The Work of a Great Developmental Editor

Sometimes we talk about ‘editing’ as if it’s a single, simple task, but if you’ve ever needed an editor or worked as an editor, you know that’s not the case. And developmental editing may be the furthest thing from what most people think of when they come to the word ‘editor’…but it can often be the difference between a good story and a great story.

Because here’s the truth: Writers, no matter how talented we may be, cannot see every fault line, crack, and hole in our own writing. We’re too close to it, and unless we’re very lucky, we’re going to miss things unless we bring in an extra set of eyes. That’s where a great developmental editor comes in. A developmental editor sees the big picture, and helps make sure that every bit of your vision is allowed to come to life in a way that lives up to the story in your head, but without the reader ever getting distracted by some plot hole or inconsistency that slipped through and mucked things up.

Maybe you’re still on the fence. You think your betas and your friends will catch the snafus and do the work of a developmental editor. It’s possible, too. But before you discount the idea, consider these things that a really great developmental editor will offer your work.

Genre Awareness.

I’m a firm believer that the best developmental editors for any work must be experts in the genres they’re taking on. And if your work is a mash-up — say, a mix of urban fantasy and noir with a dash of contemporary romance thrown in — then I’d say they’d better be pretty well-versed in all of those genres. You can’t expect that of a beta or a friend, but you can and should expect it of a dev. editor you trust your work to.

Why is this important? Well, first, you want to make sure you satisfy all of your readers. That means satisfying the romance reader who expects the hiccup in the relationship and the HEA for the romance aspect of the book (the Happy Ever After, for you non-romance folks) as well as the noir reader who wants a gritty atmosphere and blurry lines between right and wrong. A developmental editor who knows your genre can help you figure out how to balance between expected tropes/genre lines and your own creativity without frustrating readers, and they can also warn you if you’re going astray anywhere — whether that’s with a character who goes too much against a genre mold or a stereotype or ending that’s going to have some readers throwing your book (or their kindle!) against a wall.

And if you’re even thinking about going the traditional publishing route, they can be a life-saver. They’ll tell you you’re shooting yourself in the foot by having the book be 20,000 words too long or too short, or working around a protagonist who’s five years older than MG agents/publishers will consider an MG protagonist. In fact, if you haven’t already done your homework on the market you’re trying to break into, they might just save you weeks of homework or years of querying-based heartache.

Brainstorming, and Those “What the heck do I do now?” Moments.

Betas and friends can point out plot holes and tell you what’s wrong with your book — or, at least they can if you find good ones, which is its own challenge. But unless they’ve got some real editing and/or writing chops, there’s a good chance you’ll get into trouble if you expect them to help you figure out how fix those problems they tell you about.

If you’ve been a part of a writing group, you know that all but the best critique partners sometimes fall into the category of the ‘Well, this is what I’d do…’ helper. In other words, if you ask for ideas on how you should fix the problem, they’ll rewrite your book if you’re not careful. Before you know it, your Suspense novel will be half-Romance, or your edgy spy will be a half-baked accountant. Even the most well-meaning folks can have difficulty knowing the difference between helping you find the full potential in your story and re-writing it, and that’s a dangerous position for your story to be in when there are plot holes and publication plans hanging in the balance.

It’s also possible that your friends or betas just won’t respond to your pointed questions, or will take forever to do so. (Or, worse yet, they’ll have kept silent when they saw that massive plot hole…because they were trying to be nice.)

But a developmental editor is the person you’re paying to help you with your story. They won’t try to re-write it. In fact, they’ll know your goals and be focused on helping you meet them. If they’ve pointed out a plot hole in their dev. edit, there’s a very good chance they’ve already given you some options for how you might consider dealing with it, or handed you some questions that you need to consider in order to address it. They’ve already cleared a path for you to fix the problem, in other words, after describing the problem.

And, worse comes to worse, they’re there to help you. They’re there to exchange emails with you as you brainstorm how to deal with creating that character who needs to be a villain in some scenes and a lover in others (while still being believable and consistent, of course — not a tall order at all…). They’re there to sit on the phone with you and figure out how you can save the character you locked in an air-tight safe in Chapter 4, or chat via Skype as you try to deal with the fact that what you meant to be a YA Fantasy has somehow, accidentally and of none of your accord, turned into an Adult Paranormal that you now have to reign in and polish to be the best darn Adult Paranormal it can be.

The important thing, though, is that they’re there to help your book be the best version of your book, and nobody else’s book. And they’re not going to let a problem slip by in the process just because they don’t want to do the work and/or hurt your feelings.

Honesty.

If you’re writing your first book, or even if you’re a seasoned writer who’s just starting a new series, you need honesty. You need hard truths.

You need a voice that’s going to sit you down and tell you, “This isn’t ready for publication until you fix A, B, C, and D, and answer this question. Oh, and tie up those loose plot threads I mentioned while you’re at it.”

You need a voice that’s going to tell you, “I love your work, babe, but this series isn’t even beginning to live up to your first series. Where’s the complexity? Why are you letting your main characters off so easy?”

You need a voice that’s going to tell you, very simply, “You can do better, and here’s how.”

Your betas and your street team and your friends aren’t being paid to do any of that, and if they’re attached to you, your friendship, or your work, they’re going to have a hard time doing it even if they try. A developmental editor, even after they’ve become your friend after years of working together, is going to be honest with you at every step.

Essentially, you’re paying for their detached perspective, and their ability to see the forest (instead of only the trees) as you work through your ideas and your story. They’re going to give you insight into what a reader will experience when looking at your work, and tell you the questions that readers will have so that you can deal with them up-front and make your book that much stronger. That kind of honesty is invaluable, and will save you setting a wrong foot forward over and over again.

That honesty will also pay dividends if you stick with the same developmental editor over multiple projects and years. They’ll be able to point out your strengths and weaknesses, alert you to tendencies and patterns you might not have noticed in your own work, and avoid accidentally repeating yourself via characters and plots as you move through series and works. A faithful reader might not tell you if they recognize a character in your fifth book as being too similar to someone in your first, but it will affect their opinion of the fifth book. But a developmental editor? They’ll warn you from the beginning and allow you to make those all-powerful changes to make your fifth book just as fresh as your first.

One Eye Forward, Always.

Your betas and your street team and your friends are going to be looking at the book in front of them. That’s it. Even if you tell them it’s the beginning of a series or the launch of your new “brand” as a Romance writer, they’re only going to be looking at the book in front of them.

A developmental editor will be the one to keep one of your eyes forward. If you’re setting yourself up for problems with the sequel that’s coming, or the world you’re building off of the current book, there’s a very good chance they’ll see this problem before you and alert you to it. It’s what they’re trained for. And, what’s more, they’ll do it before the book is published and in the hands of readers, rather than you figuring it out when you’re neck-deep in the sequel. And if you’re building a new brand for yourself, they’ll help you understand exactly what reader expectations you’re setting up with the first book you put out there — and what you need to do to keep it going.

My developmental editor sometimes drives me crazy, but I need his feedback to do my best work. He makes me meet the standards I set for myself, and he helps me when I write myself into a cavern of screaming characters and loose plot threads and genre angles that I can’t seem to untangle on my own. Maybe I don’t send him everything I write… but when I need him, I really need him.

So, think about what a developmental editor could mean for your work. A developmental editor’s job is part book therapist and part critic, part friend and part enemy, but it’s important work they do. And it’s their job to make us writers level up our work to meet our full potential, which means they’re worth every single headache and extra sip of coffee they bring our way.

If you’re looking to improve your craft while working with experienced, professional developmental editors — and not paying a cent — consider a ghostwriting project with Relay Publishing. Get paid to write fiction stories and receive comprehensive feedback from our editorial team on your writing. Head to Relay’s Recruitment Portal to see current fiction ghostwriting projects.

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Relay has founded a collaborative environment for literary creatives to exercise their skillset and develop their craft across a multitude of fiction genres.