Is a Developmental Editor Right for You?

editingAccording to Big Al’s Publishing Process Survey, only 45 of the 85 respondents paid to work with an editor, although another 17 traded services. There are a number of reasons, ranging from the artistic to the monetary, for deciding not to work with an editor. I’ve taken the other path and worked with at least one editor on every project I’ve published. It’s my single biggest publishing expense on each book, which, given my propensity for thrift, shows how much I value my editors’ feedback.

When writers do choose to employ a professional editor, they normally do it at the end of the process, either working with a copy editor or a proofreader. I do that as well, but I also work with a developmental editor often before I type the first words. I’ve talked about this with enough fellow writers to realize I probably lost a few of you right there:  The process of creation is sacrosanct. I just want an editor to clean up my grammar and look for a few bad habits. I don’t want them to interfere with my creative vision.

I get that. I really do. That said, my thought processes run a little differently. I am willing to listen to input at every step in the process because every decision I make while writing comes down to one thing: I want to make the reader’s experience the best I can, every single time.

Here’s an example of a recent interaction I had with a developmental editor. In December, I was wrapping up the finale of a five-part serial that I had written over the course of a year. I wanted it done before the end of the year, so I knew I had to focus. As the 25,000 word wrap-up to a romantic serial, I knew the finale was going to center around a wedding. In fact, I decided to throw in a bonus second wedding for another couple.

I drew up a series of beats, laying out a sentence or two for each scene I envisioned. If I hadn’t been working with a developmental editor, I would have started writing at that point. Instead, I shipped my outline off to my developmental editor for feedback. I have worked with this editor on close to a dozen projects, dating from my first book (published in 2012), and we have come to a tacit agreement: he will give me his full, unvarnished opinion about things, and I won’t get offended. It works for us.

In this case, his reaction was along these lines: “Oh, I thought this was going to be called Second Chance Wedding. This reads much more like Second Chance Wedding Planning. Where’s the conflict?” Of course, he was right. I had grown so attached to my characters that I didn’t want them to have any more horrible experiences, so I had planned them a 25,000-word waltz toward the sunset. How boring.

Would I have figured this out for myself and fixed it? Probably, eventually, but getting the truth right between the eyes in the planning stage made the process much less painful. I was able to move a few scenes around, reintroduce a character that had disappeared, and generate life-altering conflict. When I got to the denouement at the end of the novella, it felt earned, not perfunctory. I made my deadline, barely, publishing the story on New Year’s Eve. Without my editor’s wise counsel at the beginning, I would have thrashed around for many extra days. I never would have met the publication schedule I had set out a year earlier.

Does my developmental editor tell me what to write? No, although sometimes he weighs in on that as well. My current work–in-progress is a story that he advised me not to write. Once I told him I was committed to writing it anyway, he said, “Then I will help you make it the best I possibly can.” And he will. By the way, his objections to my original idea were valid. I thought about them for several months before I started this new book, and the story took a new and better direction because of his input.

I understand that working with a developmental editor isn’t for everyone, but it serves my needs. I have a collaborative personality. I enjoy working together on projects, even something as personal as one of my books. Developmental editing can be expensive, but because I commit to my editor again as soon as I have completed the last project, he includes the developmental editing as a value-added service. I feel fortunate to have found my editor so early in my writing career. We often disagree, but we both have the same focus — to create the best story we can.

Author: Shawn Inmon

Shawn Inmon hails from Mossyrock, Washington — the setting for his first two full-length books, Feels Like the First Time and Both Sides Now. His newest release is Rock ‘n Roll Heaven. By day he works in real estate with a side of public speaking. Learn more about Shawn on Facebook or his Author Central page

35 thoughts on “Is a Developmental Editor Right for You?”

  1. Very interesting, Shawn. While they are not as incisive or focused as your editor I use another writer friend and my critique group in much the same way. I’m sure it’s not quite as effective but on occasion their feedback has helped fill some gaps and let me know when I needed more tension.

    1. I think that’s a more normal method, Yvonne. I like to use my betas for this as well. In fact, in my current WIP, I started the story in 2015, skipped back to 1976, then made two more jumps forward and backward in time. One of my writer friends who betas for me asked: Why not just tell it chronologically? The answer was not a very good one: Because this is how the story occurred to me. In the end, I switched things around to chronological and it worked much better. I really do enjoy the collaborative give and take,

  2. Like most other aspects of writing, you have to LEARN story structure – it’s not something anyone is born knowing! For a novice writer whose understanding of structure is incomplete, running the plot by someone with a better understanding of structure can be intensely useful. And for writers, the “novice period” is generally considered the first million words or so of finished fiction.

    But the more experienced you become, the less valuable you will find such help. Eventually the developmental editor simply cannot help anymore at all, because the writer has enough experience in understanding structure that the developmental editor is no adding to the process. Eventually, even outlines and beats cease to have value for the experienced writer – an understanding of story structure is so deep in their creative bones that they no longer require those training wheels.

    But for novices? Yes, I think much can be learned by having someone else – ideally someone who understands story well, like an experienced writer or some well trained editors, look over the structure.

      1. And I think I insulted you by accident, Shawn. Sorry! Writing is an odd art. In most arts, people are more or less unable to be professionals until they get past the novice level. In writing, most traditionally published books (and these days indie books as well) are written by novices – which is why editing is often a crucial part of the publishing process.

        Think about it. If the “million word” mark is the point old guard publishing pros consider writers graduating from novice to journeyman (mastery tending to happen many words later still), how many writers actually reach that number? Ever? Almost all writers stop writing long before they leave the novice stage.

        Chat with writers who have scores of published books under their belts, and you’ll see that there’s a lot less editing of any sort going on. It’s simply no longer required, or helpful.

        so there’s nothing wrong with using a developmental editor. But it’s important to recognize that it IS a training wheel, and to aspire toward the day the training wheels come off.

        1. I dunno, Kevin, I can’t really agree with all of that. Writers can get so deep into an idea and so married to it that they sometimes can’t see on their own that it just doesn’t work. I think that can happen at any level – novice, pro, whatever. Everyone is different, and with different writing and thought processes. I think in Shawn’s case, it helps to speed up his process to have someone involved from the very beginning. I can definitely see the benefit of that.

  3. Thank for the shout out, Shawn. 🙂

    I know less about this subject than anyone who has commented (probably anyone who will, too). I mentioned when talking about this in my post that I was actually surprised at the percentage of those who took the survey who used a developmental editor. Few of the authors I’m familiar with do. But both you and Kevin make a good case for it.

    1. Another question I’d be interested in is, “How many writers tend to use the same editor over and over?” I think that people who do might be more likely to develop a comfort zone and take a more collaborative approach. If I was working with a different editor each time, I would almost certainly not do this.

      BTW… it was your survey that got me thinking about all this, Al, so I had to give you a shout. 🙂

  4. Shawn, this is a fascinating idea. I never would have even thought about doing this. Although it’s not something I think I would do as a writer, I can certainly see the advantages. Conversely, I am doing something similar for an editing client. Her book is in a very early stage and we have been able to play around with sequence and flow. I enjoy the brainstorming–what if we do this? Change that? It is fun to explore ideas together, and I know we’ll make the book the best it can be. Thanks for a very thought-provoking post.

    1. You’ve got it exactly right, Melissa. It’s that give and take (which I also engage in with my wife as I am writing) that can sometimes lead you down some very interesting paths.

  5. I work with a developmental editing team once I have a working full draft. They read as a team, and combine notes into a coherent report that touches on character development, plot points, voice and POV notes, as well as a general sense of reader enjoyment. They each bring different, complimentary strengths and perspectives to the read, and I always walk away knowing exactly how to attack the rewrite. I also pay a copy editor/proofreader to work on the final version prior to publication. Like you, editing is my single largest expense on any book project.

    1. Wow, that sounds like what I do, but on steroids! Very cool. I would bet that gives you incredible feedback and eliminates so many potential errors in the early stages. Very cool.

  6. I think the chance to collaborate with a good developmental editor is one of the major reasons I sometimes fantasize about going traditional — except that, having worked in publishing, I know that once I find one she’s likely to disappear at any moment. (Also, I’ve been very lucky in my tough beta readers, so that need is being met, for the most part.) It’s heartening to hear that you have found someone outside of that structure. It’s also heartening because I have begun to do some developmental editing myself, if only because the author was persistent, willing to pay more than I can afford to turn down, and pleasant to work with. What’s clear here is that you’re also an excellent client. While it IS very rewarding to developmental-edit when an author actually values your feedback and tells you the work has improved because of it, that can be a lot rarer than you might think. Speaking as a former acquisitions editor and a current composition professor, it’s not at all rewarding to dive in, do the work, frame it as positively as you can, and then watch the writer stubbornly ignore (or argue) everything but the copy edits — and sometimes even those!

    1. I feel lucky to have this relationship with my editor, but I admit it has come about over time. On my first book, my current editor served as the proofreader. On my second, as the line editor. Since then, our working relationship has just evolved to a point where he has a great feel for my strengths and weaknesses. I think I would be crazy to pay him for his educated opinion and then ignore it! Still, I’ve seen authors do it first hand.

      I think that one of the great advantages of being indie is what you refer to – being able to build and keep a team together. In addition to my editor, I’ve used the same cover artist on every project. It would be unlikely I would be able to find that type of long-term continuity with a Trad publisher.

      Thanks for commenting!

      1. Not only does it give you that chance to build a team long term, it also gives you the option to ignore their advice. 🙂

        1. Which I do, sometimes! As I mentioned in the post, my editor recommended against writing my WIP. Since it *is* my WIP, I obviously did not take that advice. However, I did take some serious time and consider what his objections were and make major revisions (again, before I started writing) to the concept. That meets my goal of making the book better.

  7. Interesting process, Shawn, thank you. It’s fascinating how we all go about this a little differently. I only seek plot input at this early stage when I’m collaborating with a freelance client. For my own work, I seek input chapter by chapter from my critique group, usually after the first draft, but sometimes during the early writing. They’ve helped me from drifting too far afield and also pointed out bad habits (I tend to overwrite in early drafts) and if character motivation is clear. For the “content” edit, I rely on WONDERFUL beta readers to help me shake out plot problems or anything else that falls with a clunk.

  8. Shawn, I self-published my debut novel last year, and without the help of both a macro editor and a copy editor, my book would not have been nearly as well received. When I gave my manuscript to my macro editor, I had a number of questions in mind. Does my story work? How’s the pacing? Is the protagonist someone you could root for? And since my story is genre bending, are all the elements working?

    My critique group had seen my novel, chapter by chapter, but I needed someone to look at it completely objectively, and to read it from start to finish in one go.

    It was scary, giving my baby to someone I didn’t know. But in the end, it proved invaluable. Expensive but so worth it. She gave me great notes. I ended moving around a chapter or two, deleting one, adding another, and also deleting about 10,000 words. And then it went to a copy editor, after which, I must’ve proofread it five times as well.
    I figured, since I didn’t have a traditional publisher, I better do the best I could in getting my book out there so that it could measure up to the others on the shelves.

    Whether I’ll do it again with my next two, which are basically done, is another story. I’ve learned tons from this process, and I know it’s helped my writing immeasurably.

    1. I share that commitment to doing whatever is in my power to create a book that is as close to indistinguishable from a Trad book as I can make it. I feel like I owe that both to myself and my readers. Glad it’s working for you as well!

  9. When I’m in the throes of creation, nothing can stop me. If it does, then I can get hung up and lose my vision for the story. Therefore, I “spew from the heart” and worry about cleaning up the manuscript when I’m finished. After my first edit/trim, I give the draft to three trusted betas. Then I revise the book several more times, covering a different aspect of writing during each go-through. Off it goes to my “proofreader.” I make final corrections, read on my Kindle previewer, and I’m done.

    My work methods would not mesh with having a “content editor”!

    1. And that’s what I love about the creative process – each of us gets to find what works for us. When I used the “creative spew” method on my first book, I ended up with a 120,000 word manuscript that eventually became a 72,000 word book. That didn’t work so well for me. 🙂

  10. I found my critique group to be incredibly helpful. We did chapter by chapter, and when done I was able to move things around with a final edit.
    Please give a ball part figure for developmental editor’s fee, initially and in later stages.

    1. Unfortunately, this is one of those “how wet is the ocean?” kind of questions. For my editor, because I have a long term relationship with him, he doesn’t charge me for the developmental work, with the assumption that I will be retaining him to do the copy editing as well.

      I’ve seen developmental editing that runs from a few hundred dollars to several multiples of that and on up. Hope that helps.

  11. It’s interesting to see how different authors approach it. 🙂

    My process is to write a beats outline, and write the book more or less to the outline. I sometimes bounce preliminary ideas off my editors/betas, and I’ll muse on (virtual) paper before I start writing the beats. But that’s pretty much it for developmental work. But everybody’s different. 🙂

    As for that million-word journeyman stage: Just for fun, I did the math. At 55K words per book, give or take, it would take about 18 books to hit the million-word mark. I’m currently working on my 12th and 13th novels (yes, together, because I’m a glutton for punishment). If you count all the other stuff I’ve written — the fiction I wrote as a kid, the dystopian sci-fi novel I wrote for grad school, the epic fantasy I wrote before grad school, and all the short fiction I’ve cranked out over the years, I figure I’m probably working on my second million words by now. 😉

    1. Congrats, Lynne! I think I am only about halfway there. I definitely know I am still progressing, because I learn so much from book to book. I anticipate that this progress will never stop, but will slow eventually, as I knock the larger chunks of imperfections off my writing style.

      I agree it’s fun to see what everyone else does. I never think my way is the only way, just the way that is working best for me at the moment, subject to change. 🙂

      1. Rest assured, Shawn, I’ll never stop learning how to do this. It seems like every new project requires me to try something I’ve never done before. 🙂

  12. I’ve never worked with any kind of editor on my books. I supposed I would if I had a traditional publisher, but I’d be super annoying and fight against every change. But I keep seeing this advice being offered to indies along with a number of success stories, so maybe it’s a good thing for less crazy people. Thanks for sharing.

    1. It’s the beauty of indie publishing – we all get to make our own decisions about these things. This is what is telling for me, though – 18 months after I published my second book, I went back and looked at the MS I turned in for editing, then compared a few sections to the finished product. Even though I had worked and polished that book to the best of my ability at the time, I would be embarrassed if that version had gone out into the world. It was clunky, repetitive, and overly wordy. That may just mean that I am still a writer in progress (which I fully admit) but it also means that I am thrilled that I used an editor to make it better.

  13. Food for thought. Thank you. My writer’s co-op colleagues do this for me. But my first ‘This is the plan’ is never ever the final novel. Often all I plan is never used! It would be nice to be able to plan and write and not have to launch into the unknown. I need an editor after first draft.

  14. Mmm… this is like walking a mile in someone else’s shoes!

    I’m a pantster so I can’t toss ideas around with other people, especially early on, because they’re just not there yet. In fact, I find it hard to even talk about a WIP because I need the direction to remain fluid, and sharing it too soon tends to set it in concrete.

    Once I have the first draft done, however, I definitely need the help of kindly betas to find the holes I can’t see. That, in turn, sometimes leads to a complete restructuring of the story.

    Thanks for showing how the other side lives. 🙂

  15. The way you describe working with your developmental editor sounds to me more like joint authorship. Perhaps he or she should get a by-line as such for everything you publish. OK, as secondary author if you’ve done most of the work, but that sort of creative input deserves a very public share of the credit. Perhaps also a share of the royalties, or is that talking heresy? 🙂

  16. Thank you for this insight, Kevin. Although I am a freelance editor (writer, tutor, blogger etc), I have a brilliant editor for my writing.

    Most of the authors I work with are indies and as you say, it’s their biggest expense which I’m only too aware of so keep my prices very competitive. Some are reluctant to make that leap so I offer a free (1,000-word) sample – every editor should to potential clients – and have had very few authors who haven’t then gone on to trust their manuscript with me. Almost every one has said afterwards that I’ve picked up on things they’d not noticed, despite having gone through the m/s over and over. We are always too close to our writing to spot everything – hence me having my own editor – and while readers will forgive one or two mistakes, any more than that and they’ll probably stop reading.

    It’s not just about having corrections made, but another pair of trusted eyes will come up with suggestions we wouldn’t have thought about, as yours did with you. Whether we agree with everything is unlikely – I always say to my clients that it’s just my opinion and experience – but a professional guiding hand is, as one of my clients said, “worth every penny”.

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