Have you ever built a house? Written a paper for debate club (or any class for that matter)? Prepared a presentation for a client or conference? Whatever the project, in order to transmit your ideas in a coherent and engaging manner to your audience, you need structure, you need emotional appeal, and you need a sense of narrative (yes, even houses tell stories!).
Welcome to the world of the Developmental Editor.
In the interest of transparency, I will share with you that in addition to my literary author and entrepreneur hats, I also wear the developmental editor cap for my author clients, so I am clearly biased in favor of said cap.
This post does not tell you where to find a good developmental editor. It tells you what a good developmental editor should be able to do for you—or what you should be able to do for your own writing once you put that cap on.
Structure, Structure, Structure
We of the homo sapiens persuasion are bio-wired for symmetry and order (at least once we graduate from toddlerhood—but that’s another conversation). You’ve all no doubt read plenty of blogs and books about narrative structure and perhaps even taken classes and seminars, so I’ll keep this short and sweet:
- The developmental editor’s strength lies here. S/he will put together that skeleton, that blueprint, that foundation for your book that it might not have had before, or improve and revise the one it did. The idea is, for the better, for the stronger.
- Whatever kind of book or story you’re writing, it must be sketchable. You must be able to visually represent the rising/falling action in your novel, or the inherent structures of your non fiction book. This allows you to “see” your storyline in a nonverbal schema. Your brain works differently with images, so it’s important to have this other perspective on your work.
- You must also be able to express your book’s structure in outline format. This is especially critical for a non fiction book. It will enable you to see asymmetrical structures, holes in your chapter segmentation, and any missing pieces (oops, forgot the Acknowledgments!) For a novel, an outline will look different but it serves the same purposes. It’s ok if neither you nor your developmental editor can draw. Get that outline done.
- Pressure-test your outline by researching other books in your genre/market. Do an outline of the works you most admire; you’ll likely find gems in their crystalline substrata.
Bring Out (On) the Artist
How do you tell two gorgeous houses apart? By looking at their blueprints. Does one have a geothermal pump built in, with passive heating, windows strategically positioned to maximize sunlight throughout the day, and the whole place set into bedrock instead of landfill? And did I mention a secret passageway to the vineyard next door. Yeah, that’s the house you want.
Once you have a solid foundation and structure, you can go to town—still with your editor by your side!—and work on the fun stuff. Voice, perspective, dialogue, back story, literary style, etc. That is also the job of the developmental editor.
Just as your literary backbone needs to carry all the weight you’re putting on it, so too do the muscles need to flex, the hair shine, the eyes look right through your reader. No good to have some of the elements in place. You’re producing an oeuvre after all!
Know Your Genre, Know Your Market
A good developmental editor will be fluent in your genre whether you’re writing commercial/upmarket fiction, non fiction, or short stories, and ideally, s/he will also know the market/s you’re aiming for. In fact, s/he should be able to tell you straight up if you’re writing for the wrong market. I tell my clients the facts, not what I think they want to hear. (Their spouses/sig others usually do that for them.)
After all, you do want to get published. You do want thousands if not millions of readers. You do want a comfortable income as an author. If you’re able to want those things for yourself without guilt, fear, or doubt, then you should also want a professional developmental editor who can help take your book there. Demand nothing less!
A Case in Point
I asked one of my current author clients why he chose me (we connected on a social network of all places) over all the other editors who were responding to his query. This is what he said:
- “It was obvious from our initial communication you were sincerely interested in the subjects [relevant to my book]”
- “Your references were credible and easy to check”
- “You had substantial experience [with the book’s genre] and that was extremely important to me”
These three points sound like reasonable expectations for any consultant you would hire for almost any type of service, n’est-ce pas? It is no different in writing. However, once you do select your editing gal or guy, don’t let your guard down. I hear stories all the time of a great honeymoon that ends in a speedy divorce (the editor/publicist/etc does not deliver). Another author client came to us after both his designer and his supposedly high-profile editor failed him. So make sure you have a contract in place with clear terms regarding deliverables, milestones, deadlines, payment—and yes, even how often you can expect to communicate with each other.
When I asked my client what he feels has helped us work so well together, I had my own answers, but didn’t share those with him. Yet his mirrored mine:
- Both of us acting in a sincere, professional and responsible manner at all times
- Me being “constructively direct” and his being “able to take [my] constructive criticism head-on”
As the old saying goes, it really does take two to tango, but in writing, where you’re running solo for so long, it’s critical you be able to step back into a collaborative relationship with your editor and not take things personally. Nice thing is, once you reach that point in the relationship (hopefully sooner than later), it can be a wonderful, wonderful thing. You’ll wonder how you ever wrote a book without an editor.
Oh, my, how time flies. Gotta go get those cornish hens out of the oven. Time’s up! Your turn.
Get thee to a developmental editor!
For today’s practice, put on your fancy black felt developmental editor cap. Take a good long look at a WIP (work in progress) you’ve been wrestling with and see how you can improve its structure and symmetry. Better yet, work with that new idea you haven’t quite started writing out yet—sketch out its blueprint.
Post your WIP extracts, comments, questions, frustrations, and recipes for chocolate mousse here.