Developmental editing — how you can’t live without it, and how to make it affordable

Happy Friday!

As senior editor for Story Perfect Editing Services, I’m heavily involved in helping Indie authors with editorial needs. Outside my private work, I’ve been supporting the Inkshares Quill author community, since these authors have funded for publication, but will NOT receive developmental editing — in my opinion, that’s one of the most critical aspects of the process.

So, I’ve been writing free how-to manuals for these authors to equip them to handle developmental editing needs as best they can manage, and thought some of this material can be helpful to other writers too. Many of you who follow this blog are writers, so I thought I’d bring my professional work here to the blog to complement the already great discussions on epic fantasy that take shape here.

So, let’s jump in!

The editorial process: how it works

I’ve been involved in editing more than 60 publications to date. As such, I am very familiar with the publishing industry’s editorial model.

For those not familiar with the 4 stages of book production followed by traditional publishers, this is how they work:

1) You start with your first of 3 editors. This first editor performs TWO important revisions for you. Starting with the editorial assessment, your editor reads your work through in its entirety, making no markings in the manuscript. This read-through is meant to give them a birds-eye view of your story and all the editorial issues they require.

After they are done, they will write you a 3-5 page letter called an editorial assessment letter. This letter gives you a large-scale suggestion for revisions. For example, an editorial letter might suggest you add more scenes for a given point of view character, might identify repetitive craft ticks (such as overuse of “she turned”, or a tendency to overuse the words “feel” or “oh my”). An editorial letter highlights also what works well, what’s not working well, and will suggest solutions.

After you receive your editorial letter, you will go through a revision period where you try to tackle the points brought up by your editor. You will then submit your manuscript to that same editor for a developmental edit.

2) The same editor who did the editorial assessment will begin an intensive in-line edit on your revised manuscript. Most of this will be comments on sections of the manuscript where you require further development. You can think of the developmental edit as a follow-up on the editorial assessment, as your editor will deepen and expand on points brought up there. For example, they will highlight paragraphs where the pacing or voice is off, point out contradictions in the text, correct any problems with the narration, and look at strengthening sentences. Some comments are easy to resolve in-line, whereas others might point to deeper issues which will require you to overhaul your entire manuscript to resolve them.

You will do your revisions, then hand them to the copyeditor.

3) The SECOND editor in the process is the copyeditor. The copyeditor has not seen your story yet. The manuscript they see will have all changes worked in so the manuscript will be all clean, as though no editing has been done on it. They will then go over your manuscript rigorously to ensure all grammar, punctuation, formatting, and logic is intact.

4) After you’ve approved / worked in all revisions from the copyedit, the publisher will get your book formatted and ready to publish. This is called an ARC (advanced review copy), and often it goes out to reviewers. It will also go to the THIRD and final editor, the proofreader. This editor goes over the ARC and checks for typos or any outstanding mistakes. This step varies from publisher to publisher, and often proofreading happens several times, by several different people in house.

Editorial assessment / developmental editing are the most often passed up forms of editing by writers — even though they’re the most critical!

Editing costs lots of money, which often means when writers pay for editing they will pay for one revision. This usually is a hybrid of a copyedit and proofread, with some developmental editing. In terms of making a story strong, though, this approach falls flat. Fixing grammar and making prose stronger, while ignoring deeper developmental needs, is like a band-aid for a slit throat. And that horrific image, sadly, is an accurate depiction of the state of many books in the Indie market today.



How YOU can make sure you get a editorial assessment and development editing, WITHOUT straining your budget.

There’s good news.

You CAN get the first two steps of the editing process met, even if you have a tight budget. What follows are some strategies to help you incorporate this into your process so that you can get your needs met — and most importantly, make sure your story comes out strong.

The strategies here are in order from most expensive to cheapest.

1) The full treatment

Hire an editorial service to do higher level edits. Though prices for editing vary, you can usually get the editorial assessment step done for $300-500 (assuming a standard 80k novel), and the developmental edit done for $1000-1500.

If you hire premium services, it will cost more. For example, Girl Friday Productions, who Inkshares subcontracts for editing, charges about $4000-$6000 for an 80k novel. My own service is aimed at budget Indie authors who are self-publishing, so we tend to be closer to the lower / more affordable price range listed above (together, the editorial assessment and developmental edit is $5/ 250 words [1 page], or $27/hour, whichever is cheaper, and this often works out to about $300-500 for the editorial assessment and $700-1000 for a developmental edit).

You can get very cheap editing done, but as I already pointed out above, beware: many services will say they offer “editing”, and will give you just a spell check and/or a quick once-over.

2) Partial treatment

If you can’t afford full treatment, then it’s good to get the editorial assessment done by an editor if you can afford the couple hundred to do that. The rest you can achieve with a beta reader and self-revision strategy as follows:

1. After your manuscript is finished, give it to 3 “broad” beta readers and the editor who is doing the editorial assessment. For these 3 beta readers, make sure they are critical readers (i.e. not your spouse, unless your spouse is a ruthless editor and isn’t afraid to offend you), however, advise them not to go crazy fixing typos. The goal of the beta reading is the same as the editorial assessment: get a “readers view” of your book and find out from readers what kind of problems they encounter. Also, what kind of things they love.

When you are all done with the beta reading and the editorial assessment, use the editorial letter and the beta reader notes you get to form a revision strategy. (Read my posts on how to do that here.) Then, overhaul your manuscript to make a second draft.

2. To address the developmental editing step, once you are done your second draft, find 3 more beta readers. These should be more critical beta readers. You might even want to offer to pay them for their time, i.e. $40-50 as a thank-you. It’s good if they’re also writers, but this isn’t necessary. What you’re looking for with them is more picky feedback. Ideally, it will be good if they can comment in your Word document.

While your second round beta readers are doing this, do a thorough line-edit of your book. Pretend YOU are a developmental editor. DO NOT REWRITE AT ALL DURING THIS TIME. It’s VERY important you approach your manuscript cold, the same way an editor would. Personally, in this stage I print my own book out and use highlighters and pen, since my story on paper removes the temptation to start “fixing” things while I edit. It’s extremely important you don’t do this because rewriting and editing are two very different mental gears, and if you don’t divorce one from the other, you will go in circles.

3. When your second round beta reader notes and your own self-edit are all done, use all these notes to write a third draft. This draft will be quite polished and similar to what you’d get if it went through developmental editing.

3) Almost free treatment

If you are seriously hard for money, then you can do an “almost free” method of editing similar to 2) above.

For the first step, instead of hiring an editor to do an editorial assessment, you will be your own editor for the editorial assessment (just like you were your own developmental editor for the developmental edit). To help you get objective input, pay your own first round beta readers for more detailed notes on things they found wrong that they want you to fix (I’d recommend $20-30 to each of them). A cash incentive will make them take it more seriously, but it’s also a way of thanking them for the work they are doing. You don’t HAVE to monetize this step, however if you pay $20-30 to each beta reader in the first step, then $40-50 to each beta reader in the second step, you are looking at $180-240 total editing budget, which is extremely cheap with regard to what editing at this level can cost.

For your step doing the editorial assessment, read your book through just like your beta readers are doing. You might consider putting it in your Kindle or e-reader, or printing it out and reading it through. Don’t make any notes in it. Just read it like a book. If you are going to make notes, make them in a notebook or note file on your phone / computer as you read. The goal is to experience your story at “reader speed”, so you don’t want to slow down too much to make notes and thus lose sight of the overall flow of your story.

If you have any further questions on how this process works or how to make a successful strategy for yourself, please email me at I’d love to help with this, as I am very passionate about editing in a published book and making sure authors get this met, no matter where they’re at.

My editing company also has started a biweekly newsletter where we’ll be teaching more helpful tips like this to writer. Sign up for it here.

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One Response to Developmental editing — how you can’t live without it, and how to make it affordable

  1. Pingback: How to do a developmental edit yourself — a self-editing guide for writers | John Robins Blog

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