Thursday, August 31, 2017

Editing Your Book Part II - Developmental Editing: the 50,000 Foot View

by Sarah Sally Hamer @SallyHamer

Tips for editing your book.
As I mentioned in the Part I of How to Edit Your Book, there are four basic types of editing:
  • Developmental Editing
  • Substantive Editing
  • Line Editing
  • Copy Editing
Each type of editing offers an opportunity to look at a manuscript from a different place. So, let’s start with Developmental Editing (DE).

DE goes far beyond just changing words or commas. Most writers have an idea of how a book will end before they write it, as they probably should, but stories change as we go. Some take off in a completely new direction, and we follow along helplessly as our characters do things they weren’t supposed to do. Even well-established writers have this problem – consider a good example: Herman Melville.

Pop quiz (trick question): What is Moby Dick about?

Take your time. I’ll wait. (Jeopardy music playing in my head.)

Okay, time’s up.

It’s about a white whale and a one-legged man with a vendetta, right? So, why does Melville go on and on about a guy named Ishamel for three or so chapters before Ahab steps onto the deck? We hear about cetology (the study of whales) and are introduced to about a dozen characters before Ahab shows up. Then, of course, the story starts revolving around the real protagonist and we go along for the ride.

I think that Melville didn’t know the book was going to be about Ahab until that angry, obsessed, almost insane character appeared and, for whatever reason, he didn’t go back and edit out most of the pages before that. Maybe people who study those sorts of things will disagree with me but how many commercially-viable books in 2017 wait for three chapters to introduce the protagonist?

We meet Katniss Everdeen on the first page, as she comforts her sister.

Anastasia Steele self-consciously examines herself in a mirror.

The orphaned Harry Potter is dropped on his uncle’s doorstep.

Could it be Melville started with Ishamel and then discovered a more fascinating character?

Happens all the time to the best of us. Developmental Editing is designed to take care of that sort of problem.

Two Types of Developmental Editing
1. Before the book begins
If you’re a pantster (writing by the seat of your pants), you’re already backing away, slowly, hoping I don’t make you plot. I won’t, I promise. Some people just don’t plot. Period. Nothing wrong with that.
Others (plotters) spend a lot of time getting ready to write and DE works perfectly for them. Writers can create blueprints with their nebulous ideas and write smart. Doesn’t mean the story can’t change along the way – witness Melville. But knowing where you’re going saves a lot of time and effort and words.

2. After the book ends
Once it’s done, DE—whether by the writer or a hired editor—is an evaluation of the book from start to finish. Does the story hang together and hit all the right points? Does the story emphasize the right character, and does that character have a solid goal, motivation, and conflict to carry the story? How about a character arc?

Here are some other things to look for:
Story-telling skills
Is the story believable?
Is it logical?
Are sub-plots properly set up and followed through?

Is there rising and falling action?
Strong tension? 
A great beginning, middle and end?

Are there strong plot points?
Does the protagonist grow throughout the story (character arc)?

Is what the story is about clear?
Is there a profound moment when the reader understands what the story is about?

Are there tension-filled times juxtaposed with calmer times (scene/sequel)?
Does the pacing fit the genre?

Global Point of View
Who is telling the story?
Who has the most to lose?

Is the style consistent?
Does it fit the target market?

Developmental Editing is like looking at a story from 50,000 feet up. Pre-planning can help to set your story up but, whenever it’s done, a good hard look at your core story-telling skills can make the difference between a mediocre story and a great one.

And, all of our stories should be the BEST we can make them!

How’s your editing going? Do you have any tips you can add to mine? Worst bug-a-boos?

Next month, we’ll look at Substantive Editing!


Sarah (Sally) Hamer is a lover of books, a teacher of writers, and a believer in a good story. Most of all, she is eternally fascinated by people and how they 'tick'. She’s passionate about helping people tell their own stories, whether through fiction or through memoir. Writing in many genres - mystery, science fiction, fantasy, romance, medieval history, non-fiction – she has won awards at both local and national levels, including two Golden Heart finals.

A teacher of memoir, beginning and advanced creative fiction writing, and screenwriting at Louisiana State University in Shreveport for over twelve years, she also teaches online for Margie Lawson at Sally is a free-lance editor and book coach, with many of her students and clients becoming successful, award-winning authors.

You can find her at or on Twitter @sallyhamer.

I wish to express gratitude to the giants whose shoulders I stand on, from whom I learned the craft of writing. I would list every one, if it were only possible.


  1. I am a pantser and yes, I was backing away, but only for a moment. LOL. My latest book that I published in May, Gloria and the Unicorn, was initially more about the unicorn and that is where I started the story. After a good development edit by an editor, we realized the story was more about Gloria. Editing is so key and while we need to do our own editing, having that second pair of eyes is invaluable!

    1. I love pantsters! They're always afraid I'm going to force them to fill out endless charts! I don't, I promise - I even have to admit that, on a continuum of plotters vs pantsters I'm slightly right of center. Writers can certainly be both, usually just not at the same time. LOL!
      Thanks, Wanda! Best wishes to you!

  2. I love this follow up to your previous post, Sally. Nice examples too.

    1. Thanks, Ingmar! I'm fascinated by how different styles work for different people at different times - I wonder if Melville could have even gotten his book published today.

  3. MOST interesting, Sarah. And this is why the craft of writing is so much more than being a good English student or just having a desire to write. I had the beginning, sort of a middle, and the end in rough draft about a detective and the waitress where he ate 3 meals a day after becoming a widow soon after retirement. Between their conversations about the murders going on around them, I managed a lot of HIS backstory but not hers. They didn't fall in love, but became good friends discussing the case. She was secretly dating a married man, the coroner. I was content to leave her back story out of the plot. Along the way, these 2 main characters both played a role in the solution of the crime - not in my plan. I suddenly felt a need to develop her character and finally put my main story aside and backed up to write a short story on her - before he moved to the area. Then I found a way to let their paths cross before he moved to the area. In no time, she accidently got involved in helping the FBI and Border Patrol solve a case of human trafficking and drug smuggling with drones during an Alaskan cruise. She now has her own story in a book now and his is the sequel. Your advice on DE at 50,000 feet is great timing for me. I have an idea your other 3 types of editing have much to offer this obvious pantster. Thanks. Jay Wright

    1. I don't know what I'm doing wrong - I've replied to this twice and still don't see an answer.
      Thanks for your kind words, Jay. I'm glad it helped!

    2. Trying again. Thanks for your kind words, Jay! I'm glad it helped.

  4. So glad to hear it, Jay! I'm glad the information is valuable to you. It is amazing how, once we finish the darned thing, we can go back and make it into a viable story.

    Let me know how you go on!

  5. Jay, I'm so glad you stopped by! And, glad I was able to give you timely and needed information.
    Best wishes on your writing!