What Is Developmental Editing? The Writer’s Guide to Developmental Editing

by Alice Sudlow | 13 comments

You've written a book. Congratulations! But wait . . . now what? What do you do with your manuscript? How do you turn it from a rough draft into a publishable book?

The next step is to get professional developmental editing. A developmental editor will help you take your rough, unpolished ideas and turn them into an amazing second draft.

What Is Developmental Editing?

If you're new to the world of editing, the term “developmental editing” might sound a little confusing. What is developmental editing? What makes it different from other kinds of editing, like line editing, copy editing, or proofreading?

And of course, how do you find a great developmental editor, and how do you know they're the right editor for you?

Good news: you're in the right place. I'm a developmental editor, and in this article, I'll break down everything you need to know about developmental editing so you can make your book the best it can be.

What Is Developmental Editing?

Developmental editing, also called substantive editing (and less often structural editing), involves feedback on the big picture of a novel, nonfiction book, or other writing piece. A developmental editor will critique structural elements like the plot, characters, theme, and organization of ideas. Developmental editing usually happens after the first or second draft of a book.

Developmental editing is a type of book editing that focuses on ideas, the substance of your story. You might also see it listed as “substantive editing” or a “substantive editor,” depending on where you look.

A developmental editor will focus on:

  • Your book's genre. What type of story are you writing? What elements do readers expect from that type of story? Are those elements present in interesting and innovative ways?
  • Your book's structure. Is there a beginning, middle, and end? Does the story include all the elements of storytelling, starting with an inciting incident and building to a climax and resolution? For a nonfiction book, have you communicated your point clearly, and organized the ideas in a logical flow building from the start of the book to the end?
  • Your book's characters. Do you have too many characters, or too few? What are their goals? Do they make interesting choices to achieve those goals? Do those choices show strong characterization and move the plot forward?
  • Your book's theme. What is this book really about? Why did you choose to write it, and what makes it important to you? What do you want readers to take away from it? How can you make that theme more powerful and impactful throughout the story?
  • Your book's point of view. What point of view are you using in your book? Is it an effective choice for your story? Is it consistent throughout the book?
  • Your readers' expectations. Will your book satisfy your readers? Will it stand out on the shelves as a book that brings something new and exciting to its genre?

A developmental editor will not make changes to the words on the pages of your book. They won't rewrite sentences or paragraphs.

Instead, they'll give you holistic feedback about your entire book that will guide you through rewriting your next draft.

They'll tell you where your book's structure is strong and where it needs more work. They'll also give you suggestions for how to think about making those changes. It's up to you what specific changes you want to make in your story!

Bonus: How Many Drafts Does it Take to Edit a Book?

How does developmental editing compare to other types of editing? And how many drafts will it take to get your book ready to publish?

Find out in this podcast episode:


Looking for developmental editing? Our editors are experts in a wide variety of genres, and they'll give you invaluable feedback to take your writing to the next level. Check out editing here »

What Is Developmental Editing NOT?

“Editing” means a lot of things, and developmental editing isn't the only option out there. Here are two more types of editing, plus two other avenues for writing and getting feedback on your book. While these will also help you get your manuscript ready for publication, they're not developmental editing, and a developmental editor will not give you this kind of feedback.

Sometimes, you'll find an editor who does both developmental editing and another type of editing, like line editing, copy editing, or proofreading. These are all separate skill sets, though, and generally, you'll need to hire different editors to do each type of editing.

1. It's NOT Line Editing

A line editor edits lines—that is, your word choice, the sentences and paragraphs and words on the page.

A line editor will make sure that the words in each sentence most clearly communicate your ideas. The goal is to make your writing as smooth and polished as possible while maintaining your unique writing voice. It's a tricky line to walk, but the best line editors will polish your writing while ensuring it is always your writing, through and through.

The line editor will use Suggestion Mode, Track Changes, or another tool to keep track of each edit they make as they change the words on the page. You'll then be able to accept or reject each change.

Developmental editors don't worry about word choice, and often don't use Track Changes to give you feedback.

Looking for line editing? We have a great team of line editors who will polish your sentences and preserve your voice. Check out line editing here »

2. It's NOT Copy Editing or Proofreading

A copy editor does not focus on ideas or on rewriting lines. Instead, a copy editor corrects typos, including errors in grammar and punctuation. They may also fact check information like names, dates, and notable facts.

Like a line editor, a copy editor will track their changes throughout your manuscript, which you'll then accept or reject. They'll then create a style sheet, a guide to all the style choices you make throughout your book: Oxford comma, or no Oxford comma? Color or colour?

A copy editor will also make sure your writing is consistent, so you don't accidentally write your character Aeryn's name as Eryn that one time.

A proofreader's role is similar to a copy editor's, but while the copy edit happens before the book is formatted for publication, the proofread is the final pass of the formatted book before it ships. A proofreader will catch any final errors right before it's published.

If your copy editor and book formatter have done a great job, your proofreader's job will be very easy!

Developmental editors don't worry about typos, punctuation, or grammar. In fact, they're used to receiving messy first drafts, so don't worry if your manuscript is riddled with typos—I promise, your developmental editor won't mind!

Looking for copy editing or proofreading? Our team of eagle-eyed editors will catch every error. Check out copy editing and proofreading here »

3. It's NOT Beta Reading

Beta readers aren't professional editors. Instead, they're regular readers, the kinds of people whom you'd like to buy your book after it's published.

Beta readers are volunteers who will read your next-to-final draft of your manuscript. They'll tell you how your intended audience might respond to your book.

Beta readers will probably give you substantive feedback on whether they like the characters or whether the plot twists make sense. Some beta readers might also pick up on typos as they go.

If you have an edited book nearing publication, check out our guide to beta readers to learn how to find beta readers and get the best feedback from them.

Remember, though, beta readers are not a substitute for professional editing.

While beta readers will tell you their impressions of their favorite parts of your book, a professional developmental editor will do an intensive analysis of your whole book and give you expert guidance about how to make it the best it can be.

And while beta readers may catch a few typos, a copy editor or proofreader will scrutinize your book word by word to make sure every single keystroke is correct.

4. It's NOT Ghostwriting

A ghostwriter is hired to write a book for another person. Often, the person has a great idea for a book and knows all the content they want to include. They may not be a writer themselves, though, and so they hire an experienced writer to turn their ideas into a publishable book.

Ghostwriting and developmental editing both involve a big picture look at the organization and structure of a book. But a developmental editor won't write your book for you—instead, they'll give you the feedback you need to do your rewrites yourself.

What Kinds of Writing Need Developmental Editing?

The short answer is, all kinds of writing! Just about every type of writing can benefit from developmental editing.

Looking for a more specific answer? Here are some types of writing that developmental editors often work with:

  • Novels
  • Short stories
  • Novellas and novelettes
  • Nonfiction books
  • Articles

Generally, developmental editors will focus on one or more types of writing, and often will specialize further to focus on a handful of genres within that type. One developmental editor might work with space opera novels, and another might work with how-to books.

If you have a piece of writing that you want to get published, there's a developmental editor for you.


When Should You Get Developmental Editing?

Developmental editing comes early in your writing and editing process. I recommend hiring a developmental editor after your first or second draft of your book.

Your developmental editor will read your manuscript and give you high-level feedback on the shape of your story. It's best to do this before you get too deep into fine-tuning details, like polishing your words, sentences, or grammar.

If you're writing your first book, I recommend getting a developmental edit after the first draft. Your editor will give you invaluable feedback about story structure, genre, and the shape of your book, and you'll get the most out of your editing process by getting that feedback early on.

If you're an experienced writer who has written many books, I recommend getting a developmental edit after the first or second draft. You may already be familiar with some of the most substantive changes you want to make between the first and second drafts, and after you have done all that you can with your story, your editor will help you take your book to the next level.

If you're on your third draft or more, and you haven't gotten a developmental edit, I still recommend getting one! This is the most impactful kind of editing you can get, and you'll be surprised how much insight and story wisdom your editor will be able to give you.

For most developmental editing packages, you'll need a finished draft of your book. Sometimes, developmental editors will also work with you to finish a draft of your book, but I recommend finishing your first draft before you reach out to editors.

But Wait, What if You Get Traditionally Published?

All this talk of hiring an editor might sound like it's just for writers who are self-publishing. After all, if you're going the traditional route and hoping to be published by one of the big five publishing houses, won't they provide all the editing you need?

Well, yes—and no.

Publishers in the traditional publishing industry do have robust teams of editors. We haven't even talked about acquisitions editors, assistant editors, publishers, and more—all titles you'll see within the major publishing houses.

If you're offered a publishing deal, you'll be connected with an acquisitions editor who will work with you throughout your book publishing journey. That will definitely include copy editing and proofreading (usually done by a different editor than your acquisitions editor).

It may include some developmental editing. This feedback will come from your acquisitions editor, or even from your agent before you query your book to publishers.

Keep in mind, though, at this stage, the goal of every person you work with is to publish a book that will sell, and to do that as fast as possible. They're not interested in a lengthy back-and-forth with many drafts of revision. In fact, if they think your book will take that level of work, they will probably reject your query.

It's best not to query agents and begin your traditional publishing journey until you're confident your book is ninety-nine percent ready to publish. That means, even if you're planning to be traditionally published, I still highly recommend hiring an independent developmental editor to work with you early on in your writing process.

Then, when it's time to query, you'll know you have a publication-ready book!

Ready to query agents? Get professional feedback on your query letter and put your best foot forward. Check out the query letter critique here »

What Are Typical Developmental Editorial Services?

We've looked at what developmental editing is, how it compares to other types of editing, and when you should consider getting an edit for your book. But in the most practical terms, what does it involve? When you connect with an editor to get feedback on your book, what can you expect?

Here are two types of developmental editing packages you might find.

A Manuscript Critique

A manuscript critique, also called a manuscript evaluation or manuscript diagnostic, is a one-off editing package where your editor will read your whole book and give you holistic feedback. Depending on the editor, this feedback may come in a few different forms:

  • One or more phone calls. You and your editor will probably get on the phone (or on Zoom) together once or more during your developmental edit to discuss your goals for your book and your editor's recommendations. The developmental editing process is very collaborative, and I highly encourage you to make sure your editor offers this kind of connection and discussion.
  • An editorial letter. An editorial letter is just what it sounds like: a letter, ranging from five pages to twenty-five pages, explaining your editor's recommendations for your book. The editor may send this ahead of your call to discuss, or may send it after to incorporate all the changes you decide on together.
  • A set of deliverables. Some editors have specific deliverables they offer to their editing clients along with or instead of an editorial letter. These deliverables may analyze the book through the lenses of genre, theme, point of view, character development, and more.
  • A scene list spreadsheet. One kind of deliverable an editor might offer is a spreadsheet to help you track and analyze your scenes.

A manuscript critique like this can take anywhere from a few weeks to a couple months to complete.

Our team of editors offers manuscript reviews. Check out a manuscript review here »

Book Coaching/Ongoing Developmental Editing

In this kind of developmental editing package, your editor will offer you ongoing editorial support as you revise your manuscript. You'll likely have weekly, biweekly, or monthly calls with your editor. During your calls, your editor will offer you feedback on your writing, and you'll have a chance to ask questions and brainstorm ideas together.

Ongoing developmental editing is like having an editor on retainer. Your editor will support you through the writing process and help you write your best book.

Our team of editors offers ongoing developmental editing. Check out Developmental Editing here »

Depending on the editor you choose, your editor might recommend different packages than the ones listed above. But these two types of packages are great places to start as you look for feedback on your book.

Where Do You Find a Developmental Editor?

You know why you need a developmental editor, and you know what to look for. How do you find the editor who's right for you?

The good news is, you don't have to live in New York City to work with a great editor. Freelance developmental editors connect with writers anywhere in the world.

Here at The Write Practice, we have a great team of developmental editors we recommend to all our writers. They're experts in a range of genres: fiction and nonfiction, short stories and epic novels, children's literature to young adult to adult, book club fiction and historical fiction, fantasy and sci-fi, literary fiction and romance, and more.

Get started by checking out the editing packages we offer here. (You'll notice we offer both a manuscript diagnostic and ongoing developmental editing!)

Then, fill out the form at the bottom of the page, and we'll connect you with a great editor for your book.

Meet Your Developmental Editor

Get the developmental editing that's right for you. Learn about the editing packages we offer and meet your developmental editor.

Get Developmental Editing »

Okay, but Do You REALLY Need a Developmental Edit?

“All good writing is rewriting,” as the saying goes. Your writing—especially your long-form writing, like a novel or nonfiction book—is not the best it can be until you've edited it. And the most important kind of editing you can give it is developmental editing.

If you skip a copyedit or proofread, you'll get Amazon reviews that say, “How did this book make it past an editor?” or, “This author seriously needed to hire an editor; I could barely finish the book.”

If you skip a developmental edit, though, you might not get Amazon reviews, because readers may become so frustrated or disinterested by problems in the story that they'll put it down.

You've worked so hard to write your book. Give it the care, attention, and investment it deserves, and send it to a great developmental editor for feedback.

Your book, and your readers, will thank you!

Have you worked with a developmental editor before? What was your experience like? Let us know in the comments!


For today's exercise, practice thinking like a developmental editor.

First, find a scene you've already written, or choose a chapter from a book you've read. Don't have a book on hand? Use the Amazon preview to read the first pages of this book.

Next, answer these questions about the scene:

  • What's the genre of this story?
  • What's the point of view of this scene?
  • Who are the characters in this scene?
  • What are their goals?
  • As a reader, what expectations do you have for this book based on this scene alone?

Take fifteen minutes to read your scene and answer the questions. When you're done, share your analysis in the Pro Practice Workshop and don't forget to leave feedback for your fellow writers!

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Alice Sudlow is the Editor-in-Chief of The Write Practice and a Story Grid certified developmental editor. Her specialty is in crafting transformative character arcs in young adult novels. She also has a keen eye for comma splices, misplaced hyphens, and well-turned sentences, and is known for her eagle-eyed copywriter skills. Get her free guide to how to edit your novel at alicesudlow.com.


  1. Coach Brown

    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.

    • Birgitte Rasine

      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.

    • Coach Brown

      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.

  2. Margie Deeb

    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.

    • Birgitte Rasine

      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!

  3. Kate Taylor

    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!

    • Birgitte Rasine

      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?

    • Kate Taylor

      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.

    • Birgitte Rasine

      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.

  4. R.w. Foster

    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?

    • Birgitte Rasine

      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?

    • R.w. Foster

      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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