What is Developmental Editing? A Quick Guide

Let’s set the scene: You’ve completed a manuscript. You’ve self-edited. You’ve had critique partners or beta readers look over it. You’ve self-edited again.

What now?

Well, that decision is up to you. Hiring a freelance editor isn’t a requirement if you want to go the traditional publishing route. However, many authors—whether they’re self-publishing or submitting to agents or publishers—choose to hire an editor because they’re looking for the next level of feedback from an industry professional before they submit or publish.

That said, you may be surprised to hear that there are different types of editing services out there. In fact, I’ve had conversations with writers who didn’t realize there are several levels of edits—and these are important to understand, regardless of how you publish.

These levels include:

  • Manuscript evaluations (or editorial assessments)
  • Developmental editing
  • Copyediting
  • Line editing
  • Proofreading

This guide, however, is going to focus on developmental edits. That’s because developmental edits are often the first (or second) step authors take when working with a professional editor to develop their books (see what I did there?).

1. What is developmental editing?

Developmental editing (also known as substantive or content editing) consists of a big-picture edit that looks at all working components of your manuscript. This can include pacing, characterization, structure, POV, setting, and several other craft elements.

Developmental edits often result in major rewrites of your manuscript. Now, don’t run away! While you may embark on some deep revision following a developmental edit, you’ll also see a huge difference between the before and after drafts. Most of the time (and I’ve experienced this myself), you’ll feel empowered, energized, and proud of the work that results from a developmental edit.

What are the components of a developmental edit?

When you send off your manuscript to a developmental editor, the content you’ll typically get back includes:

  • An editorial letter. This letter will outline the main highlights and takeaways the editor noted as they combed through your work. They’ll often point to specific areas within your manuscript for examples and summarize their overarching thoughts.
  • A marked-up manuscript. You’ll get the original manuscript back—but with some extra redline. Don’t be alarmed by all the marginal notes or edits! While it can feel overwhelming at first, you may discover a lot about your story that you didn’t realize before.

Depending on the editor, editorial letters can range from a few pages to 10+ pages, single-spaced. Editors may also offer to answer questions you have and do a bit of a back-and-forth following the return of the letter and marked-up manuscript.

What is the difference between a developmental edit and a manuscript evaluation?

You may be wondering at this point what the difference is between a developmental edit and a manuscript evaluation. While both are considered big-picture edits, manuscript evaluations look at the story on a higher level, noting both the strengths and weakness of the work, and summarizing the editor’s thoughts in an editorial letter only. Rather than a marked-up manuscript, you essentially get a reader’s report noting what you’ve done well and what could use more development. 

You may also be wondering how you can know which of these big-picture edits is right for you. To answer that, consider:

  • Your budget. Manuscript evaluations are often less expensive than developmental edits.
  • The work you’ve already done. How many times has your manuscript been read by multiple critique partners or beta readers? Are you looking for more in-depth feedback, rather than something high level? If so, you may want to choose a developmental edit instead.

Having an understanding of these two types of edits will help guide you toward the right service. Some authors choose to do both—to start with a manuscript evaluation, revise based on feedback, and then opt for a developmental edit later on. Some authors even do the opposite—starting with a developmental edit, making the revisions, and then getting a quick reader’s report to determine its effectiveness. Every author’s journey is different and should be tailored to their own needs.

What is the difference between a developmental edit and a copyedit?

The difference between a developmental edit and a copyedit is much easier to spot. A copyedit works within a manuscript at the sentence level, checking spelling, consistency, grammar, and many other technical elements. Some copyeditors also rework sentence structure and flow—others do this as a separate service called line editing. Again, this depends on the editor.

Authors who are planning to traditionally publish generally don’t need to pursue a copyedit. However, those who plan to self-publish should strongly consider a copyedit after they’ve revised their manuscripts according to big-picture feedback. This will ensure they put out the most professional and polished work possible.

2. Tips for finding the right developmental editor.

Finding the right developmental editor can seem like a daunting task. A simple Google search for “freelance editor” presents you with hundreds of choices.

So how do you pick? Consider these tips to narrow down your search:

  • Choose an editor who works within your age category. Which editors are well versed in working with your age category? For example, are you writing YA or middle grade? Consider an experienced children’s editor. 
  • Choose an editor who works within your genre. Writing sci-fi? Choose an editor who has worked with and read lots of sci-fi novels. Many editors cover multiple genres; just make sure they are interested in and have experience with yours.
  • Price does not always correlate with quality. You’ve definitely heard the phrase, “you get what you pay for.” The cheapest quote does not always mean you’re going to get the best quality of service. Many editors charge based on their experience, their business expenses, and even the cost of living where they are. However, that’s not to say editors who quote lower won’t give you the quality and service you need. Just be sure to have a dialogue with them, see if the services and/or experience they offer match what you need, and determine whether their vision for your manuscript is compatible with yours. On the other end of the spectrum, beware of editors who charge extremely high prices. Take a look at the EFA rate chart for an idea of the ranges different edits can cost.

There’s also nothing wrong with talking to multiple editors to get a feel for how they work, how they interact with you, and what they each bring to the table. Most editors will ask for a sample of your work to get to know your writing style and to gauge the amount of work your project will need. This is a great first step for both sides, since you’ll receive a more accurate quote and they’ll have a better idea of what you require.

3. How to go through your developmental edit.

Once you’ve selected your editor and signed your agreement with them, there’s a bit of a waiting game. Many editors will be booked out and unable to start on your project right away, but that’s okay! Start a new project. Or, take a well-deserved break.

Once you receive the developmental edit, though, you might be feeling one thing: overwhelmed.

That’s why at this point, I’d like to go through helpful ways to process the edit once your editor has sent it back to you:

  • Break it into pieces. Don’t read through everything at once. Read the overarching editorial letter first, then take a step back. Let the notes and ideas and feedback sink in. Then, perhaps the next day (or even a few days later), read through the marginal notes and edits that were made directly in the manuscript. Giving your brain time to let the feedback soak in does wonders for clearing your head and allowing you to process the information more easily.
  • Don’t start revising right away. Once you’ve looked through all of the feedback from the edit, take another break. Yes, another break. Take time to let the feeling of overwhelm subside so you can be in the best possible position to develop your ideas for revision.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask questions. After you digest the editorial notes and before you start revising, ask your editor to answer any questions or clarification needs. Share your concerns. Coming at this with a level head encourages an effective dialogue between both of you. 

Of course, different writers and editors will say different things about how to approach getting feedback. However, the same sentiment remains: Developmental edits usually (if not always) lead to substantial revision. Be open to the process, to new and exciting ideas, and your writing will be all the better for it.

Developmental edits don’t have to be scary, stressful, or overwhelming. They’re a necessary step toward developing your best story. In fact, even writers who traditionally publish still receive this edit from their publishing house. It’s an essential part of the publishing journey.

As you can see, whether you traditionally publish or go indie, developmental edits will play a prominent role in getting your novel to the finish line. Embrace the challenge, and you’ll thank yourself later. Good luck!