Editing Essentials: What Is Developmental Editing?

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Oct 24, 2019 • 4 min read

Developmental editing can be a useful aid in the book-writing process for both fiction and nonfiction writers. The developmental edit occurs before a manuscript is published, and focuses mainly on improving big picture story elements. A developmental editor will give notes to the author regarding content and structure in an effort to bring out the best version of their manuscript.



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What Is Developmental Editing?

Developmental editing is a phase of the book editing process where editors give a thorough evaluation of an author’s work to help determine what it needs in order to be ready for publishing. This manuscript critique addresses various story element issues like plot holes, poor character development, confusing dialogue, sentence phrasing, and any other issues that arise in relation to story elements.

When to Do a Developmental Edit

Developmental editing is generally the first step of editing to seek out once you have a completed draft of your manuscript. After submitting your work to a professional editor for a manuscript evaluation, they will review and compose what is known as an “editorial letter,” a summary highlighting all the story issues they’ve come across in your book. Since this could result in a series of rewrites, it is best this phase comes before any proofreading or fine-tuning, as any polishing is subject to be undone by new edits.

However, every author’s process is different. Some writers prefer to utilize the services of a developmental editor earlier on to help solidify broader ideas, while others may choose not to involve one until they’ve already had it read by peers and completed multiple rewrites on their own.

Regardless of when you decide to undergo a developmental edit, it is a critical stage of the editing process, and can help elevate an author’s work.

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5 Tips for the Developmental Editing Process

There are a few things that all writers should be cognizant of when considering a developmental edit:

  1. Find a good editor. Your developmental editor should have a few years of experience in the book publishing industry, as well as book editing experience with the genre you’re writing. Whether it’s historical nonfiction, young adult, romance, or science fiction, it’s important that you can trust the editor’s knowledge of the genre. The right editor should also be compatible with your personality, understand your writing style, and provide open and honest communication while also respecting your vision. They should be knowledgeable about the entire publishing process in order to properly guide you.
  2. Be open-minded. Although a necessary step, some authors find it difficult to receive critical feedback on their writing. Sometimes an editor’s critique will involve you cutting out particular moments within your story that you don’t necessarily want to lose. While your editor isn’t going to force you to take their advice, if you’re paying a fee for their expertise, being open-minded to their ideas can be helpful. However, if you find yourself constantly at odds with your editor over your work, it’s possible they might not be the right fit for you.
  3. Be prepared to rewrite. A developmental editor may completely shake up the foundation of your manuscript, resulting in a substantial rewrite. You may have to reconsider certain plot elements, characters, settings, or conversations that aren’t telling your story the way you think.
  4. Focus on the big picture. Developmental editing is comprehensive, and it’s easy to get distracted by the endless small details you want to nitpick, but there’s plenty of time to do that during the line editing phase. When it comes to developmental editing, the focus should be more about the bigger ideas, and how all the main pieces of the story work together first.
  5. Practice patience. Addressing one round of notes from a developmental editor doesn’t mean you’re done, or even close to it. This editing process is the most involved, and oftentimes changing one part of a manuscript can result in a necessary change elsewhere—but be patient. It’s worth the time to ensure your book is telling the story you want, and your editor will help you stay on track.


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What Is the Difference Between Developmental Editing and Line Editing?

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Though there is a little overlap in regards to editing services, developmental editing and line editing serve two different functions:

  • Developmental editing focuses on big picture elements of the story and plays a deeper role in manuscript development. Plot holes, character arcs, pacing, action sequences, and dialogue are all things covered by a developmental editor when it comes to creative writing. In regards to nonfiction writing, developmental editors still play a critical role. They help clarify intent and message to ensure that the subject matter is being communicated clearly to the audience for which the book is intended.
  • Line editing (sometimes used interchangeably with copy editing), is only for after you’ve gone through the developmental editing process and solidified the technical aspects of your manuscript. A line editor will help identify run-on sentences or clichés, make sure the tone is consistent, and fine-tune the word choice and syntax of your manuscript. Although a line editor may give grammar-related notes, the purpose is to improve flow, not just point out typos—unlike a proofreader.

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