The term “developmental editing” can cause a lot of confusion, because what exactly does it mean? Part of this confusion comes from the fact that wherever you look, you’ll see it described differently. Some editors call it developmental editing, or dev editing for short. Others called it structural or story editing. Freelance editors have their own preferences for what they call it, too.
What is developmental editing in a nutshell?
Developmental editing is a broad term, covering a range of different methods of working on a manuscript. But all developmental editing addresses the same thing: bigger-picture problems. This can involves things like structure, plot, characterisation, world-building, stakes, conflict, and so on, depending on what the editor feels needs to be addressed, and what the author wants to focus on.
What different types are there?
Also known as story editing, structural editing, or substantive editing.
Freelance editors who offer “developmental editing” usually provide an editorial report along with direct notes in a manuscript.
The editorial report or editorial letter is a document on the project’s strengths and weaknesses at a wider level. It also includes suggested solutions. It varies in length depending on the editor, but it’s usually really comprehensive and detailed. For example, it might draw attention to a lack of rising conflict and stakes, and how the author can build more tension into the narrative.
The in-manuscript notes usually take the form of comment bubbles within the document, highlighting specific areas of text. This allows the writer to see first-hand examples of anything outlined in the editorial letter.
Some developmental editors might edit or rearrange sections of text. For example, to show the author how to improve pacing, and how these changes might be implemented.
This method of working is used at some publishing houses too when the author is revising a book.
Also known as a manuscript evaluation or critique.
This one is tricky to define, because freelance editors provide it in different ways. The word critique tends to imply something shorter and less comprehensive (a page or two of feedback), whereas evaluations/assessments can be just as in-depth as a full developmental edit. They may run much longer, although that isn’t a rule.
The key element is that you normally only receive the editorial report, without any in-manuscript highlights. Some editors may include a limited number of examples pulled from the text in the editorial report itself to help the author see where the feedback might be applied.
A literary agent or publisher might provide this type of developmental help to their authors.
Alpha and beta reading
It isn’t really a developmental “edit”, but I wanted to include it here anyway. These two terms themselves often cause confusion, so let me clear up what they mean:
- Beta reading is provided for work that has already been revised and edited, and is due to be published. Beta readers are the “testers” of the product.
- Alpha reading involves feedback on rough drafts or first drafts, before editing has taken place.
Again, bear in mind that some readers will define these differently.
Beta reading usually happens when the manuscript is close to being ready for publication, and the author wants to test reader reactions and responses. The reader should ideally be familiar with the genre, as they represent the target audience.
Alpha reading, on the other hand, is for work at a very early, raw stage, and can be performed by critique partners, or by industry pros such as agents. Alpha and beta reading is often performed for free by readers and writers online who love to devour books. But quite often, this can lead to the author not getting any feedback at all, which is why some freelance editors offer it as a paid-for service. Many authors will also pay their readership to perform alpha or beta reading. Brandon Sanderson is one well-known author who does this often.
The type of feedback varies. From your average reader, you might only get a few sentences or a couple of paragraphs of thoughts. Freelance editors usually offer something a little more detailed, such as a page or two of feedback. Editors usually won’t focus on solutions when beta reading, though. They’re providing a reaction to the author to allow them to gauge how well the book would do, or whether it needs more work.
What type of developmental edit do you need?
The type of developmental editing you choose is entirely up to you. It depends on where you are in your writing and publishing journey, and your needs. Some writers prefer a more hands-on developmental edit, where the editor highlights areas of the manuscript, or even makes structural changes. Others prefer an approach that allows them to be in the driving seat, so might only want an editorial report.
There’s no right or wrong way to go about this. I hope this has cleared up some of the confusion around this type of editing. Just make sure you work with someone who suits you and your process, and you won’t go wrong.
Looking for an editor to give you developmental feedback so you can improve your novel? Feel free to contact me about your project!