Developmental Editing: More Querying and Story Development

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. Read Part 1: Principles Instead of Rules and Part 2: How I Feel About Your Manuscript.

In developmental editing, there is a whole other skill level required to help authors revise. It’s called the art of querying. Unlike copyediting where the editor corrects errors and is essentially a gatekeeper of grammar rules and preserving the English language, developmental editors rely more on asking the author questions, making suggestions for improvement, and helping to clarify intentions. This goes beyond “clarifying meaning.”

Querying is used for several reasons in copyediting and substantive (line) editing:

  • Verifying a fact or bring an inaccuracy to the author’s attention
  • Asking the author for additional info or to a solve a conflict within the text
  • Confirming an interpretation of meaning (especially if the editor is not a subject-matter expert)
  • Explaining a change and making sure the change hasn’t altered the author’s meaning (recasting, rewording, etc.)
  • Explaining an editor’s addition or deletion of the text

In developmental editing, querying embodies all of the above and is also a form of communication in the revision process:

  • To suggest changes and additions that contribute to the author’s goals
  • To explain how a change benefits the story and its readers
  • To allow authors to trace the changes and thought process of the editor

When we consider “changes,” that can encompass anything from character sympathy, strengthening suspense, to writing tone. My queries and comments can be quite frequent and long because I’m working on a creative level that needs to meet the author’s approval.

Additionally, it’s important for the author to know that my suggestions and adjustments are there to serve the author, not my own interests. A developmental editor such as myself needs to be flexible. It’s not about an editor’s preference—it’s about solving problems in the text.

Here’s what a typical amount of querying looks like in my editing (assuming most of the big chunks of content are organized).

Green balloons are queries. Content blurred to preserve author's privacy.

Green balloons are queries. Content blurred to preserve author's privacy.

I’ve mentioned the reasons why querying is necessary, but it requires skill in developmental editing because suggestions are judgment calls. There is less doing (grammar fixes that don’t need explanation) and more querying (clarifying, suggesting, rewording, adding transitions—tasks that need explanation).

Additionally, my tone is just as important. I always try to be aware and careful as to how my tone will be received, especially to a nervous writer.

1. I approach queries with a positive attitude. Don’t forget that we’re here to support the writer above anything else. My mindset is geared toward how an edit is helpful rather than pointing out the flaw.

For instance, saying “this is difficult to understand” doesn’t help the writer at all. I approach it as “I rephrased so readers can understand that …”

2. I suggest and ask the writer, not demand or tell the writer what to do. A lot of my suggestions are meant to help the author strengthen connections and to fill in missed opportunities. It requires a lot of hedging and open-mindedness in my tone.

Instead of saying “It would be better if you changed this to …” I say, “Readers may not understand, so I changed this to clarify …” or “It might be a great opportunity to show the character doing …"

3. I try to be succinct- I have the most trouble with this one! I can ramble on at first when I explain my reason for a change. BUT, I always go back to condense and tighten my comment. Writers don’t want to spend a lot of time on my ramblings; they want to know how my change improves their work.

4. In anything I write, whether it’s a query or explanation, I remind myself to be specific. If queries are vague or the meaning is muddled, we’ve just committed the same error that we’re trying to get the author to fix. Queries are our way of communicating clearly with writers and staying specific also helps me decide what I'm trying to say.

5. Lastly, I prompt the author to take action. It’s not good enough to point out a change; we have to explain how the change improves the text and how the writer can apply the change to other similar problem areas.

So, that’s my experience with querying—not pointing out flaws, but being helpful. There’s a mindset to querying that can be strengthened through practice and nurturing relationships with authors.

What's your experience with querying?