Developmental Editing, Content Editing

Editing at a publishing house during the day and moonlighting as a fiction author naturally feed into each other. I remember when I got my first few manuscripts at work, and I had those pinch-me days where I couldn’t believe someone was paying me to do what I’ve happily done for friends and siblings in my free time: reading stories, jotting down questions and comments about the characters or plot, suggesting ways to tighten up the sentences.

The way I edit my own fiction has also been greatly influenced by our editing pipeline at my publishing house. We typically run two rounds of edits, the developmental edit first, followed by a content edit. (Some houses call these macro edits and micro edits, or substantive edits and copy edits. I attended an editors conference where there was a whole panel discussion that devolved into editors defining what terms they use and then comparing and contrasting them with the terms other editors used.) We tend to have different editors do the developmental and content edits, which gets a fresh pair of eyes on the manuscript, but other houses have one editor shepherd the manuscript through the whole process. Editors can vary a lot in style, so sometimes it’s easier on the author (and the author’s trust and patience) to work with one editor instead of two.

The developmental edit is where we look at big-picture issues. If I’m working on fiction, I ask questions like, Are the problems and promises set up at the beginning of the novel answered by the end? Are all the characters necessary? Is every scene necessary? Are plot points adequately foreshadowed? Are the characters consistent, and at the same time do they have satisfying arcs (growth or spiral)? Are themes traced throughout the whole book rather than flickering in and out? This is typically the messier edit, since more content decisions are still being made, but it’s also exciting to come alongside authors to round out their characters and plot.

The content edit is more about the sentence-by-sentence prose. Are there repetitive descriptions I can delete? How many dialogue tags can I take out? What are the author’s pet words that they overuse? What themes or character choices are so hammered home that I can soften them up? Which sentences are confusing or unclear?

Of course there’s overlap between the two kinds of editing. I can’t stop myself completely from copy editing when I’m supposed to be developing a manuscript. But in my own writing, I often find it freeing that I don’t have to fix everything all in one pass.

My sister and I are editing our colonial fantasy novel right now, and there are a lot of big-picture changes: character personality changes, different motivations and actions, deleted characters. I tend toward perfectionism, so even while I’m writing new content or moving scenes around and stitching together fresh transitions, I have this desire to have my writing be as good as I can make it. But this quickly leads me to paralysis and tinkering.

“That’s what the next draft is for,” we keep texting each other when we find ourselves worrying too much about whether the prose or rhythm will knock the socks off our readers.

One thought on “Developmental Editing, Content Editing

  1. Joel, Excellent questions and description of editorial and writing process. Very encouraging and insightful to authors and editors for understanding and input. Thanks!


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