What is the difference between a manuscript critique and a full developmental edit? What can you expect from each service and which might be best for your circumstances?

The basics

Developmental editing focuses on the so-called “big picture” elements of a book – the plot, characterisation, theme, structure and so on. Just to confuse things further, it’s also known as content editing, substantive editing, or structural editing.

Whatever you want to call it, it’s the first step in professional editing, often preceded by writing group feedback and beta readers.

When a writer wants their manuscript critiqued, they’re still in the process of polishing their overall story. Copyediting focuses on language, grammar, punctuation, consistency (including the use of a style guide), and legal issues like copyright law, trademark law, and libel issues. And that’s just a few of the things a copyeditor will deal with.

By the time you get to a proofreader, most of the errors should be gone.

Of course, not everyone can afford one round of editing, let alone several.

So, what are the benefits of a developmental edit or manuscript critique? Unlike critique partners or writing group friends, an editor brings fresh eyes to the entire manuscript. They can see what’s there, not what the writer thinks is there. During rewrites, it’s all too easy for a writer to remove things by accident. Writers also have a different picture of what’s on the page. They can fill in the gaps. An editor’s job is to point out those gaps so they can be plugged before the book is published.

What’s a developmental edit?

You should expect the following in a full developmental edit:

  • An editorial letter
  • A copy of your manuscript with track comments or commentary/corrections/suggestions in the margins

I’m going to deal with the manuscript commentary first. What should you expect there?

  • Track commenting or other editorial input in the submitted manuscript
  • These comments deal with both macro and micro issues
  • The macro (big picture) issues are likely to be further addressed in the accompanying editorial letter
  • The micro issues are usually not important enough for the editorial letter unless they represent a repeating problem – in which case they become a macro issue.
  • Some editors also offer some level of line editing in the manuscript, but there’s a limit to how much is useful since the writer is likely to rewrite their book
  • Some level of line editing can be used as a sample of what to do, as a coaching service, teaching the writer how to handle a particular issue in their next draft
  • At its best, a good DE can offer constructive critique beyond the manuscript in question – it should also offer advice that can be carried over into the writer’s next book

So, what about the accompanying editorial letter? Bearing in mind this is a full developmental edit and not a manuscript critique (which I address further down), the letter doesn’t have to carry the weight of the entire editorial commentary.

  • The editorial letter should acknowledge early on that the author is under no obligation to follow all the suggestions made by the editor
  • Editorial letters often contain the proviso that the editor may have misread certain things and to disregard any suggestions that may result
  • If the writer has asked the editor to check out certain issues they’re concerned about, the editor will address those questions somewhere in the editorial letter (and possibly the manuscript itself)
  • In general, the letter should focus on the overarching issues and address the main points
  • It should provide a clear roadmap for revision
  • It should not consist of a long list of disconnected problems and no overall solutions
  • The editor should be looking for the smallest number of solutions that fix the largest number of problems
  • The letter (and the track commenting in the manuscript) should address things the writer does well – since writers often don’t understand their own strengths, let alone how such skills can be used in other parts of their manuscript)

Some editors also include supplementary material like diagrams, book maps, or a style guide.

A DE should be a workable plan the writer can understand and implement. It should also be a plan that has anticipated the fallout that occurs when you start making changes. Making one significant change alone can set off a chain reaction throughout the manuscript. Imagine making several changes!

That’s the kind of thing an editor should anticipate. An editor never knows what suggestions the writer will take on board, and what will be rejected, so this is not a science. However, I’ll offer up examples of what I call fallout or the domino effect.

In a novel I wrote, I later figured out (through doing a critique of my own manuscript) that a viewpoint change would solve numerous problems.

  • It allowed me to get closer to the characters even though I’d moved from first to third
  • My main modern character no longer had to know what happened in the past
  • Switching to third allowed a more immediate experience of the past, including moments of tension – previously many events had been recorded in diaries or letters
  • And of course, people in real life self-censor in diaries and letters, especially in the past, so written personal accounts are not the best means to represent the more intimate facts of a character’s life
  • Moving to third allowed easier point of view shifts, including within chapters, which then allowed me to tightly weave the historic backstory with the modern story
  • And that led to serious restructuring where material became more evenly distributed throughout the manuscript
  • This also helped pace and other problems

The point is that one suggestion can have multiple effects on a manuscript. And not necessarily in a good way. Which is why an editor needs to consider the possible knock-on effects of their suggestions.

On the other hand, if an editor can come up with core solutions that solve multiple problems, it leads to a clearer plan of action. The downside for the writer, at least in some instances, is a more substantial rewrite than they’d hoped for. However, if your central plot is solid, and your characters are vibrant, you already have solid foundations for the next draft.

So let’s look at the more abbreviated manuscript critique service.

What can you expect in a manuscript critique?

First of all, there’s no track commenting or editing of the manuscript. This means that the editorial letter has to carry the full weight of the feedback.

Although manuscript critique services are cheaper, that doesn’t necessarily mean the editorial letter is shorter. The price of one service versus the other is more to do with the amount of work involved and the time it takes to complete it. Authors on a budget might also request an abbreviated service (an edit of a portion of the manuscript) or even a triage edit – one that focuses on the main problems and lets the smaller issues slide.

So, with a manuscript critique you should expect the following:

  • It should come with the usual acknowledgement that you don’t have to take all the advice it contains
  • If you’ve communicated concerns about your manuscript – maybe you’re worried your characters aren’t fleshed out enough – the editor should address these concerns somewhere in the letter
  • The editorial letter may follow a template structure, dealing with different topics such as plot, theme, character, etc, each under different headings. This is also true of a DE letter
  • Not all critique letters follow a template structure – I had one where the editor spent the first part of the letter addressing my concerns, and then the second half addressing her own, which she listed in chronological order rather than under subject headings. So she started at the beginning of my manuscript and worked her way to the end
  • The letter should deal with the big issues and some of the medium level issues at least. But it’s less likely to deal with very small problems in the manuscript unless they follow a pattern
  • A good manuscript critique should be able to assess the current state of your manuscript and offer advice on how to improve it

As for the length of the editorial letter, this will vary according to the needs of your manuscript, the working practices of the editor and the size and extent of the critique you purchased.

Also, listing issues and problems separately without an overarching plan can lead to a longer letter that isn’t necessarily as helpful as one that focuses on the central issues. So, the length of the letter is not a sign of how useful it will be or the quality of the service.

How to deal with a critique or DE

So, how should a writer handle editorial feedback?

I’ve been on the end of an editorial letter myself, and I can confirm that there’s a lot to take on board. Inevitably, a full DE has even more information to digest.

As an aside, one of my tutors claimed she’d never met a writer who’d read all the way through the track commenting in their manuscript before they started revising. My first thought was that’s exactly what I would do as a writer. I’d want to see the bigger picture with the feedback before I started revising. But how useful it would be might relate to whether a novel is written in chronological order. If scenes appear out of sequence, it might matter more to read through to the end to see what the commentary is there, just in case you need to know this stuff before you start rewriting or restructuring. In a chronological narrative, it doesn’t necessarily matter so much.

But whether you only have an editorial letter, or you have a full DE, don’t be surprised if you need weeks or even longer to digest. Some comments and information might hit you first – especially those you’re more resistant to. There might be gems buried in the letter that you initially miss. You need to read the letter more than once, and you also need to put it away for a while before returning to it. This is especially true if you don’t like the feedback.

Good editorial feedback should be what you need to hear, not what you want to hear. The latter is simply a waste of money.

Some editors will include a time frame in which you can send them questions or request clarification, after which you have to pay them for more consultation time. There are some who will not include much aftercare.

I think for less experienced authors, aftercare is important. But it does eat into an editor’s schedule.

A full developmental edit can take around four to six weeks depending on the length and complexity of the manuscript. The editor has to read the manuscript several times, make notes, start putting together a plan, add track commenting, draw up and organise the editorial letter, etc, and check they haven’t missed anything.

Which service is best for your needs?

If you’re intending to send your manuscript to an agent, then you don’t need a full developmental edit. Of course, you might want one, but you don’t need it. Technically, you don’t need a manuscript critique either. Agents don’t expect to see perfect novels landing in their inboxes. However, many authors do choose to have some level of manuscript critique – you can opt for abbreviated versions that focus on the main issues while letting the small stuff slide.

If you’re submitting to agents and getting knockbacks, it’s worth pausing and having a manuscript critique or even an assessment to see what can be done to improve your book. Then you can revise and continue submitting.

If you reach the end of the line with agents or the traditional publishing industry, you still have the option of the indie route.

Indie authors probably most benefit from a full developmental edit, but the service is sadly beyond the reach of most price-wise. However, it’s worth keeping an eye out for special deals and newer editors who probably won’t charge as much. I’ve listed good DE courses below so you can get a sense of what to look for in an editor’s training.

  • Developmental Editing: Fiction Theory – Liminal Pages
  • Developmental Editing: In Practice – Liminal Pages
  • Introduction to Developmental Editing: Book-Length Fiction and Creative Nonfiction – Author-Editor Clinic
  • Developmental Editing of Fiction – Beginning, Editorial Freelancers Association
  • Developmental Editing of Fiction – Intermediate, EFA
  • Developmental Editing of Fiction – Advanced, EFA

It’s worth point out that the Author-Editor Clinic course offers trainee editors the opportunity to write a manuscript critique letter in their final assignment and have it reviewed by the course tutor. However, it’s optional and not obligatory.

The EFA Advanced DE course focuses on a full developmental edit with an editorial letter and track commenting in the manuscript. This is a very intensive course and the final edit and letter are reviewed by the course tutor.