Updated: Aug 19, 2022
Way back in June 2018, I wrote a blog article about developmental edits. I have just read it for the first time since I published it and it’s held up well. In December 2021, I wrote an article for my blog defining five levels of editing: developmental, substantive, line, copy, and proofreading.
Even though I have defined a developmental edit in two other articles I’ve written, I have a few new insights I want to share.
What is a Developmental Edit?
Developmental edits are often what finished first-draft manuscripts need. Why? Because a DE is done to have another pair of eyes give your manuscript a big picture review. DEs are organizational and structural edits, since the editor will look at your entire manuscript to evaluate how effectively and thoroughly the material is organized and presented.
For nonfiction, a DE checks to see if the chapter arrangement is logical, the text has a cohesive flow, jargon is defined (or eliminated), and tone and word usage are appropriate to the purpose and audience.
For creative nonfiction, such as memoir, the DE looks at how well the writer has established a theme, how well the plot develops the theme, how well characters are presented, and whether the tone and pace (tempo) of the writing is right for the subject and audience.
What are the Benefits of a DE?
There are several reasons you should have an editor do a DE on your finished first draft:
Offer an objective point of view
Bring a beginner’s mind approach
Fill the experience gap
Let’s look at these three benefits.
I, too, am a writer. I know from my own experience that the more time and effort I put into a piece of writing, the less objective I am able to be about it. I either fall in love with my writing and grimace at the thought of changing a single word, or I hate everything I’ve written and want to delete the Word doc and throw the printout into the wastebasket!
The importance of objectivity cannot be overemphasized. I think it is almost impossible to be completely honest about the quality (or effectiveness) of our own writing. What we create—whether a blog article, essay, memoir, novel, or textbook—is like our baby. As an editor, I have found that critiquing a manuscript is like criticizing someone child—it can cause offense.
That is why it is imperative to keep an open mind when working with an editor during a DE.
Simply, beginner’s mind means adopting the mindset of a beginner.
It means you approach everything you write as if you are hearing it, thinking about it, or describing it for the first time—free of preconceptions, expectations, and judgments.
With nonfiction (self-help, how-to, educational, etc.) writing with a beginner’s mind forces you to present your material using these three old-school guidelines:
1. Known to unknown
2. General to specific
3. Simple to complex
I talked about these in my blog post Three Simple Rules to Clear Writing. The purpose of these rules is to create a piece of writing that builds your material by starting on familiar ground and slowly slipping in new or more complex ideas.
With creative nonfiction, such as memoir, a beginner’s mind forces you to realize that your reader does not know you or anything about you, your family, your life’s experiences, and so on; therefore, you must take the reader by the hand and gently ease them into every aspect of your journey.
Filling the Experience Gap
This is the most basic benefit of having a DE done on your manuscript—editors know stuff you don’t. Stuff about how to identify a theme and stick with it, how to identify the most appropriate audience for your theme, how to be clear and concise, and how to present your material in a way that will inform, entertain, teach, and support.
In a blog post from May 2020, Overwriting, the Death of Clarity, I quote English and Rhetoric Professor Richard Norquist: Overwriting is a wordy writing style characterized by excessive detail, needless repetition, overwrought figures of speech, and/or convoluted sentence structures.
These kinds of issues jump off the page at me. Fixing them are part and parcel of what I do for a living. Chances are excellent they are not what you concern yourself with on a daily basis. Hence, filling the experience gap.
The Benefits are Worth the Investment
Yes, I know, I'm an editor so, of course, I would tell you that the money you spend on editing is worth every penny. But honestly, it's true.
Think of writing with the goal of being published as a business. Be a professional throughout the process. Being in control means being responsible. Take each step in
the process seriously.
In addition to working as a nonfiction and creative nonfiction editor and writing coach, I am co-author, with Dr. Terri Lyon, of the book Make a Difference with Mental Health Activism: No activism degree required—use your unique skills to change the world. Visit my website page Make a Difference and Dr. Lyon’s activism website Life At The Intersection to learn more about Make a Difference, including how to place bulk orders.