Why you need a developmental editor

Tom Allen’s successful Kickstarter project, Love on a Bike, reveals a discovery that every person writing a book needs to know. After the video’s beautiful intro of cycling around the world and falling in love, we see Tom typing away on his laptop. “My name is Tom,” says the voiceover, “And really, ever since I began travelling, I’ve been wanting to write a book. I’ve got to a point now where I’m on the very edge of having finished that book…”  Hurrah! we think. Done! But Tom has become wiser:

… and that, I’ve discovered, is a more complicated and a more expensive process than I’d realised. There are various stages of editing involved. The developmental stage – making sure that the story works, from a structural point of view. Then comes copy-editing, which is to take that text and make it say what it wants to say in the best possible way…

Most people know that their book will need “editing” – copy-editing. What they often don’t realise is that it needs developmental editing too. “Editing” actually covers at least four different things: proofreading, style editing (or copy editing), structural editing, and developmental editing. The first thing you need is developmental editing.

What’s a developmental editor?

Your developmental editor is a literary consultant, a mentor, a book coach: your book-writing guru. Publishers and agents used to play this role, working with authors on the book and advising on redrafts, but few still do this. (Their profit margins generally don’t let them. The big booksellers, most infamously Amazon, squeeze publishers for bigger and bigger percentage discounts, with 40% now standard.) Like Tom, you might think you’re on the edge of having finished that book – but in reality, you’re on the edge of having finished the first draft. When you’re writing about your area of expertise, no-one expects you to be an expert in writing books as well, but they do expect you to write an expert book. So you get in a book expert, structured support to go from first draft to fabulous.

When should I get a developmental editor?

If you’re starting a book, you can get in a mentor from the outset – have a look at the Springboard programme, to see how that works. If you’re already writing it or have “finished”, you can send your writing so far plus an outline or your complete first draft for critique.

What does a developmental editor do?

Your developmental editor is your consultant: they’ll advise you on what you need to do and guide you through that. They’re the book expert (not an expert in your field) and an advocate for the reader. In practice, they’ll read everything you’ve written, for a total overview, and then advise you on three main areas:

  • your structure: Does it fit the information? Will it suit your readers? Is it consistent? Does it run smoothly or is it choppy, referring back and forth awkwardly? Is your model explaining your ideas in the best possible way or muddying the waters?
  • your content: Is it pitched right for your readers – is it too simple, too masterclass, or perfect Goldilocks? Is key content missing? How are you using examples, research, case studies? Is it evenly balanced across the main topics?
  • your style: This should be natural, clear, and authoritative. Does it get too formal or too chatty? Is there jargon that will confuse or alienate readers? (It’s a fine line between coining terms you’ll own and creating an in-club that the reader’s standing outside.)  Is your tone right? You want to advise without being bossy or judgemental, share your experience without undermining your expertise, and deal tactfully with counter-examples.

The developmental editor will give you all this feedback – and then you get to work. Draft two: you reorganise, add content, rewrite bits, act on everything you’ve been told, and then send it back for a second review. You can do this stage chapter by chapter, getting each one done before moving onto the next, or as part of a mentoring programme, or by reworking the whole book then resubmitting it.

And then? Rinse and repeat as necessary! Don’t be surprised or disheartened if your book goes through more than two reviews. Any writer will tell you that writing multiple drafts is normal. Some of the best books I’ve worked on have gone through four or more rounds of review – and have come out the other end spectacular.

Unexpected riches

Developmental editing will make your book much, much better, but unexpected riches lie in wait for you, too. This process will pull out a lot of new content – new to the book and sometimes new to you. You discover fresh insights, new shapes to your ideas, even material for new workshops.

If your book is going to represent you, you can’t afford to skimp on quality. As Tom Allen says, “I’d like more people than my mum to read it. (No offence to her. She is my most important reader.)” Make it the best book possible – get developmental editing.

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