Developmental Edit

So when I introduced this series, the Five Types of Editing, I mentioned that writing involves really two types of craft – Fiction Craft and Writing Craft. The edit that I’m going to talk about today is what helps build and strengthen the story through the first of those crafts, and that is the Developmental Edit. This has a few other names, depending on the editor. Developmental is the most common I have found. Another common name is the Substantive Edit.

Several types of edits make up the Developmental Edit, and each of these edits are their own skill set. I put the following type of edits under the Developmental Edit umbrella:

  • Project Editing – Coordination of the project from beginning to end
  • Structural Editing – Content and structure of the manuscript
  • Indexing – listing names, places, clothes, residences, concepts, etc.
  • Fact Checking/Reference Editing – Do you include references to poems and songs, artwork, places, etc? Are these referenced correctly and are facts about them true?
  • Picture Research – Are you including illustrations in your work? If so, where will they go? How will you reference them? Do you have the adequate permissions?
  • Rewriting – Just that: rewriting the work. This can also include rewriting other shorter snippets of stories into the new work.

This type of edit is very collaborative. If you working through a publishing house, you may have one editor who does all of this, or several. This process takes place throughout the drafting process and most writers (especially independent ones) do it without even thinking about it. When you finish that first draft and begin putting your bible together, when you start doing things like making sure that when Devon walked out of the house in a red shirt that it did not somehow morph into a blue one at the mall – you are doing a Developmental Edit. When you decide what extra scenes need to be added in, and what scenes need to be taken out.

When you sit down before ever writing the first word and create an outline.

These are all part of the Developmental Edit process.

Simply put, this is when you look at the structure of your work as a whole and decide what needs to be done in the Rewriting process. In fiction, the editor considers all of the elements of fiction – characterization, conflict, plot, pacing, and scene – and determines if these elements are functioning as they should for the story that is being told.

Structural changes are determined in this edit. Tense, point of view, and narrative format are all examined to determine if they work for the story. The editor may read a story written in a strict time progression and determine that the story would be better understood, its impacts felt more strongly by the reader, if the time jumped between the present and related past events. The Hours by Michael Cunningham is a great example of how storytelling holds together and builds impact by skipping between not only point of view characters but time as well.

In this stage of the editing process, a lot of give and take happens between the author and the editor. An editor will suggest a change, but unless the author has a contractual obligation to make the change, it is up to the author on whether or not to actually implement it.

When I was writing both The Shulim Cycle Book of Dahlia and Book of Susan, I had several points where my editor wanted to see specific changes. Some of the changes I agreed with and made them. Some of them I did not like. I did not feel that they fit the characters and the story as a whole. A few of them I compromised with my editor. I did not make the changes per se, but I did change how things were written so that what I wanted worked in the direction that the editor’s changes were pointing.

How long does a Developmental Edit take?

Until it is done. I hate to put it that way, but this type of edit can take weeks, months, even years. It took me about three years to write Book of Dahlia and another two to write Book of Susan. The next book, Book of Nathan, is in the outlining process.

The Shulim Cycle began as a short story that I wrote when I was in high school called Shallin’s Revival. I found it and let my editor read it. He liked it, but found the story to be incredibly dense. We began plotting out a new story, taking the rather shallow, secondary character of Devon in the short story and placing more plot emphasis on him.

I had also in recent years re-imagined certain characters and created story bits for them. When I decided to expand the original short story, I turned to those story snippets to help create the new work.

We stretched the story from short story to novel and found it was still too much. Too many things were happening. At this stage, I was not happy with certain directions that Devon had taken – he had ended up darker than I wanted him to be. My editor felt that he was too weak as a character for the weight being placed upon him. We went back to the drawing board and began working again, searching for things that needed to be expanded on. We made some decisions about the primary characters in the story and their relationships.

When all of that was done, we found that we had the wide arch of the original short story, and several distinct novels to go along with it. I had The Shulim Cycle. We set up basic outlines for what would need to occur in each book to make the story arch complete, and I started writing Book of Dahlia.

In all of that, I only covered the planning stage. Book of Dahlia still went through about two forms before I got to the finished product. Once I had that, I still had to decide if I wanted to include Dahlia’s flashbacks or if I wanted to hint at them. Dahlia had about seven rewrites. Susan is on draft six – which is the mechanical edit draft, so done as far as drafting goes.

In other words – developmental editing takes a long time. How fast it goes depends on how much you and your editor argue about drafts, how well you can accept input and/or explain your reasons for dismissing it, and how quickly you write new drafts.

If you’re going to hire an editor to help you with Developmental Editing, understand what all is involved. You may not need or want all of the things I have talked about above. Some editors will review a work with you – most of the time charging a nominal fee – to help you decide what will benefit you and your work the most. Once you determine what you need from this type of editor, find one that will be able to deliver. Make sure that he or she has the time to go back and forth with you in reviewing drafts and suggestions. Be open to hear things you may not want to hear.

And make sure that you know up front what back and forth will be included in the editor’s fees. The last thing that you want is to be half way through your drafting and discovering that you have an unexpected bill.

That is the Developmental Edit. Remember you can read this over on StreetWraith Press as well. If you have any comments or anything you want to share about your experiences working through the Developmental Edit process – alone, with another author, or with an editor – then please feel free to add them in the comments. I’ll be including, later, some tips about the Developmental Edit, putting together lists, drafting, etc, and I may even include some of your comments as well (with kudos obviously because that’s how I roll).

And as always, good writing (and editing) everyone.


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