Developmental Editing: Preparing Your Manuscript for Big-Picture Changes

The novel writing process is often glamorized as this idyllic scene where the writer’s imagination flows freely onto the page—without any need for red pens or revision.

While flow states do happen, the words you write in your first draft are seldom what readers see when they pick up your book. It’s normal for novels—even the ones that make that coveted best-sellers list—to go through several stages of editing, each one serving a unique purpose. Developmental editing is a critical stage in the process.

Editing may be associated with grammatical errors and spelling mishaps, but that level of tweaking is just the icing on the cake. Before you even think about polishing your wording and perfecting punctuation, your manuscript must go through its first major transformation: developmental editing.

What is Developmental Editing?

Developmental editing (also referred to as content, substantive or structural editing) is an extensive review of your manuscript. They’re usually completed by a professional developmental editor who looks past surface-level errors and focuses on:

  • Structure
  • Plot
  • Pacing
  • Characters
  • Theme
  • Concept
  • Organization

The goal of developmental editing is to make sure your story serves a clear purpose to your readers as well as meets the conventions of the genre you’re writing for. It also helps ensure that every element is unified and works together to form a cohesive whole.

For example, a dev editor may point out major plot holes or character inconsistencies that could distract from the narrative. They might also suggest ways to make a story arc more dynamic, such as adding new scenes or fleshing out existing ones.

Developmental editing is an invaluable tool for fiction and non-fiction authors alike. Even academic papers and memoirs benefit from a big-picture review of their contents. In essence, it’s a crucial step toward turning your first draft into something publishable—a step that should not be skipped.

When Should You Do a Developmental Edit?

Once you’ve completed your first draft and you’ve revised it to the best of your ability, it’s time to bring in a professional dev editor.

There’s no perfect timing for this—it depends on your specific goals. However, it’s generally best to review the big picture before investing too much time (and money) in copyediting or proofreading. After all, you could spend hours tweaking one sentence only to realize that it needs to be completely rewritten for the sake of clarity.

Plan on starting the development editing process early so that you have plenty of time to make the necessary changes before your book hits the shelves.

How Long Does a Developmental Edit Take?

Easily the most intense stage of editing, dev edits typically involve several rounds of back-and-forth communication between the author and the editor. This means that the entire process can take several weeks, or even several months, depending on the length of your manuscript and the changes needed.

If you’re not sure you’re ready to dive into this process, here are a few signs that indicate it’s time to start looking for a dev editor:

  • You’ve done several rounds of self-editing.
  • You feel like the plot isn’t quite there yet.
  • You feel like characters need more depth and complexity.
  • You’re struggling to tie the plot together.
  • You feel like something is missing, but you can’t put your finger on it.

Developmental editing is a long and arduous process, but with the right editor, you’ll come out of it with a manuscript that’s ready for readers. Investing in this level of review now will make all the difference when it’s time to publish.

How to Prep for a Development Edit

Now that you’re familiar with the ins and outs of dev edits, it’s time to get your manuscript ready for review. Here are a few tips to ensure you’re putting your best foot forward.

Ask Yourself the Big Questions

Self-editing is tough. But it’s a crucial prerequisite for dev edits. Before you hand your manuscript over to an editor, sit down and ask yourself the tough questions:

  • Is my story organized in a way that makes sense?
  • Are my characters believable and sufficiently developed?
  • Does every chapter move the plot forward?
  • Are there any obvious plot holes?
  • Is the overall theme and concept clear?

You may not have all the answers yet, but taking stock of the big picture will help you and your editor identify potential problem areas.

Make a Backup Copy

Keeping backup copies of your manuscript during every editing stage is crucial. Being able to compare your original version with the edited one will help you recognize the changes that have been made as well as spot any inconsistencies that may have slipped through the cracks. It also ensures that you don’t lose any of your hard work in case of a technical glitch or emergency.

Plus, any edits your dev editor makes are merely their own suggestions. As the author, you have the final decision on what stays in your story and what goes. Having easy access to the original draft will make it easier for you to decide which changes should be included in the finished product.

Find an Editor You Trust

Your relationship with your dev editor is one of the most important ones you’ll have during the entire publishing process. After all, they’ll be reviewing and suggesting changes to one of your most beloved projects, and you need to trust that they understand your authentic voice and what makes your story unique.

For more on searching for an editor that’s perfect for you and your story, take a look at these articles from Writer Unboxed and this panel.

If you’re on the hunt for a dev editor, PDHines offers strategic, in-depth editorial analysis for busy professionals trying to bring their creative projects to life. I work with both fiction and nonfiction authors on all stages of the writing and publishing process to ensure the right pacing, structure, and clarity needed to engage readers.

Click here to learn more.


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Story Coach, Story Development

I’m Pam, Your Story Coach

I help busy professionals write and polish the book of their dreams. Let’s bring authenticity to your speculations, flow to your structure, and heart to your words.

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