Note: The transcript is available below the video, and sorry about the varying volume. I’ll be using a different program to try mitigating the issue for the next workshop. Thanks for your patience and understanding!
Hi everyone, and welcome to the first Author Rescue workshop! I’m Katy, and I run the Author Rescue site, and I have years of experience as a freelancer doing things like ghostwriting, line editing, and developmental editing – which I’ll be talking about today. Developmental editing is one of my favorite things, and this workshop has been in the works for a long time, so I’m excited to be finally posting it for you all. Let’s get started.
In this workshop I’ll be covering quite a few things, starting with what developmental editing actually is. I’ll walk you through the stages of the process that I personally use, why it’s worth investing extra time into a developmental editing process, and how to use it for your own work or for clients if that’s the route you plan to take. I’ll finish up with an example for practice, so that you can see the transformative effect developmental editing can have on the storytelling process.
The example is for a fictitious novel, but developmental editing can be done for all forms of storytelling, it’s just a matter of tailoring it to your medium. I’ve worked on everything from screenplays to comics, and walking through this process ultimately served the final story.
So this brings us to the first question:
I’ve broken it into a four-part definition.
First, it’s a skillset. All stories get stuck at all stages of storytelling, and being able to get them unstuck is often the crucial barrier between turning an idea into a finished product. There are formal and informal methods, but ultimately developmental editing is a valuable tool to have in your toolbox as a creator.
It’s also a test. By having your work critically analyzed in a workshop setting, your work will be more cohesive and able to stand on its own.
It can be offered as a service, by freelancers like me, where we walk through the story and give an outside, objective opinion on a work that often catches inconsistencies like plot holes or other problems with the narrative.
And lastly, it’s a habit that can be built into the creative process. The more you practice, the easier it will be to use the process to evaluate a work for strength and effectiveness. You’ll probably recognize elements of the process as steps you already take, which is great! But I’ve found that having a more formal process helps me switch into a critical mindset that helps me catch more errors or other adjustments that need to be done.
So now that we know what it is on a basic level, here’s my process, which consists of three phases.
Phase one is to identify the problem or problems that need fixing. Why is this developmental edit pass necessary? Having a “why” in mind helps me focus my efforts when I conduct the first read-through of the work. It’s basically a lens to look through when I conduct the first beta read of the work, and I take notes as I go that I can reference later. For example, if I found a plot hole at the end of the book I was writing, I’d write that down before the beta read and then keep a running list of anything relating to that plot hole.
Armed with this list of notes, I can move onto phase two, brainstorming solutions. I can return to the original problems I identified in phase one and start generating ideas for how to address those problems. For the plot hole example, I could write a few possibilities for filling it, or try to find some other way of eliminating the gap in the story.
For each iteration of potential solutions, I move into phase three and zoom out for the new potential story with each proposed fix. I’ll ask myself if this solution fixes the original problem, or if it needs more adjustments. Then I’ll go back to the brainstorming process for more tweaks, until I find a solution that addresses all facets of the original problem.
This is a simplified version of the process, because there’s rarely just one issue to fix. Quite often the beta read in phase one will raise more questions than it answers, so the overall process is more fluid, moving between phases as needed to finetune the story. With each iteration, the list of solutions in the brainstorm phase will get shorter as they become more refined.
Developmental editing takes time, but it’s better for you to identify these issues early when the ball is still in your court so to speak, because your readers will have the same questions later.
Here are some of the common problems I’ve worked with or identified during phase one of developmental editing.
First, some stories have a weak start – writing requires momentum, which means that sometimes creators aren’t sure how to begin, how to introduce their characters, or to set the opening scene. This can result in awkward exposition, and an introduction that doesn’t do the story justice.
There could be writer’s block happening for the middle of a proposed story – there could be a strong start and end, but questions on how to get from point A to point B. Key plot components could be missing, all of the “how” questions that allow the story to grow into the ending, there could be incomplete or even undecided story or character arcs that are preventing the story from having a middle, or there can be no growth in a written middle which leads to other problems.
One I see often is unrealistic characters that are two-dimensional and directionless. They don’t have the motivations necessary to fulfill their narrative role, which can make their personality or emotions feel forced. It could also be an issue with the character design itself, which can be a small or large fix depending on how it’s affecting the plot.
Stiff dialogue is another common problem and can be owed to unrealistic characters, things like a lack of chemistry (especially in the romance genre), unlikeable characters that your audience can’t relate to, or a flimsy protagonist or antagonist that aren’t carrying the story. There can also be inconsistent structure in things like speaking tags or cadence, which is common with new writers who are growing alongside their work. But that’s what editing is for, especially developmental editing, for help applying consistency after the fact.
And last but not least are plot holes, which are inevitable in stories because of all the moving parts. Leaving them in your story undermines the narrative and breaks the suspension of disbelief required for your readers to sink into your story, which is why editing is so important.
So to match these common problems, here are some common solutions that can be reached during the developmental editing process.
First you can adjust character design. This can be daunting if the work is large, but characters drive plot, so if you’re having plot issues then there’s a good chance that they’re stemming from your characters. To fix this, characters can be given stronger and more purposeful designs. In a way, this is easier when the work is complete because you know where the character is going to end up and you can root their motivations deeper within them. It’s easier to coax a motivation out of a reluctant character than it is to assign them one at the last minute.
Another common solution is to add scenes into your work. Having more scenes accounts for growth, and can make transitions feel more natural. It makes space for plot holes to be addressed organically, and helps avoid info-dumps that can turn off your audience – this is especially important with initial exposition, it’s tempting to write every little detail at the start of a scene to “set the stage” for the plot, but it’s much more engaging for readers to learn as they go. It will help the narrative feel more natural, as if they’re witnessing it along with the characters, which gives the reader more opportunities to acclimate to the story. Think of it as wading into a pool from the shallow end instead of diving directly into the deep end.
The last solution is to determine the driving why, which I talk a lot about in my posts on Author Rescue. Knowing why story elements need to be included makes the whole story more purposeful, which your audience can feel all throughout.
So all of this is pretty involved, and, as you can probably guess, it can be a bit time-consuming, especially at first.
But here’s why it’s worth it.
Developmental editing is all about building a solid foundation, so that you can tell your story from a place of conviction, it makes stories fundamentally stronger so that it can support the weight of everything that happens within it.
I encourage you to complete a developmental editing pass as early in the writing process as possible, because it can make the remaining writing process smoother.
And it connects your story with your audience’s expectations. By approaching your story with fresh, critical eyes, you can put yourself in your audience’s shoes and learn what they need to better engage with your story while you still have the creative reins.
Developmental editing can be done at all stages of the storytelling process, but by completing the pass at all, you’ll better interface with your audience and be able to tell the story in the right way.
Now I’m going to go through the steps in each phase that I recommend for personal vs. professional use.
First up is developmental editing for your own work.
Phase one is to identify the problem or problems, and to do this, you’ll want to conduct a beta read and be as objective as possible. You want to put yourself in your reader’s shoes to see what questions they would have if they were approaching your story for the first time.
Then in phase two, use the background knowledge you have as the original creator and brainstorm ways to answer the questions that came up in the beta read. You know the story better than anyone, and you’ll be surprised by all of the creative ways you’ll be able to address problems that arise.
Phase three is to zoom out for the new potential story, which you’ll do by asking yourself the question: is the new version stronger and/or more complete with these changes? If it is, then incorporate the brainstorming work you’ve done. If it isn’t, then there’s more workshopping that needs to be done to come up with a better solution.
Developmental editing isn’t a one-and-done process, it’s a continuous fine-tuning of your story to make it as effective as possible. After doing it enough times, you’ll find yourself evaluating your work from a developmental editing perspective earlier and earlier in the process until it’s second nature. Your outlines will improve because you’ll be asking yourself critical questions from the outset. It takes practice, but as I’ve outlined, it’s worth the extra time.
On the flipside, developmental editing for clients has a few extra steps and a slightly different approach, because it’s no longer a solo exercise. You can still use the three phases, but each one has some additional steps that need to be taken.
In phase one, before you begin to identify any problems in the work, address whether or not your client requires that you sign a non-disclosure agreement before sharing the work with you. Read it carefully, and then sign it if you agree to the terms of the contract. Once you have your hands on the work conduct a beta read as a first-time reader and be honest! Your client has been working with their story for so long that it’s difficult for them to have an objective view, so give them your detailed first impression and take notes! Include details like where you think the story is going, whether or not you like characters that are being introduced and why, and any other details that stand out to you. These will help you immensely in phase two, when you begin to brainstorm ideas.
Before you do anything in phase two, touch base with your client to see if they already have some ideas of their own, then make a list of your own ideas, the more the better. Consider what you think will improve the story, float ideas, and be open-minded. I highly recommend requesting multiple sessions where you can talk with your client one-on-one. It doesn’t have to be long, but let them know what you’re working on and see if there’s anything they like or, more importantly, if there’s anything they want to shoot down before you put any more work into fleshing out the idea. To get ready for presenting the results of your developmental edit, spend time on multiple potential ideas with notes for pros and cons of each. Be detailed and don’t forget to include the “why” behind your recommendations.
My last advice for working with clients as a developmental editor, is to make it very clear to your client that all of your ideas are “take it or leave it.” You want to make sure that they aren’t feeling pressured to accept your ideas if they don’t like them, and it’ll help them relax while working with you. My most successful developmental editing contracts were very low pressure, and it vastly improved the client experience as well as my experience as the freelancer for them.
Now that you know what developmental editing is, my process, and how it can be used, let’s do a client example. Say you’re a freelancer and someone hires you to evaluate their manuscript as a developmental editor.
You set up the first meeting, and this is what you learn.
- Your client’s story is a contemporary romance that has three major components: the first character meeting is a blind date, they turn into an accidental workplace romance, and there’s a happily ever after (HEA) ending.
- The main problem your client is bringing you is that the happily ever after doesn’t feel believable. There’s no chemistry between the main character and the love interest, and it’s making the plot fall flat.
- The client expresses that the main goal is to fix the happily ever after because it’s a standalone novel and it’s essential in order for the story to fit within the market niche.
So you take the work and conduct a beta read, taking notes as you go, and you determine that the main issue preventing the believable happily ever after is the fact that the love interest is unlikeable. The plot needs the main character to fall in love with their love interest in order to get their happily ever after, but if readers can’t find the love interest likeable, then they won’t be rooting for the romance to work out. That’s phase one done.
On to phase two, you lay out your notes so that you can start brainstorming solutions. This is a busy slide, but here are the highlights.
- The first 5k words are exposition, nothing major, just setting up the story. Then, at 5k, the characters meet, which is where you see in your notes that you, as a first time reader, didn’t like the love interest. Looking at it within the context of the whole timeline, we start off on the wrong foot with the character, which undermines all of the interactions for the rest of the book.
- The next major romance note you made was at 15k words, where the main character has a heart-to-heart with a side character where they verbalize that they’re developing feelings for the love interest. This is a potential problem, because ten thousand words is not a lot of time to develop feelings for someone, especially after meeting on a blind date. The relationship might be feeling forced because it happens so fast, which could be adding to the flimsy happily ever after ending.
- Other major notes mark that the relationship is taken to the next level at 25k words, there’s a major conflict at 35k words where a jealous ex tries to break them up, and then the conflict is resolved at 45k.
- The book itself is only 50k words, so the resolution is also raising a red flag for you during your developmental edit pass. 5k words is a very short amount of time to go from conflict resolution to a proposed happily ever after, especially compared to the pacing of the rest of the book. Conflicts in romance are expected, and they make resolutions that much more satisfying, but there needs to be some recovery time after the conflict. Rushing from resolution to a happily ever after could be another part of the problem in making it believable.
So with these observations, you draft three potential solutions for your client.
- Solution one is to rewrite the blind date entirely to make the love interest’s first impression more appealing to readers. We started on the wrong foot, and we want to get a better start to the relationship. The second part of this suggestion is to add scenes with positive interactions before feelings are acknowledged or realized. The goal of this solution is to make the beginning of their romantic relationship smoother and more organic, which primes the narrative for growth and will help ease readers through the escalations.
- Solution two is to redesign the love interest to make them more likeable. Give them a more balanced personality for the main character to discover, assign them flaws and merits that can be revealed during their unfolding relationship. A second part of this suggestion is to give the main pairing an inside joke, which could strengthen their bond and improve any stiff dialogue between them.
- Solution three is for the second half of the story. The proposed fix is to use side characters to help the protagonist during the conflict to make the jump from conflict to resolution less jarring. Side characters are a great way to help main characters grow, so use them! Let them shine and be support for struggling characters. And the last part of this last solution is to add scenes between the resolution and the happily ever after to make it more gradual. By adding time and letting the characters breathe, the reunion for the happily ever after will feel more like the characters earned it, which could help sell the ending.
These three fixes can be used individually or in tandem with each other, but in presenting your research and proposed ideas, make sure you let your client know that the creative decision power resides with them. You’re providing an informed opinion, and you have your reasons for your suggestions, but they’re only suggestions for them to take or leave. It’s their story, so make sure they know that before you sign off.
In summary, developmental editing takes practice to master, especially since no two stories are the same. Whether you’re doing it for yourself or as a service, just remember these three things.
- Be honest and as objective as possible, imagine that you’re a first-time reader and approach the story with your audience in mind.
- Brainstorm multiple solutions during your developmental edit pass – be creative! Try to think outside the box to keep from falling into plotting ruts, there is no right answer so approach the work with imagination.
- And lastly, justify your work with the driving “why” I’m always talking about in my posts. Give reasons for your decisions so that you can proceed with conviction and purpose. The story will be better for your work, which is why developmental editing is, at the end of the day, worth it.
And that’s the end of the workshop! Thank you for watching the video or reading the post, however you consumed this information, and thank you so much for joining me on the journey I’m on with Author Rescue.
Feel free to leave me any feedback in the comment section – let me know if this helped you, whether you’re going to give developmental editing a try, or if you have ideas for future workshops! If you have any questions, you can fill out the form on my Contact page, or email me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Thank you for your time and your support, and I’ll see you in the next workshop!
2 thoughts on “Workshop – Developmental Editing”
That was absolutely fascinating – I’d wondered how dev editing worked and what you looked for. I can imagine that following this helps authors know the beats more clearly too and therefore write better – I’d always heard getting a dev edit helps you become a better writer, now I see why. Thanks
Thank you for your positive feedback! I love developmental editing because the benefits compound over time – the more you do it, the more effective the process becomes! I’m glad the workshop was helpful 🙂