04 February 2013

What is developmental editing?

The topic of developmental editing--what it is, why anyone in their right mind would pay for it, whether it's necessary--has come up several times in the last week or so in conversations I've had with various people, including a potential client, a small business coach, a fellow writer/editor, and a marketing specialist I met at a friend's birthday gathering.

In a July 2012 post about editing and proofreading I gave a very brief rundown of the three types of editing I do: developmental, line, and copy. But the conversations over this last week have led me to want to provide a more detailed description of developmental editing here.

What is developmental editing?
It's feedback on overarching issues such as (for a novel) external and internal conflict, the story's arc, pacing, character development, point of view, overall organization, etc. Some people bring in a developmental editor once they have a first draft. Others bring in a developmental editor earlier to help keep them motivated to write and to help them get unstuck when they run into problems.

A developmental editor not only articulates his/her impressions of the characters, plot, etc., but also helps the writer think through his/her choices in writing, what the advantages and disadvantages of each option are, and makes recommendations based on his/her understanding of the writer's vision for the work.

But it's not sentence-level stuff at this stage. It's not about word choice or flow. And it's definitely not about spelling, punctuation, or grammar.

Examples, please.
Okay, I'll give you two examples, but I need to be a little vague in order to protect my clients' identities and their work.

1) One of my clients is working on a novel. At one point during the developmental phase of the project I suggested that including a particular conflict between the two main characters would not only be a natural result of their dispositions and histories but would also add tension and give them an opportunity to grow closer by resolving the conflict together. She liked the idea and decided to go with it. So then I said, "When should X happen?" I laid out what I perceived to be the advantages and consequences of it happening over here vs. over there. She thought about it for a while and made her decision, and I made a note of her decision so I could track it in the next draft.

2) I did a sample edit for a potential new client and commented, among other things, on the point of view she'd chosen to use--first person narrator speaking directly to another character in the book--and what I perceived to be the advantages and disadvantages of that choice. And then I recommended that she keep the point of view but tweak a couple things to accommodate the audience she had in mind.

Is it really worth paying for?
Well of course I'm going to say yes. Yes! It's totally worth it!

BUT if you have someone in your life who has strong analytical and problem-solving skills, who has writing experience, is good at giving feedback in a productive (rather than purely critical) manner, and who is willing to provide you with developmental feedback when you need it for free, then definitely you should take it.

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