Different Kinds of Editing; or, How Developmental Editing is like Raising a Toddler

how to developmental editing

One of a writer’s most important tasks is editing, but one of the most common misunderstandings I see with writers, particularly new writers, is that editing is all about grammar, mechanics, and sentence-level issues.

But that type of sentence-level work isn’t editing; it’s proofreading. Now, proofreading is important. It’s SUPER important. It’s how you polish and perfect your toddler of a manuscript. It’s when you make sure there’s no smudges on its cheeks or cowlicks at the back of its head.

But editing, particularly developmental editing, is a much bigger and MORE IMPORTANT task. If your manuscript is a toddler, and proofreading is cleaning it up for family photos, then developmental editing is the work you do to shape that unruly toddler into a respectable human being. It’s the inside work while proofreading is the superficial work.

Got it? Great. Now let’s tackle the specifics. This week I’m not only talking about what developmental editing consists of but also where it fits into the writing process and how to accomplish it successfully! 

What is Developmental Editing?

what is developmental editing

what is developmental editingDoes your book open with the wrong scene or have the wrong narrative perspective?  Do you have too many characters? Too few? Lots of plot holes? These and other major issues with a written work can be fixed through developmental editing.

TheWritePractice explains that developmental editing is all about structure, the author’s unique purpose and voice, and genre. These are the foundational elements of any creative work; if they are not solid, the entire work is likely to fall apart instead of engaging readers.

This is why I compare developmental editing to raising a toddler. You don’t want to send a human adult into the world without any education or emotional armor, so you teach them as toddlers what’s right and wrong and how to deal with their emotions. You’re helping them develop in structural ways that allow them to, later in adulthood, stand on their own.

Developmental editing does the same for your novel, short story, or poem.

How Does Developmental Editing Fit into the Writing Process?


Developmental editing can happen at any stage of the writing process.

It can take place simultaneously with drafting. If you’re someone who writes a chapter or two then goes back and thinks, hey, this needs major changes, and then changes those things–you’re already doing this!

Other times, it happens when you get stuck (as TheWritePractice points out in the link in the previous section). Are you two thirds of the way through your novel and don’t know what to do next? It may be time for developmental editing.

Still other times it happens after you’ve written a complete first draft. You’ve got a whole dang book written–congratulations! But something just isn’t right; something isn’t working. So, as they say, back to the drawing boards!

Basically, you can make developmental edits any time during the writing process when you have fears or concerns about:

  • plot
  • characterization
  • narrative perspective
  • structure
  • Any other major aspect of your story

How to Succeed at Developmental Editing

writing buddies, writing feedback

I wish I could offer you  a step-by-step process for developmental editing, and while some do believe there is one right way to accomplish this task, I think that each piece of writing and each author is different enough to justify a personalized approach. This is how I attack developmental editing for my clients; the author’s intent, worries, strengths, and weaknesses guide my reading and editing.

That being said, there are certainly steps that everyone in the developmental editing stage should follow and I’m gonna lay out the first one right now:

The First Step in Developmental Editing: Find a reader,

Find a reader who is willing to read your work and offer critical feedback about the parts that don’t make sense or that are just a little bit boring. This could be a friend, a family member, someone you meet online through a Beta Reader group or online writing group, or it could be an in-person writing group like the invaluable one I belong to in Knoxville.

Or you could hire an editor. With an editor, you’re not just getting a reader who enjoys stories, you’re getting an expert who knows how stories work. True, editors cost $$$, but they can tell you why and where your story isn’t working then help you fix it!

Whether you go with a beta reader or editor or a distant aunt who loves mystery novels, you have to have a second set of eyes on your writing. Believe me when I say you are too close to your own work to truly see its strengths and weaknesses. Without that second set of eyes, you’ll miss out on invaluable insight that will greatly enhance your writing!

When you acquire this writing buddy, make sure to give them your manuscript along with a writer’s memo. I make all my students in all my writing classes write these for each new draft of a paper they bring to class. In a writer’s memo, the writer basically lays out three things:

  • Their main concerns for the work
  • Their questions about the work
  • Their purposes and intentions for the work

This gives the reader, whether it be beta reader, editor, or Great Aunt Margie, a guide.

Some like to get raw, unfiltered feedback from their readers, though. So if you want feedback unmitigated by your own musings, feel free to skip the writer’s memo step.

However, as a writer, editor, and member of a writing group, I find this little tool invaluable and empowering!

But finding a reader or editor is just step one to successful developmental editing. You can read about step two, what to do with reader feedback, here!

Writers, what else would you like to know about developmental editing in the next few weeks? Drop me a question, and I’ll be sure to answer it!

Looking for the best reader feedback possible? Want feedback that is purposeful and focused on your goals and concerns? Then try giving your reader a writer’s memo along with your manuscript. Never written one before? No worries! Here’s my free guide on creating the perfect writer’s memo. Happy holidays! 


Published by jonesfrancis10

Whitney Jones, Ph.D., is a developmental and line editor for indie authors, specializing in the romance and fantasy genres.

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