Developmental Editors are NOT Copyeditors

When I tell people that I’m an editor, the first response that I typically get is something along the lines of, “You must love spelling.” It’s amazing how many people assume that editing is just looking at the punctuation and grammar, perhaps finding typos. However, this proofreading type of editing is the final stage of the process. Before you get to that point, there are so many other aspects.

I have written about the stages of editing before, posting the below info-graphic about when you need to seek those external eyes and what type of external eyes you need. However, I still encounter many who are confused about what editing really entails.

The stages of editing info-graphic

The stages of editing

In this week’s post, I thought I’d elaborate on the two main categories of professional editors that you’ll likely encounter, and why BOTH are vital to the health (and success) of a story. I’m talking in particular about developmental editors and copyeditors.

Let’s first address copyediting. A significant number of freelance editors advertise copyediting and proofreading services. A proofreader is focused on trying to find those annoying typos and any grammatical errors that might have been missed. However, a copyeditor will delve into the nitty-gritty of word choice and continuity, in addition to punctuation and grammar.

A good copyeditor (and notice I said a good editor) will look at the appropriateness of the word or phrase used, given the context and the remainder of the manuscript. They will check for consistency. (Did Billy’s eyes suddenly turn green when they started out as brown?) Depending on their own expertise and knowledge, they will double check your facts. (Have you correctly reported on the population of Greece? Did the H-bomb drop on Hiroshima in January or June, or some other month altogether?)

A copyeditor of fiction looks at the consistency of narrative voice. The tone of a seventeen-year-old girl is very different to that of a forty-year-old man. However, a writer could easily have a single passage slip through that might have survived all the rewrites that was originally written from the perspective of the older man.

If you are self-publishing, you will want to sink a significant amount of money into the copyediting phase. You don’t want to throw your readers out of a story just because you chose to call that piece of furniture sitting by the bed a bedside table and not a nightstand.

However, for those who are traditionally publishing, the copyediting phase is actually the responsibility of your publisher — or at least it should be. If your publisher insists on you paying for this, dare I say it, you went with the wrong publisher.

Notice how copyediting is performed after a manuscript is in the publisher’s hands. The editing you do prior to submission is of a completely different flavour.

Enter the developmental editor…

Developmental editing is a complicated beast, ranging in an examination of the overall plot structure and character development, through to the nitty-gritty of the backstory and individual scene descriptions (and the amount of detail needed). While some level of developmental editing can be achieved by the usage of critique partners and beta readers, the level of feedback from a professional developmental editor is completely different.

A developmental editor will be able to point out where things get a bit sticky, but they will also be able to help you work through the process of cleaning up the muck. They’ll provide you with suggestions on where you can take things. However, they should NEVER insist that you take a particular path. (It is your story.)

Developmental editors, such as myself, offer different levels of editing reports. You have the basic critique, which will examine the overall writing presented, highlighting any plot holes, weaknesses in narrative, and issues associated with writing style. Developmental/Line edits take the report to the next level, looking at the nitty-gritty of actually passages, commenting on specifics.

Then you have mentoring (or coaching). This will typically involve repeated reads through sections of your manuscript, helping you to develop your own voice and your own editing skills. During mentoring sessions, a developmental editor will take the time to explain a concept to you, so you can understand exactly what it is that the jargon means (at least, that’s what I do).

Any developmental editing report will likely comment on repeated grammatical errors; however, this will not be their focus.

I believe that the reason why developmental editing is commonly misunderstood is because most writers will employ a level of developmental editing right from the beginning. The developmental editing process starts from the very first draft. In fact, it starts before you even put pen to paper (or your fingers to the keyboard).

A developmental editor needs to approach each story differently. There might be common elements, but the advice they give needs to be specific to the manuscript that is sitting in front of them. However, as I have said on numerous occasions, I would NEVER hire a professional developmental editor just after completing the first draft — it would be a waste of money.

When hiring a developmental editor, you want to ask about more than just their rates. Will they answer questions about their reports and take the time to help you understand the jargon that THEY use? (Will you need to spend more money to understand the big words?) Is there a consultation included in their quote — or at least open email communication? Are you offered any re-reads? Will they evaluate your work again at a future date?

Most developmental editors that I have worked with do charge for a sample edit, mainly because the size of a sample needs to be longer for the developmental editing process (i.e., you don’t get a proper feel for a story or narrative from only 100 words — it often takes 2500 – 5000 words to really understand where a story is going). However, if they charge for the sample edit, that charge should be discounted from a longer contract, if one is taken on.

Don’t be surprised if an editor says that they need to see your writing before providing a quote. As most editors charge based on an hourly rate, this is a common practice.

However, some editors, like myself, charge based on word count. Even so, on longer projects, I do insist on a sample contract (often 5000 words).

In reading back over this post, I realise that I have likely confused readers about what developmental editing really is. Another term that might help is to think of a developmental editor as a story-flow critic. Regardless, as I said above, developmental editing is a complicated beast.

(Note: while I openly advertise critiques and a more in-depth developmental/line edit, I do also offer mentoring/coaching services. Just drop me a line if you are interested in more details.)

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© Copyright, Judy L Mohr 2017

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