What is Developmental Editing and Why Should You Use It?

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.

About Birgitte Rasine

Birgitte Rasine is an author, publisher, and entrepreneur. Her published works include Tsunami: Images of Resilience, The Visionary, The Serpent and the Jaguar, Verse in Arabic, and various short stories including the inspiring The Seventh Crane. She has just finished her first novel for young readers. She also runs LUCITA, a design and communications firm with her own publishing imprint, LUCITA Publishing. You can follow Birgitte on Twitter (@birgitte_rasine), Facebook, Google Plus or Pinterest. Definitely sign up for her entertaining eLetter "The Muse"! Or you can just become blissfully lost in her online ocean, er, web site.

  • I am working on completing my first major WIP story that will be a story of 100K+ words in length. I recognized early in that despite my note taking along the way, there would be rewrites needed to adjust for imbalances in story development and missed connections. I have been looking ahead and plan on using technology to offer some help in the process, i.e. “shrunken manuscript”, chapter outlining using either spreadsheet layout of E Note paging for easy review and comparison. I also thought well ahead and have a reliable and very capable contact serving as my coach & editor along the writing process. Sermons and devotionals are one thing, but a project this big needs a team effort and more resources.

    • Sounds like you’ve got things planned out, good for you. Chapter outlines are great. I find that writing one- or two-line synopses of each chapter works quite well.

      • Good suggestion… once I am done with my manuscript’s first draft, I think I will begin the process of creating a “Book Brief” to overview and outline the story’s construction. I like adding a brief 1-2 line synopsis…over the top of the outlines on each chapter.

  • Thank you for this valuable post, Birgette. Do you know any internet resources for visualizing plot structure? If not, thank you for a great post – this is exactly what I’ve been working on lately.

    • Hi Margie, online tools for visualizing plot structure? If you mean purely visual, unfortunately no — I use either pen and paper or Photoshop. I prefer paper, the old fashioned way. There’s something tactile and tangible about drawing with pen on paper that no software can ever emulate. It’s so… organic!

  • On Developmental Editing…

    My partner in ink as I call him, Jeff Underwood and I are distanced by 3000 miles. We have been writing together since 2011. It is imperative when we begin the foundation for our books that we pull strands of plot outline and progression from the nucleus of the tale. I usually go further and scribble an outline for the chapter, especially as I research. Jeff enjoys the spontaneity of tapping away at the keys immediately. It all goes well until one of the characters interrupts and pinches one of us and says, “Um, I want a turn. I’m writing this one.”

    Oh, see the recipe included.

    The Easiest Chocolate Mousse

    1 pint (2 cups) heavy whipping cream, well chilled
    10 to 12 oz good quality chocolate bits or baking chocolate – milk chocolate or dark chocolate*
    In large bowl, beat whipping cream at medium speed just until stiff peaks form.
    2 In double boiler or in bowl set over saucepan, melt chocolate over simmering water. Pour melted chocolate into whipped cream; fold chocolate into cream (do not overmix; mixture can have a few streaks). Refrigerate at least 1 hour before serving.
    *Please, use Fair Trade chocolate!

    • Kate, I love your recipe, it sounds so easy, as you say! Can’t wait to try it out. And yes, Fair Trade although that label is becoming overly laden with politics and agendas; it is no longer so easy to just choose “Fair Trade” and know exactly where the chocolate comes from. (I’ve had a few conversations with an expert I know on that topic). Lots more on that if you want to know…

      Regarding the editing, it sounds like you and your partner both write and edit your books. Do you also share author credits? How do you compensate for the distance, since so much serendipity tends to happen better in person?

      • I would love more information on the cocoa trade. Many western South American cocoa plantations don’t utilize children. My next book is tale that weaves in Women’s Rights and develops the truth about cocoa plantations.

        Jeff and I have write our books, edit, and self publish together. I design the covers. In our earliest tomes, we shared writing inasmuch as he wrote a chapter, I wrote a chapter and we blended. Our styles are distinctly different, so that was challenging. Now, we work together to build our outlines, plot progressions, and we give one another much feedback throughout our writing. We do share the author credits because we are intimately involved in writing together.

        If he writes the book primarily, his name goes first and vice versa.
        Distance? Ah, it is frustrating! Though we text, talk, and email throughout each day. I long to sit at the desk side by side. We met online at a support group for healthy relationships. Our sharings led to our collaboration in writing and we have been together ever since. Time will tell when we finally meet. I tell time to hurry up!

        I have liked your page on Facebook and sent you my email address. Thank you for any information you might send me re: the cocoa trade.

        • Curious you should be writing about the cacao trade as my novel that’s coming up later this year is about the history of cacao. I’d be happy to share insights into the world of cacao, to the extent that I can—since my book focuses on the history more than the current trade environment. I’ll email you separately.

  • This is the first outline I’ve done since high school (nigh 20 years gone):

    Wakes up next to his wife. Attempts to make love to his wife. She waves him off. Thinking she was working late, and is tired, decides to go make breakfast. When the smells don’t bring her into the kitchen with their daughters, he makes her a tray and takes it in to her. There, he finds her dead. He tries to revive her, screaming her name. Section ends.

    Two weeks after the funeral, their eldest daughter is taking care of the family. Noah has become zombie-like in his grief. He only eats or drinks when told to. Eventually, his sister-in-law comes and takes the girls for a while. She tells Noah the best way to move on from his grief and live for his daughters is to pack up Elise’s stuff. He stares blindly at her closet door. Section ends.

    Josephine’s husband comes over and helps dismantle and remove Elise’s furniture. He stores it without informing Noah. Josephine arrives and helps Noah begin to pack Elise’s knickknacks and clothes. She pauses when she sees him staring at the closet door. He says her can’t face it yet. Section ends.

    Everything Elise only has used is finally packed away and put into storage, except for the contents of the closet. Noah picks up his daughters from Josephine’s and apologizes to them for his behavior. Later that night, he tucks them into bed and kisses their foreheads. He climbs into his own bed and stares at the closet door. Section ends.

    Eldest daughter comes home, irritable and crying. After she snaps at Noah, and runs off, slamming her door, he goes to her and gets her to tell him what’s going on. She tells him that she thinks she’s started her period, but isn’t sure and she’s scared. Flashback to Noah and Elise shopping at Rite-Aid. Her period has started unexpectedly, and she dragged him in to “test his manliness”. She talks about the merits of tampons versus pads, and o.b. versus Tampax. They discuss having a girl and Aunt Flo. The flashback ends and Noah explains to the eldest what she has to do. She says she misses her mom. Noah does too. Section ends with Noah in bed, staring at the closet.

    Two months later, Noah finally opens the closet door. It’s a huge walk-in number. He is hit with her scent, and tears begin to flow. Her every day wear is near the front. When he goes further in, he gets the first gut punch: the t-shirt she wore during each of her pregnancies. It’s white with red letters that say, “It Started With A Kiss, And Ended Like This” and a blue arrow pointing to her belly.

    Flashback to a baby shower. Elise opens a package and sees the shirt. She holds it up so she can read it, then shows it to everyone as she laughs her ass off. To Noah’s, and the guest’s delight, she stands and takes off her other shirt with “Baby On Board” and puts on the new one. She then thanks Noah and kisses him passionately. Flashback ends.

    ‘She wore that shirt to tell me she was pregnant with each of the others,’ he muses. His next gut punch is her wedding dress on a dressmaker’s dummy. He collapses to his
    knees, tears flowing down his face. A trembling hand reaches out to caress the fabric. Noah begins to sob. Section ends.

    Flash back to Noah and Elise’s wedding. The two recite their own vows to each other. We learn that Noah is her second husband, and the oldest two daughters are from that first marriage. We also learn that Elise had spent years in an abusive relationship and Noah rescued her from it. She thanks him for showing her what love really is, and vows to be by his side, loving him, no matter what.

    Noah takes a few lines to tell Elise why he loves her, then vows to spend the rest of his life making her happy. They are pronounced man and wife, then kiss. Section ends.

    He finds another dummy with the outfit she wore when he proposed. We flash back to that scene. Show that a lot of effort went into making this a magical night for Elise. She cries tears of joy when she enters, and doesn’t stop smiling the whole night. Near midnight, he goes down on bended knee and reveals the engagement ring he made by hand with her birthstone, then proposes. Flashback ends. Section ends.

    He sees his favorite workout shirt from college hung on a wall. Underneath is tape with, “Can’t let him wear it out. It smells like him. He makes me so happy!” He swallows hard, then moves on. He finds a dress on another dummy, and smiles sadly. It’s tagged with “I wore this on our first in-person date.” Flashback to the first date. Section ends.

    Continue in this vein. Make sure the reader knows by the end how much Noah and Elise meant to each other. Noah is really torn up by her sudden death. The closet is finally emptied.

    Does Noah commit suicide? Or does he gather his waning strength and live for his daughters despite the whole in his heart and life? Or, do I just end it with the thought of suicide in his mind?

    • Hmm, this isn’t an outline. An outline is typically in bullet point or similar format, where you split apart sections, chapters, and possibly subsections as appropriate. Each chapter can have a title if you have those, and 1-2 line synopsis per chapter. That’s it. No descriptions like what you have here.

      Care to give it another shot?

      • To be honest? Not really. I’m more of a pantser. Doing that above was an experiment, and when I got it down, the story just died. It’s not like my other ones that are alive inside my head, waiting to come out. Maybe I’ll offer it to one of my friends, and they can make it live.

        It was a good article, nonetheless. Thanks for writing it and responding. 🙂

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