Developmental Editing: How Does it Work? Are There Rules?

By Stacy Melanie Jerger (@ApoideaEdits)

In May I guest-blogged at The Writers' Creative about…well, a ton of stuff I do in developmental editing. But some of those things deserve their own post. This is the start of a three-part blog series.


In that blog post I wrote:

"Before I even start to edit, I discuss the book’s goal with the author. Your goals determine the direction of how I edit your manuscript. Sounds weird, right? I thought there were rules for this editing thing..."

Developmental editing may be a job without grammar rules, but that doesn’t mean we as editors forge ahead with our own agenda. This line of work requires principles. Three main ones...

The Desire of the Writer

After doing my initial read-through of a manuscript, I get a feel for their capabilities and strengths, which will determine my level of suggestions. Will the writer be able to use the adjustments I have in mind into her revision process as they are intended?

The writer’s intentions also determine how I edit.

For instance, if my client wrote a mystery novel and expresses to me she wants to intensify the suspense, I will look for opportunities to do that as an addition to my usual editing process.

If my client wrote a romance novel and expresses to me she doesn’t think the hero and heroine have a strong enough emotional bond, I will look for ways to strengthen that bond in the scenes and overall progression of the plot.

It’s necessary to have a discussion with the writer about her intentions because we’re both about to invest more hard work into her book.

The Integrity of the Work

Knowing the purpose of the book allows me to edit in a way that will achieve a desired effect. If I listen only to the writer’s desires, I am ignoring the reality of what’s been written.

In other words, the writer may be trying to achieve a specific ending (like happily ever after), but the way it’s written isn’t true to the characters.

Maybe it goes like this: The hero in a romance novel resolves his personal conflict and now he’s ready to get the heroine back. The heroine moved to Europe and the hero intends to follow her there, the epic chase scene. The writer has detailed his trip and his hope to unite with the love of his life, but the scenes just aren’t fitting with the rest of the story. In fact, they’re also taking the steam out of the exciting pace she had going.

I might suggest the writer go back to the previous scene before this chase happened, and end it on a short and satisfying note. Maybe the hero is talking on the phone with the friend who banged some sense into him, and he says, “I’m going to get my girl back.” Smiles to himself and hangs up.

When championing the work, I have to think about its needs, and balance those needs with the writer’s goal.

The Expectations of the Audience

For whom is this book intended? I edit with the audience’s response and demographics in the back of my mind. This includes their level of knowledge, interest, attitude, and reading level.

For instance, if my client wrote a young adult novel and there was a lot of cussing in the language that was not crucial to keeping her writing voice intact, I will ask myself and the writer: is it appropriate to the content and will readers appreciate this treatment in their take-away of the story?

If my client wrote a book about how budgets affect states’ responses to earthquake damage and she not only included a lot of technical language, but organized the book like a college text, I will ask her if her audience needs to be a subject-matter expert to understand the content. If not, then we have a lot of adjustments to make so her readers will be able to enjoy her book.

Although these principles are not concrete like rules, they’re needed to guide developmental editors into staying specific to the project. Otherwise, we run the risk of allowing personal reasoning to interfere with our editing. And we can't have that, can we?

Do you use these principles in your own editing or have a similar approach?