Editing Tips Part 4: Developmental Editing

When it comes to editing a manuscript, what most people readily think of are the classic red marks that correct grammar or typos: copy editing. And while copy editing is crucial, before you reach that stage, there’s another phase of editing: developmental editing.

In our previous two posts in our editing series, we’ve shared some methods to help you develop your story during the writing process. Below, we’ll share how those methods can be used throughout the developmental editing stage, too.

But first, what is developmental editing?

Developmental editing is the first stage of editing once you’ve completed your draft. It’s the primary form of self-editing, where you read through your manuscript and see if your story works and is complete, if there’s a balance between the action/events and your character’s evolution, and if you can identify a clear beginning, middle, and end point of their journey.

So how do you do it?

Let it be

During the writing process, it’s common for your focus to shift from excitement of wanting to tell your story to an eagerness to be done writing. Once you’ve reached the ending, it can feel like you’ve just finished a marathon—equal parts exhaustion and pride. We advise writers to take a break from their manuscript once they’ve finished. As an author myself, my rule is that once I reach the ending, I take at least a month away from the document before returning to self-edit. My excitement to be “done” can override my dedication to write the best book possible. I’ve found that taking at least a month away from the manuscript gives me a chance to re-center myself, channeling my eagerness into a focused motivation.

Plot it out using Freytag’s Pyramid

As we shared in the second installment of our editing tips series, knowing your story’s structure is important throughout the drafting process. When you’re performing a developmental edit on your own work, it’s vital to check your intention for the way you wanted to tell the story against how it’s written—it’s a balancing act. Utilizing Freytag’s Pyramid can be a helpful tool to see how your story is paced, ensuring that there is an adequate distribution of time spent in various portions of your story.

For example, in Willow Wishes by Katherine Turner, the book begins only a few days after the end of Finding Annie; however, following an argument between the main character, Annie, and Rob in the third chapter, the next chapter begins over a month later. Through both characters’ perspectives, it’s revealed that the time has passed with Annie and Rob spending that time apart and without communication—that’s the Exposition of the story. From a developmental perspective, it was a wise move on the author’s part to “skip” presenting the reader with those months in detail. If a lot of time passes without characters speaking to each other—and during that time, their days are spent in a routine manner—that is not necessarily an experience a reader needs to see; it can be summarized, and the story can resume when something new—an Inciting Incident—happens. In the case of Willow Wishes, that Inciting Incident occurs when Rob arrives at Annie’s work one night as she’s leaving, forcing them to communicate, which begins the journey—Rising Action—to their reunion. From the Climax of the book through the Conclusion, Rob and Annie are facing challenges together, and by the end, the reader is left hopeful that they’ll have a beautiful next season of their life together.

When you’re able to plot your story using Freytag’s Pyramid, you can see the distribution of events and ensure that your story is well-paced and engaging for your reader.

Check your hero’s journey

In the third installment of this series, we covered the Hero’s Journey. Simply put, the Hero’s Journey is your character’s development—it’s the experience of their story, starting shortly before they receive their Call to Adventure, or Action, following them through their trials, and concluding when they reach the other side of those endeavors. It can be applied to fiction or nonfiction, and it’s a good idea to check that your narrative, whether novel or memoir, follows an arc that reflects the Hero’s Journey.

As a memoir writer, one of the biggest challenges I face is finding the exact narrative I’m trying to tell, because life rarely follows one storyline at a time. In my first book, Me, Too: Voicing My Story, I quickly realized there’s a lot of crossover between recounting what I experienced years ago and healing from it in more recent years. I learned that by asking myself what moment life transitioned from constantly experiencing new trauma to healing from those past experiences, I’m able to identify a moment—my Call—in which my life started to change. By applying the Hero’s Journey to see how those events impacted me, I can more easily identify where each of my life’s stories begin and end, all before giving way to another Call to Adventure.

A similar challenge can occur in fiction, too, especially when a writer has imagined many adventures, events, or trials for their main character. While a main character very well may have an abundance of experiences, there should be one key line carrying them from the beginning to the end. Perhaps they seek something to save their home, are searching for love, or are grieving a loss. Whatever the case, main characters are all ultimately seeking something—even if it’s intangible, like closure—and their journey to acquire it is the main line that will carry them through the story. If you can’t readily identify that in their experiences, it may be time to re-develop portions of your story or how it’s presented. This phase of developmental editing is the ideal time to make sure that what you’ve imagined matches what’s on the pages.

No matter your genre, it’s worth noting that this is common challenge; so if it’s one you’re facing, know that you aren’t alone.

Get feedback

Once your story is drafted and you’ve been through it at least once for self-editing, we recommend soliciting feedback from beta readers and/or sensitivity readers, if the latter is applicable. In our view, the ideal beta reader is anyone—friends, family, colleagues, or a professional beta reader—who is able to be objective, provide constructive criticism (rather than destructive criticism or never-ending praise), and is representative of your target reader. However, remember to take all feedback with a grain of salt. If multiple people have read your manuscript and all had issues with the same scene, this is a good time to consider making changes. On the other hand, if only one person takes issue with something, this may not be the most helpful feedback for your manuscript, and you may benefit from asking other beta readers their thoughts on that specific scene in light of that feedback.

Additionally, you may benefit from hiring a developmental editor to provide high-level, professional feedback on your entire manuscript and who will also provide suggestions for how certain “trouble spots” may be improved. Ideally, a developmental editor will work with you as you review their feedback and help you brainstorm potential improvements for your manuscript.

Ultimately, while all stages of editing are crucial to the writing process, developmental editing should not be overlooked. As we said in the first installment of this series, the tips in this post are not presented in any specific order. Most likely, they should be considered as part of a fluid process and some of the “first” tips may need to be repeated, even after the latter ones have been completed; you may need to cycle through these tips multiple times, too, because the needs of each manuscript vary. Developmental editing may feel like the most arduous at times because it can seem like you’re just writing and re-writing without those classic red marks from copy editing, but we promise that once your story is developmentally sound, the remaining stages of the editorial process will sail significantly more smoothly.

Editor’s Note: Josha Publishing, LLC, only considers completed manuscripts during the submissions process, which means that it should have already been through at least one developmental edit before it has been submitted. However, our editors do take on freelance work and may be contacted via their websites for developmental work independent of their roles with Josha. Please note that the editing process discussed in this post may or may not reflect the process an author experiences if they’ve submitted their manuscript to Josha for publication, as the editorial needs for each manuscript vary.


Josha Publishing, LLC is a woman-founded, woman-owned, and woman-run company that is passionate about booksstories, and the power of words to change lives. Learn more about us here and remember to sign up for our newsletter to find out about new content, new books, and submissions update.

Editing Tips Part 4:
Developmental Editing

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