A visual representation of a developmental edit. Made on Canva by Kate Ota, 2023
This week I'm discussing a new experience my writing group engaged me in: a developmental edit. I'd never done one before, so I read about what they entail and what to look for before starting the process and did another refresher after I finished reading the manuscript. I thought sharing my experience could help someone else who either has been asked to do a developmental edit, wants to attempt to developmental edit their own work, or is curious about what this entails.
What is a Developmental Edit?
A developmental edit is what I think of as an "early stage" edit, so you're not polishing sentences, you're polishing structure and plot and character arcs. Big picture stuff that could cause you to change huge sections of the story. No point fixing a sentence in a scene that's about to be removed. A dev edit is performed after drafting (at the earliest) but before line/copy edits. In the case of my writing group, it was done in lieu of a beta read. If you hire a professional to do a developmental edit, it is generally done after beta reading.
How Do You Developmental Edit?
As I read, I tried to keep in mind the big picture items: plot arc and character arc. The story was pretty linear, so structure wasn't a big concern in this case. However, if reading a non-linear story, be sure to keep an eye on structure too. I made some notes in line, but not as often as I do for beta reads. I didn't correct every small typo I came across unless it affected my reading/understanding.
After reading, I put together an edit letter. There are lots of outlines online for what an edit letter should contain, so I followed one of those to make sure I hit the big points: positive feedback, setting, characters, character arc, pacing, dialogue, and plot holes. I kept my feedback a big picture as possible--don't write an entire page about one setting's single problem, or one line of dialogue that didn't fit.
Elements of the Edit Letter
Positive Feedback: This is huge to include in a developmental edit. Since this writer was going to get edit letters from the entire group of us, that could lead to an overwhelming amount of suggested edits. It's crucial to include what worked well, so that the author knows what NOT to change, and so they don't feel disheartened if the edit letters are long or require a lot of work.
Setting: Even if set in the real world, the setting will still matter to the reader. Include if you could picture the setting in each scene, what elements were often missing (think sights/sounds/smells/tastes/touches), and if you understood when the scenes took place (night/day, years, seasons, etc.). Feel free to call out great things here too, of course, especially settings you felt worked well in contrast to ones that didn't, so the author can look at their own work to see what they did and pull that into the less successful scenes.
Characters: For this section, I talked about all the characters except the main character and their arc, which is the next section. Here is where you should things like the number of named characters (overall or in a particular scene were there too many? Too few?), the names of characters (were any too similar? Did the author accidentally use a celebrity/infamous/famous character name?), and the purpose of side characters (could any be combined? Did you mix any up? Was there someone you felt was missing?). Positive feedback can go here too, like naming a favorite side character and why, mentioning a great character moment, etc.
Character arc and pacing: I followed Save The Cat Writes a Novel as my guide for when certain beats should have hit, and used that to inform me on pacing, though often I could tell by gut if anything was running too long or happening too soon. Save The Cat acted like a nice quantitative measurement to back me up and help the author figure out how much to move their beats. The same is true for pacing plot and pacing the character arc. They should be two separate sections in the edit letter, despite the similar method. Character arc is the beating heart of a novel, so be sure to pay special attention to it: did the character complete their arc successfully? Did they have a lowest moment? Was the character arc driving the plot arc or vice versa? (The "correct" answer for that one will depend on genre, though agents right now love to talk about character driven stories.)
Dialogue: Feedback here should include whether the dialogue felt natural in general (there will always be exceptions, like a character who is using a second language might be a little more stiff), if dialogue from different characters felt too similar, and if the dialogue to narration balance felt correct. That last one will depend on genre and taste, but go with your gut. This is also a place for positive feedback: did anyone have a great one liner that made you laugh? Did any character have stand out dialogue in general?
Plot Holes: A little more general than the plot beats discussed in the pacing section, the plot hole section is where you discuss other problems with the plot or world. Even if set in the real world, there can be holes (for example: you may have to tell your author that Interstate 80 doesn't go through Colorado, it goes through Wyoming). More often, you'll need to point out questions that come up around "why did the characters do X and never even thought of the much easier method Y?" You may, but you don't have to, suggest possible solutions. However, don't get attached to your ideas, as the author may come up with a different solution that works better for them.
If there are other thoughts or comments you have left over, feel free to add more sections. For different genres, you may need other sections such as Romance, Magic System, Alien Culture, Mystery Elements, etc. Every story will be different, so feel free to write an edit letter that best suits the manuscript you're editing.
In the end, you'll send your edit letter to your author and hope for the best. Keep in mind, everything you're written in your letter is a suggestion, not a legal requirement. If the author loves and incorporates all of your feedback, hooray! If the author ignores every word you wrote, well, it's their novel. Odds are, something in the middle will happen, and that's great too. All you can hope for us that the author takes away at least one thing from your letter to make their book better in their eyes.
Some Quick Don'ts
Have you ever done or received a developmental edit? Was it worth it? Do you recommend your editor? Let's discuss in the comments!