So many writers come to me confused about the term “developmental editing” and what it means. Part of this confusion comes from the fact that wherever you look, you’ll see it named and described differently. Some editors call it developmental editing, or dev editing for short. Others called it structural or story editing. Most editors who run their own businesses have their own preferences for how they name and describe their services. This can be confusing at times for authors.
So what is developmental editing in a nutshell?
Developmental editing is essentially a broader term, covering a range of different services and methods of working. 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.
Editors who offer “developmental editing” and describe it as such usually provide an editorial report along with direct notes in the manuscript.
The editorial report or editorial letter is a document detailing 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 quite comprehensive and detailed. So, for example, it may 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 may edit or rearrange sections of text. For example, to show the author how to improve pacing, and how these changes might be implemented.
Also known as a manuscript evaluation, appraisal, or critique.
This service is tricky to define, because editors provide it in different ways. The word critique tends to imply something shorter and less comprehensive (say, a page or two of feedback), whereas evaluations, assessments and appraisals may be just as in-depth as a full developmental edit. They may run much longer, although that isn’t a steadfast rule. What is provided here varies in terms of report length and the extent of the analysis.
With this service, the key element is that you 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, as I do, to help the author see where the feedback might be applied.
Alpha and beta reading
Many professional editors also offer alpha and beta reading as paid services. 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 professionally edited, and is due to be published. They are the “testers” of the product.
- Alpha reading involves feedback on rough drafts or first drafts, before professional editing has taken place.
Again, bear in mind that some editors and readers will define services 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 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 notable author who does this often.
Feedback varies. From your average reader, you might only get a few sentences of thoughts. 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. They’re providing a reaction to the author to allow them to gauge how well the book would do in the market, or whether it needs more work first. With alpha reading, you’ll get some feedback, since the draft will be raw and in need of reshaping, but it likely won’t be as comprehensive as a developmental edit or evaluation.
What type of developmental editing 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. If you aren’t confident enough to go full-throttle into a developmental edit just yet, alpha reading could be ideal as a starting point.
There’s no right or wrong way to go about this. I hope this has cleared up some of the confusion around these services, and the differences between the types of developmental editing available to you. Just make sure you work with an editor who suits you and your process, and you won’t go wrong.