Content editing, also known as developmental editing or substantive editing, is one of the first and most essential parts of the book editing and publishing process. Name a successful author and you’ll find at least one stellar content editor who invested themselves in that author’s manuscript along the way. In the past, these editors almost exclusively worked on staff at publishing houses under a variety of titles; these days, many authors, especially newer writers and those who publish independently, are able to take advantage of the same support on a freelance basis.
Many people hear “editing” and think of spelling and grammar—but these and similar technical issues are addressed through copyediting and proofreading. Developmental editing focuses on the deeper, more substantive challenges a manuscript faces. For a novel or memoir, these issues may include:
- plot structure and development
- use of conflict and tension
- use of dialogue
- writing style
For a work of prescriptive nonfiction, these issues may include:
- structure and organization
- established authority
- use of special features (exercises, anecdotes, etc.)
- marketing and categorization
Why Content Editing Is Important
Content editing helps ensure your manuscript is as strong as it can be, that it is achieving its fullest potential. Writing the first draft is, of course, the first step toward your goal of becoming an author, but no author, aspiring or otherwise, gets it right the first time. And no author can see their own work exactly as a reader would—with no sense of authorial intent—to spot writing that isn’t clear, or characterization that doesn’t feel authentic, or persuasive text that doesn’t persuade. That’s why authors need feedback on the creative elements of their work every bit as much as the technical elements.
Feedback can come from any number of sources, including writing workshops and beta readers. But a professional developmental editor can provide feedback on a far superior level. It’s a special, collaborative relationship with one shared goal between you: to bring your manuscript up to industry standards so it can effectively compete for readers’ attention and hard-earned dollars. A developmental editor does this by telling you not only what is and is not working in your manuscript, but also why something isn’t working, and perhaps most importantly, how to fix it.
How Developmental Editing Works
Most developmental editors can provide different options depending on the level of feedback an author wants and needs. The most common is a developmental edit. At the Writer’s Ally we refer to the Developmental Edit as a DE. A typical DE includes:
- a thorough, intensive read of the manuscript
- a markup of the manuscript
- a detailed, in-depth editorial letter
- a follow-up phone conversation or other such communication
The markup includes notes throughout the margins of the manuscript noting any and all developmental issues exactly where they appear, as well as noting where your writing is particularly strong so you can do more of what’s working well. The editorial letter goes into greater depth on the manuscript’s more significant weaknesses and gives context to the in-line comments. Any follow-up communication—a phone call is our preferred method—is designed to ensure the author is as clear as possible on the feedback and the ideal next steps for their work.
Other Types of Developmental Feedback
Authors who opt for a less in-depth treatment can receive limited developmental feedback through an assessment service. Assessments typically don’t include an editorial markup, but will include a written report addressing developmental issues.
At The Writer’s Ally, we have two assessment-based services: the Manuscript Consultation (MSC), which includes a detailed report of 12-14 pages, and the Manuscript Evaluation (MSE), which includes a shorter report of 4-6 pages along with an academic-style letter grade. Both services include follow-up phone calls.
These assessment services are most useful for authors who have already undergone a developmental edit and are coming back for the second round of feedback, those who have a very rough draft and would prefer some input on direction at an earlier stage, or, in the case of the MSE in particular, those who are seeking a “green light” or otherwise limited professional feedback before self-publishing or submitting to agents or publishers.
The Right Time
Developmental editing should always occur before copyediting. It’s important to resolve the manuscript’s creative issues before resolving any technical issues from a logical perspective, but also this process is simply more efficient. If the developmental edit, for example, prompts you to rewrite one of your chapters, then a copyedit of the previous version of that chapter will have been a waste of your time and money. So while you definitely want the manuscript you publish, or submit to agents and publishers, to be clean of spelling and grammatical issues, it’s not necessary or advisable to perform editorial steps simultaneously.
Authors may choose to bring in a developmental editor when they’re stuck—when, after a long period of working on their manuscript, they don’t know how to proceed. Often, these authors know the manuscript isn’t achieving their vision, but aren’t certain why or what to do about it. Other authors seek feedback almost immediately after they complete their draft. Still others prefer to wait until nearly the end of a lengthy but private revision process, when they feel confident in their work but want to really up their game. Each of these approaches has value; just be sure you’re not letting fear of negative feedback keep you from moving forward. If there are problems at work in your manuscript, it’s better to know sooner than later.
The Right Developmental Editor
Choosing the best editor for you and your project can be difficult given the sheer number of options out there. It’s important to do your research so you find someone experienced not only in developmental editing, but also specifically in editing manuscripts like yours. An editor whose primary focus is young adult fantasy may not be effective in providing feedback on your guide to health and fitness; an editor of memoirs may be less than helpful with your spy thriller. Consider your editor’s background and history of published books. Seek testimonials from past clients.
Some would suggest asking your prospective editor to provide a sample edit, but in a developmental context, seeing comments on just a few pages is not as informative as you might hope. The writing in those opening pages may not be representative of your entire draft; comments on plot, character, or theme development are necessarily stunted without knowledge of how your story will progress. Besides, time devoted to sample edits is time removed from existing clients, and a busy developmental editor probably doesn’t have the time to spare. There is no better indication of an editor’s ability than their résumé and the positive feedback of their clients.
How Much Does a Developmental Edit Cost?
The financial investment for developmental editing is a labor-intensive, skill-based service typically based on word count, so the longer the manuscript, the greater the investment. The reason is simple: More words means more work for your editor. Altogether, the investment for developmental editing is more substantial than for an assessment service, but it’s important to measure this against what you get out of it. A developmental edit at its best (and the way we do it at the Writer’s Ally) is like taking a one-on-one course in writing. It’s a collaboration that teaches you how to improve your current book draft and will guide you in developing yourself as an author, honing your skillset so you can begin your next book an even higher level.
So the investment applies not simply to dollar amount, but also to your investment in your work and your writing career. If you want to be a successfully published author and not just a hobbyist, there are few wiser investments than in developmental editing.