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Developmental Editing

1: Introduction

What is Developmental Editing?

Developmental editing is also known as content or substantive editing and involves an assessment of how the ‘bigger picture’ works by analysing:

  • Story (dramatic) arc
  • Individual character arcs
  • Plot
  • Pacing
  • Themes
  • Characterisation
  • Narrative techniques
  • Balance (Show/tell, Narrative/Dialogue, Description/Action etc)

and will ask questions such as:

  • Does the novel work’?
  • Does it reach genre expectations?
  • Are there any plot holes or confusion?
  • Is the characterisation weak or do they jump off the page with life?

It also involves a basic level of fact checking for inconsistencies and inaccuracies:

  • Did a character drive off in a Renault but get out of a Peugeot? 
  • Did the MC have blonde hair in book one and turn brunette midway through book three?
  • Did the word ‘mate’ exist in the seventeenth century?

Some manuscripts are extremely rough and you will be looking for the potential within it and working with the author to bring that to the fore. If a story really doesn’t work then you need to assess why and provide advice on how the author can address this. Telling them to consign a story to the bin will not help them improve. Understanding why a story doesn’t work is far more proactive.

Developmental editing is the one level of editing where you may receive a first draft or just an outline if they are looking for advice prior to writing. I can also involve coaching and/or mentoring, depending on an author’s needs, and you should price these projects accordingly. It is rarely ‘one price fits all’. Each story (and author) comes with its own set of strengths and weaknesses.



What it is not

Developmental editing is not copy editing. The developmental editor is interested in the story as a whole, not if the use of the word ‘pedantic’ in paragraph three of page six if the right one for that sentence. You should also resist the temptation to rewrite the manuscript. Your role is to advise the author how to address the problems within the story, not rewrite it for them. There is a thin line between advising the author and taking over and they will not always heed your advice. That is their perogative. 

Roles: Overview

Ghost Writer:                    Writes for the client from a brief (or rough copy) but takes no credit for doing so.

Developmental Editor:    Assesses the bigger picture. Focus on how it is written and if it works.

Line/Copy Editor:             Focuses on the clarity of the text at a sentence level.

Proofreader:                     Checks formatting and locates typos and incorrect punctuation.

Acquisitions Editor:         Decision maker for publishing companies. Decides which books are purchased and which are not.

Skills required

  • Basic understanding of grammar (There will be occasions when you need to explain a grammar error to a client). 
  • Extensive Knowledge of writing techniques
  • The ability to turn observations into useful feedback
  • Familiarity with Word (Tracked changes/comments, in particular)
  • Knowledge of Chicago Manual of Style (US) and Harts Rules (UK)
  • Excellent communication skills
  • Organised
  • Tactful
  • Patient
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