Professional editors advise writers to have their books edited. In fact, just about everybody in the industry will tell you an outside edit is essential, no matter how experienced you are. It’s not news that editing is needed to make a good book, one which sells instead of languishes on Amazon or in the publisher’s warehouse. Or in your hallway, if you’ve ordered your own pre-printed books.
What might come as news is when editing is needed, and what kind of editing comes first. Copy editing (sometimes called line editing) is not the first step to a better book. Developmental editing leads the parade to publication. Sometimes it’s called structural editing because the focus of developmental editing is the order of story in the book, as well as what it contains.
Characters are often developed as a book is written, but thinking about who’s in the story and why is a serious advantage to an author. It might seem like time better spent creating a draft. But character selection and development is crucial to keeping your creation time to a draft as short as is needed. Nobody wants to labor over and over to polish up and flesh out characters who will drop out, or end up being bit players in your story.
Developmental editing is as essential as developing photo film for pictures. Yes, taking pictures now requires no film. But photography has changed. Storytelling has not, and your development work builds your story. First you develop, and it’s almost impossible to do this on your own. If you have a professional beta reader, you can rely upon them. By pro I mean someone who’s seen a book to publication, and received editing along the way.) A friend who loves your writing may not provide enough help — even if you can get them to read every word.
An author came to me with a draft that brimmed with more than 80,000 words, a book in progress that already had been through a copy edit. While that work made the draft better, the book needed more work on structure and character. That copy editing was performed on thousands of words that were going to be cut, changed, or moved. Copy editing: essential, yes. But later. One high-flying story guru advises that the beginning of writing a book is the best time to develop it.
Lisa Cron’s written Wired for Story and other story structure books. She shared a tale about a writer who arrived in Cron’s inbox with 60,000 words completed. “I wish I could have been of help,” she told the author. It seemed too late in the game, especially if a writer thinks clean prose = finished book.