Developmental Editing – Edits vs. Comments

By Stacy Jerger (@ApoideaEdits)

It’s been a while since I blogged here! These past months were pretty busy. (I’ve missed you, blog. *snuggle*)

Today I'm writing about developmental editing practices. Specifically, when to edit and when to comment - both tools of Track Changes.

As I've mentioned in other blog posts, developmental editors deal with structural and story issues, anywhere from piecing out chunks of character back-story to patching plot holes.

But navigating an entire manuscript can seem daunting when we're working with authors on a creative level. We need to get as close as we can to the content, live in the author's fictional world, without overstepping.

How do we know when to edit the text directly and when to instruct the author through comments?

While it's not always necessary to box ourselves in with strict rules, I do use some guidelines that have worked well for me and my clients. The most important thing is to communicate clearly with authors about changes in their manuscript - whether it's commenting or editing.

Comments (aka Queries)

Prompting Revision

If we acknowledge story issues and discuss solutions with an author, then we can guide those changes in the manuscript. With a combination of suggestive edits and comments, we can ensure the author is still writing her own story.

For instance, I may start to set up a new scene with some light editing. Then I'll leave a comment for the author, explaining how I framed the scene opening, where it can lead, and then have her draft it as she envisions.

Explaining Edits

Comments help clarify editorial reasoning or direct the author where to look to make the connection (what changed and why). This could involve moving a section to another location for reasons A, B, and C.

For new authors who are still learning the craft and training their eyes in revision, I'll leave an abundance of comments to make sure all my reasoning is clear. 

New Ideas

If we have ideas about developing character or enhancing setting, we can leave comments detailing those suggestions. I love when the author and I get excited about these ideas and practically finish each others sandwiches.

Note: If we have a completely new idea that would change the scope of the story, it’s best to go straight to the author first. A discussion will save a lot of time and headache later. We must get on the same page with the author prior to introducing big ideas into her story.

Editing (Direct Changes in Text)

Showing Through Example

Sometimes it helps to directly edit to show authors what we mean, and they understand these changes as suggestive. Showing through example is a great shortcut to save time than long-winded instructions and explanations in a comment. And it allows authors to see how the content might be laid out if they continue in that new mode.

For instance, I could suggest a paragraph of expository be turned into action and dialogue, and start to revise this to show the author how to transform the moment.

Fixing Real Issues

Incorrect point-of-view, character names, timelines. And character/content inconsistencies (a broken foot turns into a broke hand mid-scene).

Content organization at-large. This means moving sections to achieve a logical order of back-story, plot, character action-reaction, natural rhythm or emphasis, and clear thoughts and descriptions. And trimming big repetitions.

Improved Writing Technique

This partly delves into line editing tasks, which some developmental editors do if they fall within content issues (and if the budget allows for these details).

Showing vs. telling, clarifying micro actions or thoughts/emotions, stronger or more effective word choices. Short vs. long sentences for emphasis or snap. We can even bring an author's attention to dialogue patterns that sound like too many characters and muddy personalities.


As always, there can be some exceptions.

Some authors don't want too many direct edits and prefer to be instructed in comments. Others say “do whatever you want!” and give plenty of editing slack. We should be aware of our author's preferences and try to find a comfortable and healthy way of collaborating.

Whatever arrangement we agree on, above all, we must be able to give authors the tools that allow them to make informed decisions about their revised story. We can do this if we edit with respect, clarity, and work toward their goals.

Stacy Jerger is a freelance developmental editor who's had the privilege of working with fiction authors to organize and strengthen their stories. If you need help with your manuscript, check out my page.