Q&A: Developmental Editing

A writing student named Kathryn Davis recently contacted me with questions about developmental editing, for a research project. With her permission, I'm publishing the exchange here. This is by no means an exhaustive accounting of what goes into developmental editing, but I thought it could be interesting to writers—especially those considering working with a DE. Note, too, that I responded with fiction in mind, though many of these comments can be applied to other forms of narrative.

KD: Have you known most authors to be accepting of what they see in the “mirror” that is you as their editor? And then to work to implement the necessary changes without much pushback? 

JM: I’m happy to say that so far, I’ve received very little pushback from authors. In my feedback, I state explicitly that most everything I say is a suggestion. Some of my remarks may be strong suggestions—as in, this is a problem that will adversely affect readers’ acceptance of the book unless we address it—and along with those remarks, I try to make a solid case for how the problem might be addressed. I often offer potential solutions. Sometimes, those solutions stick. Other times, they simply act as stimulus—authors take the suggestions and run with them, and wind up in a wholly new place.

Bedside manner is important: feedback is received more easily when it’s delivered with kindness and generosity. I try to write notes that are constructive, not punitive. And when I suggest changes, large or small, I either offer justifications in my written notes or have justifications at the ready should an author inquire about the reasons for changes.

As you say, I’m here to act as a mirror. It’s my job to help authors see their work—both what it is, and what it might be. There are many ways to get to “what it might be,” and it’s important to acknowledge that. The trick is finding the way that best serves the story the writer is trying to tell.

Occasionally a writer may push back by saying, “But this is what I’m doing here—don’t you see?” Or, “I’ve written this because I’m trying to say something about…” But if I haven’t seen, or if I didn’t get what the writer was trying to say, this means there is probably something missing on the page—dots have not been connected—or some flaw or another is obscuring the author’s intention. So that’s my cue to identify anew and more clearly articulate what may have gone wrong. 

Have you often experienced instances of radical discord between what you see in the work and the author’s vision for it? 

Sure—if, by “radical discord,” you mean that the author thinks or hopes she’s written ABC, but in fact what I’m reading is XYZ. It can be difficult for authors to see what they’ve put on the page. That’s the challenge of writing: translating the clear, beautiful, crazy vision you have in your head into words that appear in pixels and print, and that actually capture what you’re trying to say.

Sometimes this radical discord can happen in the space of a single sentence: the author meant to write one thing, but because of ambiguity or the misuse of an idiom or some error in grammar or syntax, the sentence says something completely different from what she was going for. That’s usually an easy fix.

Sometimes, though, it’s a larger problem: a character is supposed to be sympathetic, but really he comes off as a jerk; or a scene is supposed to be moving or profound, but comes off as over-the-top sappy; or we’re supposed to be intensely invested in the plight of the main characters, but the supporting characters are more sharply drawn and thus far more interesting.

To what extent, as a developmental editor, do you feel that you impact an author’s final draft?

This varies depending on the project and the skill of the writer. Sometimes my notes simply push an author to amplify (or tone down) what is already on the page: go deeper here, pull back here. So there will be a perceptible shift in some passages, scenes, or chapters, but perhaps not a startling difference. That said, a few notes can make a huge difference in the overall pacing or tone or emotional impact of a work, depending on what the author does with those notes. If I’ve suggested structural changes, for example, and the author accepts those suggestions, a final draft may look and feel very different from earlier drafts.

How much influence is too much?

I do not want to feel as if I, as the editor, have written anyone else’s book. My job is to help steer the writer, to improve and crystallize what’s on the page, to coax out a book’s best version of itself. So I take on projects only when I know I can work with what’s already there. The author has something—a brilliant idea, a fascinating story, a striking prose style (or at least a workable prose style)—and I have a hunch I can help make it better. If I feel I won’t be able to help a project without completely rewriting it myself (ghostwriting, essentially), I won’t take it on. That’s a different kind of work.

The developmental editor’s intended role is, of course, to help an author improve a piece to its utmost point of success and readiness for publication. In a more generally phrased query, I suppose, I would love to hear what, as a DE, you have known the process of getting there to be like.

The process can be long and arduous but also, if all goes well, invigorating, exciting, and hugely rewarding—for both author and editor. As a sometime writer, I know the process can be painful, but I also know that nothing is more satisfying than feeling you’ve nailed it after a lot of hard work. And as an editor I of course relish “process,” or else I wouldn’t be an editor. Also as an editor, the most rewarding thing for me is hearing from my clients that they have been energized by the process of revision, or have learned something in the course of working with me, and are determined to see their project through to whatever may be its destined end. I love seeing a book evolve, but even more than that, I love watching as writers grow and make discoveries about their work, and sometimes themselves. Creative epiphanies—artistic, personal—are thrilling to witness.