Intro to Editors is a series that explores what editors do in the context of solo and small business owners. Read the rest of the series here.
We know what an editor does. We know where editors fit within the writing process. Now we’re ready to zoom in close enough on editors themselves that we can start to see and understand the differences between them.
We’ll move from big picture to nitty-gritty details and early in the writing process to the end.
First up: developmental editors (like yours truly).
As we go, keep in mind that while there are plenty of similarities, the specifics of how each editor defines his or her work will vary. The likelihood of finding two editors — even of the same type — who go about the job in exactly the same way? Not good. But here’s how I approach my work.
If you were renovating your kitchen, what’s the first thing you’d do?
Paint the walls that perfect shade of grey you spent days tracking down?
Change out all the drawer pulls on the old cabinets?
Set up the gorgeous new hardwood table you bought?
I hope not!
You’d start by getting the bones of the room to line up with your vision. That might mean tearing down old walls and building new ones in different places. Replacing or reconfiguring the cabinets. Bumping out a bit here, pulling in over there. Reshaping. Revamping. You know, getting the interior ready to support the space you want to create. Otherwise, all the painting and furnishing and replacing of hardware would just be wasted effort.
Developmental editing is like those initial stages of renovation.
It’s more concerned with the big picture (like where the walls should be) than with grammar and punctuation (what color you ultimately paint those walls). It’s about getting the big pieces in place and lined up with your project goals before you start polishing what you’ve created. Because just like with a renovation project, there’s no point perfecting the details until you’ve made sure the foundation is laid and the work is structurally sound.
Where in the process does developmental editing happen?
Developmental editing (also called “content” or “substantive” editing) happens before a draft makes its way to a line editor, copyeditor, or proofreader. It’s the earliest point in the writing process that an editor can step in. Any earlier and you’re either drafting alone or working with a writing coach.
What kind of text does a developmental editor work on?
These earliest editors work on the roughest draft you feel comfortable getting help with. And trust me: They’ve seen some pretty rough drafts. You may even be able to hand your editor a digital stack of disparate pieces — blog posts, notes, transcripts, draft snippets — and get help creating a cohesive outline or even stitching them into a single unit. That’s where a developmental editor’s organizational skills and thread-finding abilities shine.
Don’t worry about getting the draft you hand over to be perfect and typo-free. Remember that kitchen renovation: Get the walls in place before you worry about drawer pulls. So many things can shift when you do the deep, structural work we developmental editors excel at that it’s not worth finessing the details yet. In fact, the less attached you are to the little stuff, the easier and more effective your developmental editing efforts will likely be.
I know it can be scary to let someone in on such a tender, messy draft. If you’re concerned about an editor coldly crushing your best efforts, don’t be. Honestly, if we were all cruel and overly critical, no one would ever work with us! You can usually tell from interacting with someone what his or her style of communication is. Follow the person online or get in touch before you commit to working together. If you feel comfortable talking with a developmental editor, chances are that comfort will carry over into your collaboration.
What, specifically, does a developmental editor do?
A developmental editor will usually work with you through a series of rounds. He or she will add feedback to your draft, then hand it back so you can incorporate what makes sense to you and ask for clarification about what doesn’t. The suggestions you get will focus primarily on the big-picture stuff; think structure, organizing, frameworks, alignment, and completeness.
Here are some questions a developmental editor can help you address as you work together to align your actual digital product, blog post, or web copy with the version in your head:
- What’s the best way to organize my thoughts around this topic? How can I pull all these pieces together into an outline or draft that makes sense?
- What’s the argument that threads through this whole project? Does everything I’ve included support that point?
- What structural changes would make my project clearer or easier to follow?
- Are the section and/or chapter breaks in the right place? Are the ideas, sections, and/or chapters in the most logical order?
- Do the ideas, sections, and/or chapters move easily into one another? How can I make the transitions between them smoother?
- Which passages need to be reworked so that they flow better, and how can I accomplish that?
- Where do I need deeper explanations, better examples, or more information? Which parts aren’t necessary and can be trimmed?
- Where am I inconsistent? Where do I contradict or repeat myself? Where do I not explain myself clearly?
And perhaps most importantly:
- How do I make sure what I’m creating stays in line with what my eventual readers want and need?
If any of those questions have ever wandered through your head as you’re writing — or if they’re wandering there now — you’d probably find a developmental editor’s skill set to be particularly helpful. But don’t worry about asking all the questions yourself. Your editor will be able to see which areas your specific project might need some help with and focus your combined efforts there.
Who needs developmental editing?
I firmly believe anyone who writes things that other people read will benefit from working with a good developmental editor, and my clients will back me up.
That being said, the people who will benefit the most are:
- those who want to write but don’t necessarily feel comfortable calling themselves authors, and
- those who tend to write shorter pieces, like blog posts and newsletters, but want to try their hand at something longer.
There’s a reason I call myself an “idea architect”: Working with a developmental editor will ensure your project is well organized, clearly presented, and aligned with your work and audience. It’ll give you confidence that the foundation you’re building on — whether you’re writing a 1,000-word guest post or a 40,000-word ebook — supports the vessel you’re creating to carry your message out the world.
Does that sound like you? If so, look up your friendly neighborhood editor and see what he or she can do for you.