When to Get Your Developmental Edit Done

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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.

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Stepping Out to the Self Published Steps

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Your editor is your coach, guiding you through creative choices

Second in a Series

In my previous installment on this topic, I broke the process of self publishing into a dozen steps. The first four are essential, but they’re not exclusive to self-publishing. You must have a book ready to publish if you’re going to become your own publisher. Practicing steps 1-4 delivers a book to your laptop. (And don’t worry, I’m coming back around to the articles about these first four creative steps.) But the writing starts to become a self-published book, what the industry calls a title, at Step 5: Working with an independent editor.

Editors are everywhere, from low-ball outlets like Skillpages to the spin-off businesses that Writer’s Digest promotes. You will be auditioning your choice of an editor to make your book better. You can start with story development, after you’ve set down your initial draft that you offer for an assessment. A good development editor — sometimes called a substantive editor — will give you notes on plot, structure, pacing, and especially character motives.

Creative Coaching Series

Creative Coaching Series

It’s very difficult to do this process for yourself. And while your workshopping group will give you a lot of help, they’re often not able to see the whole work and devote the time to it that any book needs. Unless you’re just extending the scope of characters who’ve already been welcomed by readers in a prior book you’ve published, development is key.

How do you hire an editor? For me, it was as simple as looking in the classified ad pages of The Writer magazine. There, Jill Dearman had a 4-line ad that promoted her services, available by the page. I contacted her by email, then summarized my book for her so she could see what kind of story she was working on. You want a good match of interest in your subject from the editor, along with a feeling of trust you’ll have in their competency and professionalism.

If this sounds like choosing a doctor, it certainly felt that way to me. You’re looking for references, as well as evidence that the editor’s work has led to published books. Membership in the Association of Independent Editors is one marker, but that’s a fee-only membership with no certification. It’s not as simple as looking for a stamp of approval.

But this is a coach you are hiring — and you will know when you have right mix of pressure and praising coming from this pro. More