Writer’s Digest Blog: How Freelance Developmental Editors Fit into Today’s Publishing Landscape

I’m about to say something controversial. Are you ready?

Freelance book editors aren’t necessary to get published.

I know, crazy right? And coming from a freelance book editor, no less.

Here’s the thing: Editors can be helpful in getting a manuscript ready for publication. Think about it—at some point, all writers are new to this strange and intimidating genre of novel writing. Generally, it isn’t something anyone has been formally taught, so you wouldn’t know things like making three-dimensional characters, natural dialogue tricks, three-act structures, and so on. Such things are unique to novels, and that’s where editors come in.

Let’s look at what the process of getting your book published (typically) looks like.

  1. The idea. An idea bubbles up deep within you—one that cannot be conveyed in its entirety in a blog post, short story, or any other form you’ve endeavored before. It may be a feeling akin to awe and sorrow, an image that stirs your inner sense of curiosity, a strange sense of the unattainable. Whatever it is, it makes its demands of you: to tell a story.
  2. The completion. The idea has bloomed into a full-fledged manuscript, branching in countless unexpected ways once flesh with the paper. New characters, storylines, twists, tragic flaws find their way to the page, leaving your mind reeling. Feeling strangely like a protective parent, you wonder, “Did I really just make all that?”
  3. The rejections. Having never truly embarked on a project of this scope before—and completing it—you excitedly submit round after round of queries to literary agents open to submissions in your manuscript’s age group and genre. To your surprise, these agents aren’t as excited about your story as you are.
  4. The wondering. Why aren’t these agents falling in love with the characters, setting, and plot that captivated your imagination? Is it not the story for them? Or did you miss something in your revisions? You start going up to your writer friends asking, “Be honest, how bad is it really?” These friends give you the best advice they know how to give, but you wonder… Are they as green as you are and at a loss as to what to do next?

This is where a set of experienced eyes can help.


What Freelance Developmental Editors Can Do

According to Katherine Pickett, a development editor is “concerned with the structure and content of your book. If your manuscript lacks focus, a developmental editor will help you find the right direction—the ‘right’ direction generally being the most marketable.”

“When working with a developmental editor, be prepared to be challenged,” Pickett continues in her blog post on Jane Friedman’s website, “while a developmental editor won’t generally dictate to you what the book has to be, you may be asked to justify your position when there is disagreement. At all times, however, it should be a collaboration.”

Here are some of the areas freelance editors will look at in developmental editing:

  • Character development: Are your characters three-dimensional? Do they have their own goals and desires? How do these goals and desires play into the overarching plot? Are they likeable?
  • Setting: Is there a sufficient amount of world building (whether the story takes place in a fantastical land or in today’s modern world)? Can the reader clearly see where each scene takes place? Is there too much exposition that detracts from the scenes?
  • Structure concerns: Does the suspense build gradually throughout the story and peak at the climax? How does the story resolve? Are the conflicts resolved appropriately? Should the story begin in another place? End in another place? Are there too many chapters or are the chapters too long/short?
  • Dialogue: Do the conversations between characters sound natural? Is the author too (obviously) using dialogue to move the story, rather than letting the story and characters move with events (or move the events)? Is what the character saying consistent with their inner monologue? Is it believable?
  • Industry insight: Is the story hitting too many clichés or overdone scenarios? Is there a way to break from some of these tropes to put a unique spin on the story? What is selling right now (and what isn’t)?
  • Marketability: Are the characters’ ages appropriate for the setting and overarching plot/theme? Should the characters be older or younger, if not? Would changing the manuscript to another genre appeal to a larger readership?
  • Tweaking opening pages: Are the opening pages too heavy on backstory? Is the opening scene gripping? Would it make sense/be more appealing to start at another place in the story? Is there too much going on in the opening pages? Is the character likeable or have a distinct voice?
  • Copyediting: Is the manuscript littered with grammar issues, spelling mistakes, typos, and so on?
  • *Query critiques: Perhaps it has nothing to do with your writing. It might simply be that your writing is strong and your opening pages gripping, but knowing how to market a book isn’t your strong suit.


In What Ways Can Freelance Developmental Editors Help Writers Improve Their Writing?

There is often a gap between what the writer wants to convey and how the reader interprets the story,” said Ellen Brock, freelance book editor. “As an editor, I work to close that gap so the reader’s experience is what the writer intended all along.

“Sometimes a scene that seems exciting in the writer’s mind is boring on the page, or a twist the writer intends as shocking is too obvious to the reader. As an editor I can provide insight into how the story is perceived by readers as well as industry professionals, like agents and publishers, and this insight can help the writer to understand why their story is being rejected in its current form.”

But sometimes, it isn’t just about polishing up any one particular manuscript.

Getting the perspective of a freelance editor provides a learning experience that a writer can apply to every book they write thereafter,” said Stephanie Eding, freelance book editor. “Editors know what works and what doesn’t in a story. Having someone applaud your strengths and help you navigate ways to improve your writing can be invaluable in this tough industry.”


When to Take Advantage of a Freelance Developmental Editor

Freelance editors are often most helpful for writers on their second, third, fourth drafts—once they have workshopped the manuscript amongst fellow writers (and if they still feel something is missing or aren’t achieving the success they’d hoped). That’s because editors are then able to dive deeper into a story once it’s been thoroughly fleshed out.

It’s also important to be aware that freelance editors specialize. What do I mean by this? Editors have certain age groups and genres that they are intimately familiar with and can therefore assist in things such as genre tropes and expectations, age appropriateness, and so on.

For the most part, freelance editors—also sometimes called developmental editors—focus on big-picture revisions. Although editors can help with things such as proofreading, generally speaking, editors are there to challenge a writer’s plot, characters, stakes, and setting, and find ways to improve the overall story—not just grammar and sentence structures.

Most importantly, never forget that you know your story the best and your ultimate vision for the book. Editors are there to help you convey that vision more clearly to the reader and make your book the best it can be. But, they aren’t always necessary to do just that. Many times, a writer—with the help of their fellow writers—can achieve success all on their own.


This blog was originally published in Writer’s Digest. Click here to read more.

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