Why I Decided to, How I Picked One, What the Experience was Like, and What I Learned
In this blog post, I will share some behind-the-scenes thoughts on my first time working with a developmental editor. All insights are based on MY experience and are specific to the process of working with MY developmental editor for Most Unlikely, a women’s fiction novel which will release in 2023.
What is a Developmental Editor?
Before we get into my personal experience, it’s important to define “developmental editor” and what this sort of editor does in comparison to other editors. It may or may not be what you are thinking.
Oftentimes, when we refer to an “editor” without any other clarification, we imply a line editor / copy editor. This sort of editor takes a look at your manuscript on a sentence level and provides feedback on the specifics like word choice, grammar, dialogue, character voice consistency, etc. As such, you would want to work with a copy editor in the later stages of your writing process (prior only to a proofread).
On the contrary, a developmental editor takes a look at your manuscript more holistically and provides feedback on bigger picture things like pacing, character arcs, themes, and narrative voice. Of course, there is sometimes crossover (and many developmental editors work as copy editors too but hiring them for both is generally still considered two separate services).
You would want to work with a developmental editor sooner in your process—but still when your manuscript is in a pretty strong state. Many developmental editors will recommend (or even require) you to have already done a round of beta reading before sending them your manuscript.
Why I Decided to Work with a Developmental Editor
While writing my debut women’s fiction novel, Most Unlikely, I decided to work with a developmental editor for a number of reasons. Firstly, although I have already published Fairly Familiar and Snapshots of Spain, this is the first time I will be publishing a novel-length story.
I’ve done a decent amount of studying my craft. I’ve read books like On Writing, Save the Cat!, Story Genius, The Plot Whisperer, etc and so I felt I understood story structure well enough to lay out the plot and execute the early drafts of my novel on my own. For this reason, I bypassed working with a book coach or other “full-service”-style editors who specialize in accompanying authors throughout their full writing process.
However, I have high hopes for my novel. Although it is a debut in one sense (because it’s my first novel), it’s also my third publication, so I want to ensure it is in the best shape possible. Despite being confident in my writing, I knew that a set of professional eyes on it would ensure that big picture things were on par with reader expectations.
To be fair, editing can get expensive and so I don’t know that I will necessarily invest in this service for every book that I write. Even so, I felt it was a good experience to have at some point and what better novel to work with a developmental editor on than my first one—when I have the least experience and the most to learn?
How I Picked the Right Editor for my Project
Once I was set on the decision to work with a developmental editor, I needed to find the right person for my book. I wanted someone who was experienced, qualified, and ideally knew my genre well. At the same time, I needed to find someone in my budget.
To be perfectly honest, the first three or four editors I looked into were way out of my budget. Additionally, many of these editors were not available in the timeframe I was looking for anyway. I imagine this was either due to higher demand, the fact that they can take on fewer clients due to their higher prices, or a combination of the two.
A bit disappointed, I took to reviewing every account I follow on Instagram to see if there were any editors who had slipped through the cracks of the algorithm (who I had once been interested in enough to follow, but then stopped seeing their content). Thankfully, I came across a handful of editors who fit this description as well as a number of reader or writer accounts I hadn’t realized also offered editing service!
After looking into each of their websites for further information on their certifications, previous work, and packages, I requested a sample edit from three different editors.*
Editor A: Someone whose account I had previously seen as a “reader account,” was just embarking on their editing journey and therefore offering highly discounted rates (which was tempting). However, the sample edit read more like a line edit, especially when compared to the bigger picture recommendations the other two editors made. As such, this was the editor I was easily able to remove from the running.
Editor B: An established editor with numerous testimonials and a 20+ backlist of titles edited (although the majority seemed to be in the fantasy genre). Sample edit provided encouraging and specific feedback, referencing “industry standards,” which led me to believe they were well-versed in their craft. The feedback was also provided in a way that felt intuitive to me (annotations “hand-written” on an iPad). However, this editor didn’t provide a developmental editing-only option so working with them would include a developmental edit + second read-through, but therefore cost slightly more than I had hoped to pay.
Editor C: Someone’s whose account I have previously seen as a “writer account” but actually had an established editing business with testimonials and a 5+ backlist of titles edited (with the majority falling into the women’s fiction genre). Sample edit provided insightful and specific feedback, referencing “industry standards,” which encouraged me to believe they were also well-versed in their craft. Feedback was provided as WordDoc track changes, which are not as easy for me to follow, yet I knew this would probably prove more tactical / efficient for me to implement. Not only was this editor a more economical choice, but they also offered more support than any of the others. In addition to the track changes, they would provide an 8-10 page Edit Letter with overall feedback as well as a call to discuss any questions I had after the edits.
Based on all of the above factors, I decided to go with Editor C, who I felt was the most equipped to provide me genre-specific insights and ongoing support at a price that I could afford.
*For the sake of this post, I will not use any names as many of these factors will change over time and I do not want to leave a lasting impression about any of these professionals. I chose the person I felt would be right editor for MY project, but that doesn’t mean I would have had a negative experience with any of the other editors. If you are looking for an editor yourself and want to know more specifics, feel free to reach out to me directly.
What the Experience was Like for Me
Before the developmental edit
Honestly, I had no idea what to expect going into the experience of working with a developmental editor. I felt confident about the manuscript that I provided them. I had dedicated seven months and a nearly equal number of revisions to it, as well as received very positive feedback from Alpha Readers on the story. Still, it was possible that my editor would see something about the structure or plot or characters that my readers had not.
If huge, overarching changes were recommended, would I be able to make them? In that hypothetical case, I knew that I’d find myself between a rock and a hard place. On one hand, I wouldn’t necessarily want to make the changes because I loved the story the way I had written it, and I had also only accounted for a few more months before I hoped to publish. On the other hand, I would feel that I really ought to make the changes because, if not, what was the point of investing the time and money into working with this professional?
And so, it was with a lot of nerves that I sent my manuscript off to my editor on February 28. As the weeks passed (and as I got very wrapped up in another other project), I stopped worrying so much. In fact, I was almost caught off guard by receiving an email with my editor’s track changes and Edit Letter on March 20, a full eleven days before it was promised! Due to my focus on the Snapshots of Spain re-release at that time, I waited until April to truly dive into the feedback.
Receiving the developmental edit
When I was finally able to sit down with the Edit Letter, I was comforted by the sort of feedback I found there. My editor was instructive while also compassionate. Strategic changes were recommended, but these felt manageable thanks to the clear language and suggested action plan provided. Most importantly, my editor gave plenty of encouragement alongside the constructive feedback.
In the Edit Letter, there were sections that highlighted aspects of the storytelling that I did well, ways in which I hit genre expectations, and confirmation that my story arc and scene beats (at least in the first two-thirds) were well-timed. My themes and characterizations were accurately identified. Thanks to all the ways in which my editor clearly saw and understood my manuscript, I felt certain that that the suggestions were in line with what was truly best for the story that I wanted to tell.
Without getting into all the specifics, I can say that both the Edit Letter and the track changes confirmed exactly what I had hoped from my editor’s website: they respected my unique voice and wanted to help me improve the mechanics of my story without adulterating the essence of it.
What I Learned (Specific to my Manuscript):
My editor provided nine typed pages of feedback in the Edit Letter in addition to track changes and/or comments on every page of my manuscript. As such, there is no way I could succinctly share everything I learned by working with them. However, these were the top three takeaways for me.
Pacing / Story Structure
The latter third of my story fell off the conventional story structure. I was somewhat aware of this, because I had made a lot of changes to the later chapters in later drafts, but I was too close to the story to know how to fix it. My developmental editor was able to provide specific examples and suggestions for how to add more suspense and red herrings to this portion of the story. (Who knew that these weren’t specific only to mysteries!)
Getting some personalized feedback on what sort of words and phrases I use too often in my writing was humbling and eye-opening. You can find plenty of lists of common weasel words or filler words online, but many of mine were not words / phrases I’ve necessarily seen on those lists before. It was very valuable for me to have a keen eye review my writing and provide these specific insights.
For example, I’ve always known that I should reduce the use of words like “very” and “really,” but when self-editing I’ll often decide that in this particular sentence that word does add value and therefore it can stay. However, having a list of the words I should be looking out for made a huge difference.
At my editor’s recommendation, I used the option to search for these words in the document and see just how often I was using each. One particularly pesky word had been used 471 times—yes, 471! By going through and reviewing each of these sentences in succession, I was able to be far more critical and recognize that, most of the time, it was not, in fact, adding any value to my writing.
Perhaps the most important takeaway from working with my developmental editor was a better understanding of narrative distance and how I could improve my writing through the use of Deep POV. Prior to working with a professional, I believed that there was first person narration and third person narration (with the nuance of limited or omniscient) but that was it.
In fact, there are a variety of ways we can control the narrative distance in a story. And, simply writing in first person doesn’t inherently make the relationship between reader and narrator as intimate as you might think. This intimacy needs to be conscientiously cultivated. My developmental editor was able to point out specific places in my manuscript and give me overall guidelines for deepening my POV.
This is the change I spent the most time and attention on during my self-edits. However, I actually got feedback that the writing felt more immersive from Beta Readers who had read the story during the Alpha Reading stage!
What Advice I Would Give to Others Looking for an Editor
I started looking for a developmental editor two months in advance of when I wanted to begin working with them. In retrospect, it may have been a better idea to have given myself three or four months. To put this into context, my top two choices both told me they only had one slot left for March when I contacted them in January.
Additionally, it might be helpful for you to consider that many editors schedule clients by the month, meaning that they only accept manuscripts on the 1st of each month. I was originally planning to have my book ready for developmental editing on March 15, but this was simply not a timeline that they worked with. I would need to have it ready by March 1 or wait until April 1. Thankfully, it was far enough in advance that I was able to adjust my schedule to get it ready by March 1.
(As such, this meant that, when I was contacting them in early January I was actually contacting them less than two months in advance, whereas I thought I would be giving more than two months’ notice.)
As with many things in life, cost is often a big consideration when it comes to editing. Especially as a self-publishing author, you likely have a budget to stick to. Learn a bit about industry standards and have an idea of what price range you can reasonably afford. This will easily help you weed out editors well beyond your budget—as well as help you decide if you’re able invest in professional editing in the first place.
Unfortunately, many websites like Reedsy (where you can find a database of editors) don’t provide pricing upfront and require you to contact them in order to get a quote, but many editors who have their own websites will provide their rates (typically in cents-per-word, but sometimes they have flat rates based on word count ranges).
Remember that more expensive doesn’t necessarily mean higher quality. There are so many factors that go into the prices that different editors set. Oftentimes, newer (but still fantastic) editors will have lower rates in order to get their foot in the door. Be sure to shop around and find someone you personally believe will provide the most value for the price that you can pay.
I highly recommend having a sample edit done by more than one editor. You can learn a lot about the style of feedback and what you can expect from an editor from this sample, so I would always recommend hiring someone who offers a sample first.
If you’ve never worked with a developmental editor before, I think it’s vital to get more than one sample edit. Otherwise, you’ll have nothing to compare to! (Of course, I’m not recommending you request a sample from every editor you can find but approaching a few different editors you can truly envision working with is reasonable.)
I know you may feel bad about asking someone to do this free work, only to turn them down afterwards. However, a professional will never make you feel guilty about this! A sample edit is just that—it’s a bite-size example of the work this editor would do for you. Editors offer this sample knowing that sometimes it will lead to a contract and sometimes it will not. Each editor sets their own guidelines for the length and sort of sample edit they provide, so they have already taken into consideration what is a reasonable amount of work for them to provide free of charge.
Of course, be respectful! Read and adhere to each editor’s individual sample edit guidelines and politely let them know if you will proceed to work with them or not. (In many cases, an editor will reserve the spot you’ve request until they get a definitive answer from you, so don’t leave them hanging.)
At the end of the day, you will be investing a significant amount of money into whichever editor you choose. It is your prerogative to work with the person you feel best about. Confidently gather the insights you need from a few sample edits to make an informed decision.
Finally, be sure to choose someone you believe will respect your voice and your story. Everyone looks for something slightly different in their editing experience. Personally, I knew that I wanted to work with someone who would be respectful of all the hard work I had already poured into my manuscript and who would provide edit suggestions that could elevate my writing (without necessarily tearing it down first).
Prior to even requesting sample edits, I took time to read a few excerpts from the editors’ backlists (you can find these in the “look inside” sample on a book’s Amazon sales page) and so I already had an idea of what sort of writing style these editors were used to working with. My reasoning was that if the editors had edited authors who wrote in a similar way to me, the working relationship would likely be comfortable.
Both sample edits and email interactions then confirmed my belief that this would be the case. They took care to remind me that their edits were, in fact, suggestions and it was ultimately up to me what I chose to implement or not.
In particular, the editor who I chose in the end specifically emphasized striving to honor an author’s voice and vision for her story. I felt comforted by these reminders and encourage you to home in on any such factors that would be equally important to you.
And there you have it, all the insights into my first experience working with a developmental editor. If you can’t tell by now, it was a positive experience for me and I would absolutely recommend it to everyone who finds themselves in a similar situation to me. I hope this detailed account has been useful for you.
Please feel free to share in the comments what YOUR experience was like if you have also worked with a developmental editor or if you have any remaining questions I could answer. You know I love talking craft with fellow writers!