You try so hard to write a kick-ass novel that will wow readers and get everyone talking. Then you go around in circles tweaking and rewriting. Because you need to get it just perfect! And for a while, your book genuinely seems to be getting better. Then you lose a subplot or a character falls out stage left.
Now you’re demoralised and stressed out. Your manuscript has turned into a monster, complete with tentacles. (Where did all these loose bits come from?)
You’ve struggled to find reliable beta readers. Maybe you’ve tried online writing groups only to feel intimidated or frustrated because some of the advice just seemed plain wrong or contradictory.
Unfortunately, serious indie authors and those hoping to submit to agents will always struggle with polishing their work. Everyone does, including seasoned professionals.
Indie writers don’t have a publisher to help
When you have an agent and a publishing house, you have a team working to support you and your book. You can take confidence in trained experts making your book the best it can be.
But when you’re publishing yourself or just starting out, you don’t have these things. Then, you’re often dependent on the conflicting advice of writing groups and beta readers.
Worse, they’re not trained to spot underlying problems, let alone anticipate the way different fixes impact one another in a manuscript. Because when you change one thing it can have a knock-on effect on everything else. Other writers or beta readers can also base their advice on how they would have written the book if it was theirs. That’s not the kind of advice you want. Because it’s not their book, it’s yours.
You need someone who will respect your author voice and intentions.
How developmental editing helps you
That’s where developmental editing comes in. Developmental editing, also known as structural editing or substantive editing, is the first round of editing. This is where a professional assesses the big picture issues in your manuscript. They look for plot holes, structural problems, slow pacing, weak characterisation, and more.
Think about it – how often have you given up on a novel you were reading because the story didn’t seem to be going anywhere or the characters were two-dimensional? A developmental edit highlights issues like this and allows you to fix them. Developmental editing takes your work to a whole new level.
If you’re an indie author and you want to attract readers, your book cover design really matters. It’s one of your most important marketing tactics.
Have you ever gone into a bookstore and felt overwhelmed by all the books to choose from?
What motivates you to pick up an unknown book?
Snappy or intriguing title? Or were you attracted by the cover image? Did it call to you to investigate further and check out the back cover blurb?
Cover design is the magnet that draws the eye and piques curiosity. It can draw attention even from the other side of a bookstore. Even from a distance, when you can’t yet read the author’s name or the book’s title.
And that’s why your book cover design matters.
Of course, book covers accomplish other things too. They indicate genre, age group, connect to existing trends, even hint at the story’s atmosphere (creepy, suspenseful, erotic).
Cover art speaks to emotions – and this is important in marketing. There are genres where speaking to emotions is particularly important – romance being the primary example. But you might be in the mood for something suspenseful or creepy. Horror and thriller covers also speak to a potential reader’s emotions.
The style of the cover might connect to a particular subgenre or resemble the cover art on a more famous book. This is a way for publishers to indicate fast that if you like those other books in this category, you’ll probably like this one too.
With so many books to choose from, a design department has to come up with ways to make it easy for the right readers to find their book. The cover art offers visual clues. The book’s title might also offer clues.
Your book needs to stand out from the crowd. In a saturated market – and this is particularly true on Amazon – you need people to see that your book exists. And that it looks professional, intriguing, exciting.
If the cover is plain and offers no hints about the genre, someone browsing on Amazon is likely to ignore it.
Book buyers are accustomed to helpful cover design – covers that act as filters for what they do and don’t like.
The cover design should attract the right readers. It should never trick people into thinking the book is something it isn’t. For example, you wouldn’t put a historical couple embracing on the cover of a modern horror novel. If a reader buys the book on the basis of the cover alone, they are going to feel cheated.
Also, if the cover art and design are subpar, it will be difficult to stand out from the crowd. Furthermore, if the design is poor, potential readers will likely draw conclusions about the overall quality of the book, including the story, characterisation, formatting, etc.
A good cover shows the writer has taken a professional approach to their work. But it also allows the writer to better compete with traditionally published authors. If your book looks like a traditionally published book, it’s more likely to draw readers.
As well as using high-quality cover art, you should ensure your covers look good as thumbnails because this is how they will appear on sites like Amazon. Equally, you need to make sure your fonts match your genre and cover design, and that the text is clear and readable both at full size and in thumbnail.
Most people cannot produce great cover art or choose the right fonts for their own books.
Even people with design skills can do a bad job because cover art and what works for the market are not their specialties.
Also, cover art should be chosen on the basis of what appeals to readers rather than what a writer might want. This might seem annoying, but if you want to attract sales, you have to put yourself in the place of readers.
It’s worth doing quite a lot of research on your genre, particularly in relation to the newest styles and what the traditional publishing industry is producing. Design departments in publishing houses have experts who know what they’re doing. If they’re following a particular trend, you can jump on board.
Indie authors who want high-quality book covers have a number of options. You can hire designers for bespoke covers, or you can visit a site that is selling premade cover art. In the case of the latter, the fonts are already in place. You just need to change the title, author name, etc.
Some premade cover art sells for hundreds of dollars, but there are decent covers for well under $100. If you only want an ebook cover, the price is lower. If you want a back cover for a print edition, you’ll have to pay more.
Likewise, if you want to add in banner advertising, and ads for specific social media sites, that pushes the price up further. However, a streamlined set of marketing images to use on multiple platforms is a great professional look that will help you stand out from the crowd.
Sites providing premade covers
Please note – I have not tried any of these services, so I cannot recommend them. They are just examples of the kinds of sites out there.
There’s a problem I’ve encountered with a number of my developmental editing clients.
They paid for a copyedit or proofread of their novel or memoir and only then sent their manuscript to me.
I think there are a number of reasons:
Writers don’t always know the correct order of editing (which I deal with below).
They got a copyedit/proofread but it was later suggested they needed a critique too. Ouch! Money wasted.
They published the book (without a critique) and then needed to pull it to improve it.
The copyeditor/proofreader wasn’t honest about the type of editing that was needed.
The copyeditor/proofreader was honest but the client ignored it for any number of reasons.
I’ve also noticed that some clients are sending me formatted books that are still early on in their development.
This can sometimes make the editing a little more difficult.
It’s best to send manuscripts with double-spaced text, but some people are sending single-spaced documents that already look like ebooks. Not so much space to leave margin comments.
Are you wasting your money on a copyedit or proofread?
Developmental editing requires rewriting parts of the book.
You might have to restructure the book, change parts of the plot, delete scenes or chapters.
If you have the book copyedited first, you’ve totally wasted your money because you’re going to have to have the book edited again, once the developmental editing is complete.
Here is the editorial timeline:
Critique partners/writing groups/beta readers.
Professional beta readers if you choose to use this service.
Developmental editor – either a critique or a full developmental edit.
Proofreading is the final stage to check everything is correct and spelling and formatting are consistent, etc.
You don’t have to go through every layer of editing here. You could choose the following:
Writing group/critique partners
This would be cheaper though it wouldn’t be as detailed. Still, if you’re on a budget, it’s worth bearing in mind.
There is absolutely no point in paying for copyediting and proofreading when you’re still working on the plot and bigger picture issues.
Seriously folks, don’t do this.
Some of my writers have completely wasted time and money on copyeditors and/or proofreaders. Indie publishing already has costs. Don’t make it more expensive than is necessary.
You want the best book you can deliver to readers, but you also don’t want to get ripped off in the process.
Want to try a free sample developmental edit?
I’m currently offering a free sample edit of 3000 words. This will include an editorial report and track commenting in the margins of your manuscript. If you’re interested, you can contact me at: email@example.com
The manuscript should be in Word. I will consider a pdf or Google doc, but please let me know first if you can’t provide a Word doc. It’s the standard file format for developmental editing.
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?
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, 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?
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 track comments 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. But here’s what it should include:
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 developmental edit 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. This 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. Editors will vary in terms of the length of their manuscript critique report versus their developmental editing report.
Prices have 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. This option includes an edit of a portion of the manuscript or even a triage edit. The latter focuses on the main problems and lets the smaller issues slide.
With a full manuscript critique you should expect the following:
It should come with the acknowledgement that you don’t have to take all the advice it contains.
If you’ve communicated concerns about your manuscript, 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 half addressing my concerns, and then the second half addressing her own, which she listed in chronological order rather than under subject headings.
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. 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, the editor’s commentary at the end might matter more for rewriting the beginning. In a chronological narrative, it doesn’t necessarily matter so much.
But whether you have an editorial letter or full DE, don’t be surprised if you need weeks to digest it. Some comments and information might hit you hard 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. Then you can 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 that, 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. They make notes, 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, then it’s worth having a manuscript critique. That way you can see what should 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 most benefit from a full developmental edit. However, 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 know 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*
*Courses marked with an asterisk have since been moved to Club Ed and are no longer available at the EFA. There are also other courses available from tutor, Jennifer Lawler, at the Club Ed site.
It’s worth pointing 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 who is an experienced editor. However, it’s optional and not obligatory.
The EFA/Club Ed 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 who is also an experienced editor.
Want to try a free developmental editing sample of 2,500 words?
If you want to trial developmental editing and see if we’re a good fit, you can try a free sample edit. This will include a report and track commenting in the manuscript. Obviously, there will be limitations to what I can say with such a small sample of your work, but it will give you an idea of what’s involved. The maximum wordcount is 2,500 and this offer is open only for novellas and novels. It does not include short stories or non-fiction. However, if you are working on a memoir, you can also contact me about a sample edit.