Developmental Editing (or, Digestion)

“Are you saying it as clearly and consistently as possible?” -Alan D. Williams

Once picked up, a manuscript will go to the developmental editor. If the author has made it through the acquisitions experience with a smile still on their face, it is up to the developmental editor to keep it there—again, another balancing act. While the author’s vision must be respected, at the same time, the quality of the book is of ultimate importance. Occasionally they may be at odds with each other.

Either way, the editor will now be working with the manuscript, making sure that it meets certain standards of quality. This process covers the thematic elements, the structure, the plot, the setting, character development, pacing, and anything else that may interrupt the reader’s experience of the author’s story. This can be a very touchy process, mostly because at this point the editor is entering a very intimate relationship with the author, one which can include major changes in the work—a work which may have encompassed years of the author’s life. Rare is the writer (especially new ones) that believes that their story may still need major changes, especially if they have gone through multiple drafts and work-shopped the piece heavily.

Normally it is often the case that an author has spent so much time with the piece it becomes difficult for them to discern between what is in their head, and what is on the page. In my experience I have asked an author a question about something they have written, and they always have a quick answer, to which I inevitably respond with the long standing editorial response: “Ok, then put it on the page.” It is easy for a writer to fill in the gaps of their work with what is in their head. This is the reason that even experienced professional editors will have others go over their own writing. It is easy to get too close to the work, and it is the developmental editor’s job to retain that distance in order to ensure everything the reader needs will be present in the piece.

There are a number of philosophies that govern, or at the very least attempt to describe, the ways that the relationship between an editor and an author should be handled. Some recommend cultivating a sense of detachment, as to not become too emotionally involved with the work or the author. Others believe that the relationship is implicitly intimate, and that there is no avoiding it. As in almost every other facet of life, it’s usually somewhere in the middle and almost entirely depends on the author. An editor can attempt to cultivate their own style, but a lack of flexibility will be a danger to any project they encounter.

An editor of quality is sensitive to the individual needs of each writer and will consider the work (and by that, the reader and the press) first. The editor’s job is to get the best possible work from the author. This is not done by hacking and slashing and re-writing an author’s work, it is done by working with and conversing with the author. Suggestions for ideas and directions to go with a story are for creative writing classes and workshops, not for developmental editors. This process may only require a few letters back and forth, or it may be weeks or months of drinks, coffee and conversation. Either way, without pressure, most authors will not produce their best work. A good developmental editor will push an author just hard enough to get them to push back a little bit. I believe that this tension forces the author to do the best work that they can. Too much pressure though, and the opposite will be the effect, and the work will suffer. A good developmental editor must live and breathe story in addition to having the ability to work with some of the most diverse of personalities, the creative person. This of course applies mostly to fiction, but it is the same with non-fiction and memoir in many respects. There must always be a narrative. To borrow from my old screenwriting teacher, Charles Deemer: “Structure is the grammar of storytelling”. And as such, a misplaced event or thematic element, just as a misplaced comma or word will radically change the meaning of a piece. This is why the different forms of editing (acquisitions, developmental, copyediting) are often described as being on a spectrum, where one ends and another begins is a difficult distinction to make.

It takes experience and practice to know when a manuscript is ready for the next level, in this case copyediting, which will be the subject of the next post in this series.


About isaacmayo

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