’ claim, without pointing to one example of where length compromised clarity.

    I do understand part of the problem might be that I’m in a foreign country where the whites don’t understand racism in America, but I think that underscores his inability to consider the realities of people different from him. Which is the whole point of book writing and reading, right?

    Moral of the story? Ask for references and works he’d edited that were published. I took him at face value because he was a former editor of a major major publishing house. I think I understand now why he left, and referred to the name of the company with an ethnic epithet. I can’t remember if I paid after or before the report, but I’d probably have not paid right away without voicing the offense I took. I actually doubt if he read the entire book, his understanding of certain aspects was SO poor.

    Needless to say, I tell everyone I can to never hire his services.

  25. Eva

    Hello, I have been reading a lot about this subject for the past few weeks and I am not sure what to do.
    I have a story to tell, a message to share. I have been trying to write my book for at least a year and I don’t seem to get it right. My problem is that I am not a native english speaker, my english is quite ok, but not to write a book. Some people would advise me to write it in my own language, but the fact is that I have been out of my country for so long, that sometimes words come to me in english, and I am also not a great writer in my own language. But I still have a book inside, a story to tell, a message to share… Where could I find a developmental editor who would assist me to the extend of redacting for me or correcting my redaction? I would appreciate your advice very much… Thank you!

  26. Alan Rinzler

    Eva,

    It’s not easy for even native English speakers to write a good book, so don’t be discouraged. Keep working at your language and literary skills. You can study creative writing at local adult education or university extension classes. You can read books written in English to get a sense of how to write in with the appropriate vernacular, grammar, slang, including dialogue, narrative, and visual description.

    Don’t be in too much of a hurry. Keep writing and then rewriting until you are further along in your literary skills. Then you can search for a developmental editor online.

    Good luck and keep writing.

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  31. Ani

    Dear Alan,

    I am writing to express appreciation and to ask a question (or a few).

    First, doing a search for “developmental editing” led me to this post. Your description of what to expect from a developmental editor is the most comprehensive (and inviting) I have yet read. I am not only more informed about the kinds of creative input available through developmental editing, I am also deeply inspired about such collaboration!

    I appreciate not only the whats you include, but also the hows of developmental editing as you describe them : “A good editor will enter the author’s universe.” Respect. Instruction.

    I thank you, Alan, for showing me what’s possible—what a highly-skilled, attuned developmental editor with great integrity can offer a writer.

    Here’s my question, preceded by some context:

    I have completed a literary, historical novel, The Tremble of Love, inspired by the life of an eighteenth century mystic, rabbi and healer known as the Baal Shem Tov. I have gone through many drafts and felt like I arrived at a final version. But I strongly suspect the book still has “issues” with narrative arc, number of characters, perhaps too many subplots, etc. that I need help identifying. I am ready and eager to work with a developmental editor in order to make the book the best version of itself it can be. In the meantime, (while raising the money to pay for editorial services), I have been studying elements of the novel and contemplating going back in to make improvements and tighten before handing over the novel to an editor. Would you recommend that? When do I engage the help of a developmental editor and get the most benefit from that engagement?

    What is arising from within me right now is maybe the answer to my question: I feel really ready to have some help with this novel. I am sure I could make some improvements, but also risk going in with a machete rather than entering the landscape of the book accompanied by the fine discernment a skilled fiction editor. I welcome your response to the question of when to invite help.

    Ah, one more question, Alan. My novel is very rooted in spiritual perspectives. It includes what some might call magical realism, and others, the transformation that Love brings about. Do I need to make sure (and how to know?) that a developmental editor, with whom I am considering working, does not (as one spiritual teacher describes it) have God-allergies, i.e., is open to spirituality? (Note: I am talking about spirituality not religion.)

    Thank you, Alan!

  32. Alan Rinzler

    Ani,

    The earlier you work with a developmental editor the better. Don’t wait to achieve a “perfect” manuscript before looking for professional feedback, since correcting a wrong turn early on can save a lot of time, energy, and money.

    The best way to get an editor who has no bias against spirituality or magic realism is to ask about it directly and also check out prior books edited to get a sense of where this candidate is coming from.

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  34. Mark s

    Alan

    I have a story that is roughly 50,000 words or 180 pages, I worked with an editor that worked on the copy and grammar. But I need to find someone that can further help with development and also reduce some redundancy. Can you refer me to some quality developmental editors and give me an give me an idea of the rates they charge?

  35. Alan Rinzler

    Mark,

    You can Google developmental editing and search online to find the best one for you. I also recommend reading through my many posts here on developmental editing including Choosing a Freelance Editor: What You Need to Know, and Ever Wonder What a Developmental Editor Could Do for You?

    As for rates, I don’t know what others do, but I’m a developmental editor who asks to see the manuscript first and then, having read it, provides an estimate of the cost. If you’re interested in my services, you’re welcome to send it to my email: alan@alanrinzler.com

    Alan

  36. Lori Robinson

    How do you actually find a good development editor. I need one yet when I google search no specific people come up. What do you suggest?
    Thanks.

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