There are two kinds of editing in this world: copy editing and developmental editing (the kind that most people don’t talk about). For the copy editor, the mechanics of punctuation, grammar, and spelling are what matter—and any writer worth their salt knows those are key to a final draft. For the developmental editor, however, it’s the mechanics of the book as a whole that matter. And overlooking those can have far-reaching consequences.
“A developmental editor is someone who can take a ‘helicopter’ view of your entire piece of writing and give you a specific sense of what’s working, what’s not, and in some cases come up with solutions,” says Strawberry Saroyan, book consultant and author of the memoir Girl Walks into a Bar. As writer with 20 years of experience, who’s published in Vogue, Zyzzyva, and The Believer, she knows a thing or two about the writing process.
Which is not to say that you do not. But writers often struggle with keeping perspective on their own work; they’re too close to it to know what does or doesn’t work for another reader. Writers unconsciously fill in the narrative gaps with their own knowledge of the book. They can be enthralled with their subject, without considering general interest. This can apply to fiction and non-fiction writers. As Sarah Saffian, a developmental editor who specializes in memoirs, told me:
“The biggest issue is answering the pesky but crucial ‘who cares?’ question. But I think that applies in any genre—fiction, non-personal non-fiction, etc. It’s important for authors to keep in mind that profound and meaningful to them doesn’t automatically mean profound and meaningful to their readers.”
For some writers, it can be daunting to put their literary baby in front of someone for ideas as subjective—and fundamental—as plot and character development. Unlike with punctuation, there is no objective authority on how a book should work. But professional developmental editors work at a remove, which makes them better suited to giving you an honest opinion than, say, your spouse, best friend, or even a fellow writer. Also, you pay them, so they’re incentivized to get it done. They’re not like a book critic, looking to espouse their own opinions for public consumption. A developmental editor is a personal story analyst for you.
Talk to enough developmental editors and you’ll hear the same phrase repeated: It’s about showing the writer what works. As Saffian says, it’s not about rewriting; instead “the idea is so that the author herself can come up, with guidance, with how to make it better, in her own voice.” Since most developmental editors are also writers, they have a keen respect for the writer’s voice.
So, if that’s what a developmental editor does, so how do you go about getting one and making sure you’ll be happy with him or her?
There are plenty of resources out there, among them Blurb’s Dream Team. The Alliance of Independent Authors has a number of listings as well, as does the Editorial Freelancer’s Association. They key is getting someone with a good reputation that has experience in your genre or area of expertise.
Publishing consultant Kim Bookless told our own Forrest Bryantthat a manuscript evaluation is a crucial first step to finding out if a developmental editor understands you and your book. If you think they do, you can engage them for more in-depth developmental editing.
So, when do you take on a developmental editor? It depends a bit on where your own strengths lie. Saroyan suggests that any time a writer gets stuck, is the time.
“If someone needs a developmental editor after they’ve had a great kernel of an idea —that’s all—then that’s the time to hire someone on this particular project. In such a case, the job might just take a few hours. On the other hand, it could be time to hire a developmental editor when a client actually thinks they’re done—but wants a new pair of eyes on the project.”
For an author of non-fiction, that might be early on. According toBookless, the developmental editor will take a look at the thesis and make sure it’s sound. It’s important that non-fiction starts with a solid premise as this directs a lot of the research and fact finding. Fiction editors may be among the ones that come later in the game, when they’re looking at the whole narrative for consistency and development. But just as with writing, there are no rules here. A lot of fiction writers have great ideas, but need a little help on their story arc or character development.
Whatever it is, it’s an investment well worth making. Your book’s reputation depends on it. As Bookless advises: “These days it’s easy for readers to share their bad impressions of a book online, and bad reviews don’t go away.” Investing a little up front, to give your book the development work it needs, can go along way to helping make sure those reviews come out right.