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        What is Developmental Editing? A Self-Editing Checklist

        • calenderDec 23, 2020
        • calender 6 min read

        What is developmental editing, and how is it different from copy editing? Can a book editor do both? Does your manuscript need a developmental editor? In this article, we’ll answer all these questions and provide you with a developmental editing checklist to help you polish your novel.

        Manuscript editing is a broad term that refers to the process of refining a manuscript by removing language and styling errors. However, a book editor has a lot of tasks to undertake, aside from the usual grammar and punctuation checks. They also need to check the manuscript for overall structure, internal consistency, and the quality of the book content.

        For this reason, the manuscript editing process is usually divided into five stages:

        1. Editorial assessment
        2. Developmental editing
        3. Copy editing
        4. Line editing
        5. Proofreading

        In this article, we’re taking a look at how developmental editing works. We’ll also tell you how to work with a developmental editor, and where you can hire one. But let’s begin with what exactly a developmental editor does.

        What is developmental editing?

        Developmental editing is also called content editing, story editing, or substantive editing. Even though it’s technically the second step of the book editing process, this is the step where actual editing begins.

        Here’s a straightforward definition of developmental editing:

        Developmental editing is a step in the book editing process where an editor comments on the structure, style, and substance of the manuscript in order to refine it.

        A developmental editor views your manuscript as a whole. They review the broad elements of your book like style and structure. If it’s a novel, the novel editor will comment on your plot outline, your use of conflict, and the character arcs.

        It’s the developmental editor’s job to point out undercooked narrative development, plot holes, or internal inconsistencies. But that’s not all they’ll do! Even if sentence structure and word choice are under the copy editor’s care, the developmental editor can comment on them.

        This is done on a surface level, of course. If there’s large-scale problems with your grammar and stylistic sensibility, the developmental editor is required to consider these. In most cases, however, they are concerned with the bigger picture.

        For example, in a self-help book, the book editor will consider tonal consistency, arrangement of chapters, and the overall effect. In a work of journalism, they will focus on fact-checking, also checking the pacing and distribution of various topics.

        The book editor considers both the target audience and the expectations of your genre. Based on these considerations, they point out the flaws in your manuscript and suggest improvements.

        So, developmental editing improves the substance of your book, polishing the content to make it your best effort. But in what ways is it different from copy editing?

        Developmental editing vs copy editing

        It’s simple.

        Developmental editing looks at what you’re saying, while copy editing looks at how you say it.

        Developmental editing focuses on the content of your manuscript. On the other hand, copy editing focuses on the mechanics of your language such as grammar, spelling, and punctuation.

        Developmental editing has a much broader scope than copy editing. Think of the “developmental editing vs copy editing” question like this: developmental editing looks at the whole book, while copy editing is concerned with its individual parts.

        The developmental edit will look at language, style, and formatting on the scale of the entire manuscript. Copy editing, on the other hand, will be concerned with the same on a chapter-to-chapter, or better yet, page-to-page basis.

        Developmental editing focuses on issues of quality and substance while copy editing is concerned with mechanical issues. Copy editing focuses on the mechanical aspect of language: the words you use, the punctuation, the structure of your sentences, and the like.

        So, when you compare copy editing vs developmental editing, remember that there are almost no similarities between them. Even in areas like structure and consistency where they seem to  intersect, there is the difference of scale!

        Do you need to hire a developmental editor?

        Yes. No matter how experienced you are, every writer needs a developmental edit.

        When a writer gets published traditionally, they don’t have to worry about hiring a developmental editor. The publishing houses employ different editors who together work on the manuscript. But self-published authors absolutely need to hire one, and it’s well worth the cost.

        As a writer, you’re too close to your work. A book editor has both the distance needed to evaluate a book and the training to edit it. Their perspective removes errors from the manuscript and adds value.

        A novel editor will be able to tell you exactly what plot structure you need to tell your story in the best manner. Novel editing companies will be able to point out what feature of the setting is inconsistent with the main conflict, and how you can improve your characterization of the protagonist or the antagonist.

        In other words, yes. You absolutely must hire a developmental editor if you want to publish a bestselling book.

        When is the right time to hire a developmental editor?

        We recommend that you work on the manuscript to a certain extent before taking a book editor aboard. However, it also depends on the writer. Some writers need the help of a developmental editor early on, while others only hire one after their draft is ready.

        You have two options:

        1. Hire an editor early on and get their feedback on your rudimentary ideas. 
        2. Write the first draft and then send it to a developmental editor.

        Some writers go so far as to complete a series of editing rounds before they hire anyone to evaluate their work. They self-edit their book a number of times, going through different stages systematically. Then they ask friends and family to review their manuscripts, rooting out an additional set of errors.

        Only once this is done do they hire a book editor. This also helps bring down the editing costs, because some editors tend to charge based on the amount of issues they solved. If they correct more mistakes, the cost of editing increases. So the more polished a draft you send to the editor, the more you’re likely to save!

        If your budget is a bit on the tighter end, we’re here to help! We’ve added a developmental editing checklist for you to self-edit your manuscript. While we maintain that self-editing does not get professional results, it can still help bring down your costs!

        How much does developmental editing cost?

        While we can’t speak for all editors out there, here’s an estimate of how much you can expect to pay for a good developmental editing service:

        Cost of developmental editing Delivery time
        $910 21 days
        $994 14 days
        $1078 10 days
        $1400 7 days

        Factors that affect your developmental editing cost

        The cost of developmental editing usually depends on a few basic things. Let’s go through them so you have an idea of what you can do to save up on developmental editing.

        1. Book length

        The longer your book is, the longer the book editor will work on it. Obviously, the developmental editing cost for a book of 20,000 words is bound to be lesser than the same for one of 80,000 words.

        2. Frequency of errors

        If your book has more issues for the editor to solve, your cost will go up. A novel that is dense in plot holes and inconsistencies takes more effort on the developmental editor’s part. Naturally, their price goes up.

        This can affect ESL writers disproportionately, since different language errors can add up to result in broader issues in the manuscript. This, in turn, makes the editor’s job difficult and increases the developmental editing cost.

        3. Genre

        Different genres expect different skills and abilities from the developmental editor. Novels, cookbooks, poetry collections, and nonfiction books are all edited differently. So, the price that a developmental editing service will ask of you for each of these genres will also differ.

        4. Complexity

        It’s easy enough if your novel is a work of high fantasy, since many novel editors have experience in such books. But if your book happens to be a work of nonfiction in some niche area like the iron cycle in E. coli, you’re in trouble.

        You’ll need someone that understands the complexity of your writing, which can be tough to find in a book editor. A developmental editor who fills this position will obviously charge you more for their expertise.

        A developmental editing checklist for novelists

        On average, developmental editing services will charge you less than freelance editors. This is because most editing companies have fixed charges. But if you can afford neither a developmental editor nor a manuscript editing firm, we’re here to help.

        We’ve prepared a checklist of major concerns in developmental editing to help you self-edit your novel. We always advise you to get your manuscript edited professionally, but this can be an exception. If not professional editing, you can at least check your book for the most glaring errors.

        First, follow these three general steps:

        1. Get some distance from the manuscript (leave it untouched for two weeks or a month).
        2. Go through the manuscript in multiple rounds.
        3. Select one specific issue for each round (structure, style, formatting).

        These steps work for everyone, no matter what genre or niche you’re writing in. For non-fiction manuscripts, focus on your structure, coherence, and overall design. Ask yourself if the arrangement of chapters can be improved. How is your handling of the subject different from all other writers?

        While non-fiction books have a wide variety of concerns for developmental editing, fiction books more or less revolve around the same questions. So, we’ve created a developmental editing checklist for novel writers.

        Ask yourself the following questions when you edit:

        We hope this checklist helps you perform the basic rounds of developmental editing for your novel. Once you get done with this and require a professional to go over your manuscript, we’ll be right here for you!



        Prasanna is on a little break from academia and spends his time compiling fiction writing tips. He enjoys poetry, mythology, and drawing lotuses on any surface he can find.

        One comment on “What is Developmental Editing? A Self-Editing Checklist

        1. Vivaan Ahuja says:

          I like what you guys are up to! Such smart work and reporting! Carry on the superb work guys…

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