What is Development Editing?

When asking the question, 'what is developmental editing?', you can expect the answer to be complicated and nuanced. It requires an understanding of manuscript editing, the role of developmental editors, and an insight into the developmental editing process as a whole. However, the basic concept is simple.

In short, this type of editing is a process by which a developmental editor helps prepare a book for publication, either traditional or self-publishing. It is sometimes described as 'big picture editing,' and this is a good way to think about the process.

This said, the editing process is both complex and time-consuming and requires an understanding of what editing options are available to you, and what is best for you and your current book.In the article, we look closely at the role of the developmental edit and its impact on your book. We answer the question, 'what is developmental editing?' You will learn how developmental editors approach a book edit, and you'll discover why this type of editing is an essential part of the publishing process.

What is Developmental Editing?

Developmental editing is known by several names, including content editing, structural editing, story editing, comprehensive editing, macro editing, or even heavy editing. However, the most common alternative is called substantive editing.

But they are all the same.

The role of the developmental editor, and the resultant developmental edit, is to ensure that a book is of a publishable standard.

Wikipedia describes developmental editing as "significant structuring or restructuring of a manuscript's discourse".

In reality, editing is a much more involved process. The professional editor will examine the entire manuscript in the process, considering all aspects of the book, including its narrative and structure. They will also consider readability, plot, and flow. Some freelance developmental editors will also look out for line-level problems, such as sentence structure, grammar, and punctuation. The better editors will assess a book's suitability for the marketplace. They may also help you to pinpoint the book's genre correctly.

Developmental Editing Questions

Unlike copy editing, which follows a rigid manual of style, developmental editing is very much about an editor's education, experience, and 'gut feeling'.

This means that the developmental editor's skill is critical if they are to deliver a high-quality developmental edit. During the editorial process, the editor will continuously hold several open-ended questions in their mind. They will apply these questions as they read.

Here are some examples of these questions (there are more, but they are often genre-specific):

It is worth noting that line editing is not part of the developmental editorial process. However, at BubbleCow we include line editing as part of the service.

A Breakdown of the Developmental Editing Process

Developmental editing is a comprehensive process that involves several key steps. Each step is crucial in transforming a manuscript from its initial draft to a polished, publish-ready work. Understanding this process can help authors appreciate the value of developmental editing and prepare for what to expect.

Initial Manuscript Assessment

The process begins with an initial assessment, where the editor evaluates the overall structure, style, and potential of the manuscript. This stage sets the tone for the entire editing process.

Structural and Plot Analysis

Here, the editor examines the narrative structure and plot. This involves ensuring the story flows logically, the pacing is appropriate, and the plot is engaging and free of inconsistencies or plot holes.

Character Development and Dialogue Review

Characters are the heart of any story. The editor looks at character development, ensuring each character is well-defined, consistent, and contributes meaningfully to the story. Dialogue is also reviewed for authenticity and effectiveness in advancing the plot.

Theme and Voice Consistency

This step involves ensuring the themes of the manuscript are clear and consistent throughout. The editor also checks the author’s voice for consistency, making sure it aligns with the story's tone and audience expectations.

Recommendations and Revisions

Based on the analysis, the editor provides comprehensive feedback and suggestions for revisions. This could range from minor tweaks to major rewrites, depending on the manuscript's needs.

Collaboration and Implementation

In this phase, the author and editor collaborate closely to implement the suggested changes. This is an iterative process, often involving several rounds of revisions and feedback.

Final Review and Polish

Once the major revisions are complete, a final review is conducted to polish the manuscript, fine-tuning language, grammar, and syntax to ensure the manuscript is ready for the next stages of the publishing process.

The developmental editing process is intricate and tailored to each manuscript's unique needs. It's a partnership between the author and editor, aimed at elevating the work to its highest potential.

Learn more about what is included in a developmental edit.

Common Challenges and Solutions in Developmental Editing

Developmental editing presents a unique set of challenges, both for authors and editors. Addressing these challenges effectively can significantly improve the editing process and the quality of the final manuscript.

Challenge: Maintaining Authorial Voice

Solution: The key is balance. Editors should provide guidance without overpowering the author's unique voice. Regular communication and a clear understanding of the author's intent are crucial.

Challenge: Structural Reorganization

Solution: When major structural changes are needed, it’s important to plan meticulously. Editors should provide a clear rationale for changes and work collaboratively with authors to ensure the story's integrity is maintained.

You can learn more about structure in this article.

Challenge: Character Development

Solution: Editors can help authors deepen their characterizations by asking probing questions and suggesting ways to reveal characters' motivations and complexities more effectively.

Challenge: Pacing Issues

Solution: To address pacing, editors might suggest rearranging sections, cutting unnecessary parts, or developing certain areas more fully to maintain readers' interest throughout the narrative.

This detailed article is a good place to start learning more about pacing.

Challenge: Consistency in Plot and Themes

Solution: A thorough review of the manuscript for plot holes and thematic inconsistencies is essential. Editors can guide authors in strengthening these areas for a cohesive and compelling narrative.

Challenge: Collaborative Revisions

Solution: Effective communication and a clear revision plan are vital. Editors should provide actionable feedback and be open to discussion, ensuring a productive and respectful collaborative environment.

By understanding and addressing these common challenges, the developmental editing process can become a more efficient and rewarding journey for both authors and editors, ultimately leading to a stronger, more polished manuscript.

Developmental Editing vs Other Types of Editing: Understanding the Differences

Understanding the distinctions between developmental editing and other types of editing is crucial for authors to choose the right kind of support for their manuscript. Each type of editing focuses on different aspects of writing and serves unique purposes in the publishing process.

Developmental Editing

Developmental editing focuses on the big picture elements of writing, such as plot, character development, structure, and theme. It's about shaping the narrative and ensuring the story is compelling and cohesive.


Copyediting is more technical, concentrating on grammar, syntax, punctuation, and consistency in style and formatting. It's about refining the language and improving the clarity of the text.


This is the final step in the editing process, focusing on catching typographical errors, misspellings, and minor formatting issues. Proofreading polishes the manuscript for publication, ensuring it's free of superficial errors.

Line Editing

Line editing is a detailed process that involves going through the manuscript line by line to improve the flow, tone, and style. It bridges the gap between developmental editing and copyediting, focusing on both the creative and technical aspects of writing.

Comparison and Complementarity

While developmental editing is about shaping the story, copyediting and proofreading are about refining the language. Line editing serves as a middle ground, ensuring both the story and the language are engaging and effective. Together, these editing types encompass the full spectrum of editing needed to transform a manuscript into a polished, publish-ready book.

Authors should carefully consider their manuscript's stage and needs when choosing the type of editing required, often benefiting from a combination of these services to achieve the best results.

Find out more about the difference between copyediting and proofreading.

types of editing

Ethical Considerations in Developmental Editing

Developmental editing, while transformative for a manuscript, also raises important ethical considerations. It's crucial that both editors and authors navigate these considerations to maintain the integrity of the work and the author’s voice.

Respecting Authorial Intent

Consideration: Editors should ensure that changes made during the editing process align with the author's original vision and intent. The editor's role is to enhance, not overwrite, the author's unique voice and perspective.

Maintaining Creative Ownership

Consideration: The creative ownership of the work should always remain with the author. Editors provide guidance and suggestions, but the final decisions on any changes should be made by the author.

Transparency in Editing Process

Consideration: Editors should be transparent about the changes they suggest. This involves clear communication regarding the reasons for each suggestion and how it improves the manuscript.

Confidentiality and Privacy

Consideration: Editors are often privy to unpublished work, and it is their responsibility to maintain the confidentiality and privacy of the author's work at all times.

Handling Sensitive Content

Consideration: When dealing with sensitive content or topics, editors must approach with sensitivity and respect, ensuring that the treatment of such topics is appropriate and considerate of diverse readerships.

By adhering to these ethical considerations, the developmental editing process can be conducted with integrity and respect, ensuring a productive and positive experience for both the editor and the author.

Cost Considerations for Developmental Editing

Understanding the cost implications of developmental editing is essential for authors planning to invest in their manuscript's success. The cost can vary widely based on several factors.

Factors Influencing Cost

Manuscript Length: Longer manuscripts typically require more time to edit, thus may cost more.
Complexity of the Work: Manuscripts with complex plots or structures, or those in specialized fields, may demand more intensive editing efforts.
Editor's Experience: Highly experienced editors may charge more for their services, but they also bring a depth of knowledge and skill to the project.

Types of Pricing Models

Per Word or Page: Some editors charge based on the length of the manuscript, either per word or per page.
Hourly Rates: Others charge by the hour, which can vary based on the complexity and required depth of editing.
Flat Fee: For well-defined projects, some editors may offer a flat fee. This model can provide clarity and predictability for budgeting purposes.

Budgeting for Editing

Authors should consider their budget in the context of their publishing goals. It’s advisable to seek quotes from multiple editors to understand the market rates and find a balance between cost and quality.

Investing in Quality

While developmental editing is an investment, it can significantly enhance the quality and marketability of a manuscript. Choosing the right editor and understanding the cost structure can lead to a more informed and beneficial editing experience.

Authors are encouraged to view developmental editing not just as an expense, but as a valuable investment in their writing journey, one that can profoundly impact the success of their work.

Find out more about the cost of book editing.

Timeline Expectations for Developmental Editing

The timeline for developmental editing can vary significantly depending on several factors. Understanding these can help authors set realistic expectations for the editing process.

Factors Influencing Timeline

Manuscript Length: Longer manuscripts naturally take more time to edit thoroughly.
Depth of Editing Required: Manuscripts needing extensive restructuring or rewrites will require a longer editing timeline.
Editor's Schedule: The availability of the editor also plays a significant role. Experienced editors may have busier schedules.

This detailed guide will help you to understand how long it takes to edit a book.

Typical Editing Timelines

Short to Medium Manuscripts: For manuscripts of average length and complexity, the developmental editing process might take a few weeks to a couple of months.
Long or Complex Manuscripts: For longer or more complex works, authors should expect the process to take several months, potentially more.

Planning for the Editing Process

Authors should plan their publishing timelines accordingly, considering the potential length of the developmental editing process. Early engagement with an editor can provide a more accurate estimate for specific projects.

Communication and Flexibility

Regular communication with the editor throughout the process is key. Flexibility and understanding of potential adjustments in the timeline can help manage expectations and ensure a smooth editing experience.

While developmental editing can be a time-intensive process, its impact on the quality of the manuscript is substantial, making it a crucial phase in the journey towards publication.

When is a Developmental Edit Required?

In this article, I outlined the different forms of editing and when each should be applied to a book.

In essence, a traditionally published book will go through three types of editing.

The first task of editing is to identify any significant issues with the book and outline the changes that need to be made.

The next is copy editing. This is where typos are fixed, and consistency is applied to the manuscript.

The book will then be prepared for paper and digital publishing. This process means the text must be laid out and converted to different formats. This process can add errors. Therefore, the third round of editing is required; this is called proofreading.

How to find a Developmental Editor

Developmental editing can be a complex and nuanced process that requires a certain level of expertise. Finding a developmental editor can be hard, so if you are considering hiring a developmental book editor, there are a few key factors to keep in mind.

1. Experience

Look for an editor with extensive experience in developmental editing. This may include experience in a specific genre, such as fiction or non-fiction, or experience working with a particular audience, such as children or young adults. Check the editor's portfolio or list of past clients to see if they have experience in your area of interest.

2. Education and Training

While there is no formal education required to become a developmental editor, there are courses and training programs available that can provide valuable skills and knowledge. Look for an editor who has completed courses or training in editing, writing, or a related field.

3. Communication Skills

Good communication is key in any editor-author relationship, but it is especially important in developmental editing. Look for an editor who is able to clearly communicate feedback and suggestions in a way that is constructive and helpful. They should be able to provide specific examples and explanations for their suggestions, and be open to discussing any questions or concerns you may have.

4. Understanding of Genre and Audience

A good developmental editor should have a deep understanding of the genre and audience for your book. They should be able to provide guidance on how to make your book appeal to your target audience, and have knowledge of the conventions and expectations of your genre.

5. Attention to Detail

While developmental editing is focused on the big picture, it still requires attention to detail. Look for an editor who is able to catch inconsistencies, plot holes, and other issues that may impact the overall structure and flow of your book.

By keeping these factors in mind, you can find a developmental book editor who is a good match for your project and can help take your manuscript to the next level.

Books to Help Writers

If you're interested in learning more about the craft of writing and the editing process, here are three non-fiction books that you may find useful:

  1. On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King
    In this memoir and writing guide, bestselling author Stephen King shares his insights on the craft of writing, as well as his personal experiences as a writer. He covers topics such as finding inspiration, developing characters, and the importance of revision. Whether you're a fan of Stephen King's work or not, this book is a valuable resource for writers of all levels.
  2. Thtypes-of-editinge Sense of Style by Steven Pinker
    In this witty and engaging book, linguist and cognitive scientist Steven Pinker offers practical advice for improving your writing style. He explains the principles of good writing and offers examples of both effective and ineffective writing. Whether you're a professional writer or just someone who wants to improve your communication skills, this book is a must-read.
  3. Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott
    In this humorous and heartfelt book, writer Anne Lamott shares her insights on the writing process and offers advice on how to overcome writer's block and other obstacles. She encourages writers to embrace their imperfections and to write with honesty and vulnerability. This book is both practical and inspiring, and is a great read for anyone who is struggling to find their voice as a writer.

Frequently Asked Questions

Below are some frequently asked questions that will provide you with more information.

What is the meaning of developmental editing?

Developmental editing is a comprehensive editing process that focuses on the structure, content, and style of a manuscript. It involves assessing and shaping the manuscript to improve its organization, pacing, character development, and narrative flow. This type of editing addresses big-picture elements, helping authors refine their ideas, develop their narrative, and ensure their writing effectively conveys its intended message. Developmental editing is crucial for enhancing the overall quality and impact of a manuscript, particularly in its early stages. Find out more with this article about developmental editing.

How to do developmental editing?

To undertake developmental editing, start by thoroughly reading the manuscript to understand its core themes and objectives. Identify areas needing improvement in structure, character development, plot, or pacing. Provide constructive feedback and suggestions for reshaping or refining these elements. Collaborate with the author to explore alternative approaches and solutions. Focus on enhancing the narrative's overall coherence, engagement, and effectiveness. It's a creative and collaborative process requiring a deep understanding of storytelling, audience expectations, and genre conventions. Read this article to discover more about doing developmental editing

Is developmental editing worth it?

Developmental editing is often worth it, especially for manuscripts in their early stages. It provides critical insights and guidance on the overall structure and content, which can significantly enhance the manuscript's quality and appeal. This type of editing helps authors refine their ideas and narrative, ensuring that the story is compelling, well-structured, and effectively communicates its message. For authors looking to improve their manuscript substantially, developmental editing can be a valuable investment in elevating their work to a professional level. This detailed article will help you find out if developmental editing it worth it.

What does a developmental editor do?

A developmental editor will provide detailed editorial feedback (developmental edit) for an author's book. They will assess the structure, flow and readability of the book. They may also provide feedback on genre suitability, market fit, and, occasionally, line level problems.

What does a developmental editor do?

The difference between developmental editing and copy editing is that while developmental editors focus on the big picture, structure, readability, market potential, and feedback for issues that could be fixed, copy editing is more focused on sentence-level issues such as typos and grammatical errors.

What is the difference between developmental editing and copyediting?

Developmental editing focuses on the big picture of a manuscript, such as plot, characterization, structure, and style. Copyediting, on the other hand, focuses on the technical details of the writing, such as grammar, spelling, punctuation, and consistency. While both are important, developmental editing comes before copyediting in the editing process, as it helps to ensure that the story is solid before polishing the prose.

What types of writing benefit from developmental editing?

Developmental editing is particularly useful for long-form writing, such as novels, memoirs, and non-fiction books, but it can also be helpful for shorter works, such as articles or essays. Any writing that requires a coherent and engaging narrative can benefit from developmental editing, as it helps to ensure that the story is compelling and flows well.

How do I find a developmental editor?

There are many ways to find a developmental editor. You can search online for editorial services or check with professional organizations such as the Editorial Freelancers Association or the American Society of Journalists and Authors. You can also ask for recommendations from other writers or consult with literary agents or publishers who may be able to refer you to reputable editors. It's important to do your research and choose an editor who has experience in your genre and whose editing style and personality are a good fit for you.

Final Thoughts on Developmental Editing

Developmental editing is an essential part of the publishing process. It occurs once a book is deemed 'ready' and is often the first time the writer has received critical feedback, or worked with a developmental editor. This type of editing will stimulate some level of rewriting, and the book may undergo several revisions before it is ready for the next stage.

If you want to learn more about editing, then Scott Norton wrote a great book called Developmental Editing A Handbook for Freelancers, Authors, and Publishers.

However, finding a professional developmental editor can be hard and developmental editing may be a complex and time-consuming process, but it remains an essential part of the publication process.

Further Reading

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