I think this is the post I’ve dreaded the most in this whole series. Bear with me as I try to give some insight into how to developmentally edit your own manuscripts.
Why I Don’t Want to Write About Developmental Self-Editing
The reason I’ve dreaded this specific subject isn’t because I can’t do it. I can, to an extent, although it’s better for me to have someone else do it. And I do hand it off, whenever possible.
I’ve dreaded it because it’s difficult to developmentally self-edit, and it helps to be a borderline schizophrenic. That’s a high bar to put on something so many people want to do.
I’m convinced that most people can’t do it well. I imagine some writers never will, possibly even most writers.
And why is that? Simply, because developmental editing requires a certain approach that’s very hard to learn, if it doesn’t come naturally. To do it well isn’t just a matter of education, but of some innate talent in the form of an uber-big-picture sensibility that’s not inherently necessary to tell a good story. Thus, it’s more of an art than a craft.
My husband is fond of saying ‘Everyone can learn to play blues, but you can’t learn to make people feel like BB makes people feel.’ I never learned more than two chords on his guitar, but I get his point (and I don’t think everyone can learn to play blues, but he knows his crafts more than I do).
It’s more than just technique, and that’s what developmental editors try to help a writer accomplish. Techniques are fundamental, but there is that uber-big-picture that places those techniques in context, that makes them something more. Something sublime and impossible to explain and just ‘better.’
Developmental editing, as a process, requires a comprehensive evaluation from an experienced editorial standpoint, and most people simply don’t have those tools in their toolbox. A writer who does not notice a theme, will not polish or develop that theme, and believe you me, that happens with amazing regularity.
I considered approaching the whole shooting match backwards, starting with proofreading and working up to developmental editing, but here’s what I expect that approach would get: exactly what most self-publishers do already.
I know that we all try our best to find everything possible that our manuscript needs, and most writers are fully competent to proofread. Everyone can do better, so I’ll still have help for you in that regard when the time comes, but you know a typo when you see one usually. Copy editing? Well, most writers, hopefully, either have solid grammar skills, or can get access to someone who has said skills, or software which lacks skill entirely but is capable of algorithmically finding common errors.
Most writers, though?
They may not notice an undeveloped theme.
They may not notice where they lose track of the audience.
They may not notice that a character or a subplot or a scene serves no purpose in their work.
And they certainly will not know when (or how) to fix or cut or ‘make it work.’
What Can I Teach You About Developmental Self-Editing?
So I’ve been asking myself for the last week or two this very question. What can I teach you? Really? Can I teach you how to self-edit to such an extent that you don’t have to pay someone to do it for you?
I don’t believe it’s possible without some sort of hands-on apprenticeship such as most developmental editors go through.
I do believe it’s possible for you to learn the principles well enough that, if you have the knack, if you’ve read and analyzed enough works of literature, if you’re capable of stepping outside of yourself far enough to look at your work with an almost objective perspective, then I can explain the process enough to help you do better.
I should say my process, not the process. Not only is every Developmental Editor (or Acquisitions Editor, depending on the size of the house and the titles and duties thrown about) different in their process, but every house has different sensibilities about processes in general.
So I will be focusing on big fundamentals, expecting you to fill in the gaps on your own.
In other words, if you choose to edit yourself developmentally, you’re really on your own, and you may just be fucked. Luckily, that doesn’t mean you can’t write a good book. It just means your book won’t be as good as it could be.
My Waypoints for Developmental Editing
The task of developmental editing, whether one’s title is Developmental Editor or Acquisitions Editor, does not usually have an extremely different sensibility than that of a reader. You will not do yourself any favors while editing to reread the manuscript as many times as you did while writing it.
Read it once, coming to it with the approach that it is a complete mystery, just like the paperback you picked up at will because it had a neato cover. What’s it about? Is it any good? Does it hook me? Does it interest me? Does it bore me? Does it talk down to me? Is it derivative? Do I care about these people?
You’ll have to make many more passes over the manuscript, but at first, just READ it, straight through, and think about these things.
The first thing you need to decide is if the work captures and maintains your attention. Part of the reason it’s so hard to edit yourself developmentally is because ideally, a developmental editor makes you a better writer. If you’re a writer, you’ve already done everything you know to do to make yourself better.
Do you understand on an intuitive level how to hook the reader? Have you had the epiphany regarding raising questions and answering them, call and response, one sentence leading to the next, one paragraph leading to the next, one chapter leading to the next, always raising questions that the manuscript needs to answer, so that your reader must know what happens next?
I would guess that probably a third of developmental editing, if not half, relates to the previous paragraph. The hook requires you to understand your approach to the language; to the audience; to the medium; to the reader; to your work’s success or failure, in a nutshell.
For me, when judging another writer’s work, the hook comes first. If your first line is weak, it needs fixed. Weak lines don’t hook.
If the last line of your first paragraph is weak, if it doesn’t draw me into the next paragraph, into a new hook, it needs fixed.
You want a page turner. Page turners come from hooks.
If you want to sell a book to an acquisitions editor, and you don’t know this, and you don’t write with the hook in mind, you can forget it. Anyone developmentally editing your book who knows what they’re doing will have something to say about the hooks, and advice on improving them, which you should seriously take to heart.
The plot is simply this: the stuff that happens. Writers approach plot in any of an endless array of possibilities. For myself, as an editor, an author’s choice of approach is irrelevant. What matters most is that the plot has verisimilitude.
A lot of people call this “believability,” which does convey the basic idea. But it’s wrong. Taken out of context, looked at in the abstract, judged on their merits outside the medium, very few plots have any true believability. Nothing about Star Wars is liable to be factually correct in our universe. Yet, within its own milieu, it has a great deal of verisimilitude.
Make sure that however absurd the events of your plot may be, that the hooks overcome any fantastical or ridiculous turns of fate. Real life is stranger than fiction, as all fiction writers know. Real life is believable because it really happened, even when it’s unbelievable. Fiction must be believable enough to keep the reader along for the ride. And how do we do this?
First, realize that fixing things is not always better than cutting things. Writers fix; editors cut. If your work contains an absurd plot event that weakens the narrative flow, give serious thought to simply cutting it.
Second, realize that if the readers don’t care about your characters, there’s nothing you can do. You’re just fucked. Your book is never going to be as good as it could be. In fact, if the reader doesn’t care about your characters in a work of fiction, you do not have a good book.
As a writer, you must value characters first. If you don’t nobody else will.
The flip side of this is that as a writer, you may not consider all the things under the umbrella of “characters” that I consider. Sticking with my Star Wars example, we have the main character (Darth Vader, who has always driven the events of the plot since 1977), Luke, Leia, Han, Obi-Wan, and so forth.
In my mind, there are other characters that are not even people. And I don’t mean Gungans, even though they deserve more hate than they get. Each Death Star is a character, in this way of thinking. The Empire and the Rebellion are characters.
We took sides. We believed. We cared.
Anything you can make the reader care about needs the same consideration as your protagonist and antagonist. Tolkien certainly gave at least as much care and attention to Middle Earth as he did to Gandalf, Frodo, Denethor, Aragorn, the Witch-King of Angmar, Saruman, and Sauron. Middle Earth carried the weight of a character throughout, from the Shire to Mount Doom. And we cared about it.
Remember what I said first. Fixing things is not always better than cutting things. If you have a worthless character, an unimportant character, a boring character, consider cutting that character entirely.
I’m sure I will have more insights through the week that strike me as urgent on this subject. I haven’t talked about themes, voice, and many other things that are hugely important in developmental editing. So I expect next week’s column will be a continuation of this one.
Please note that these are enormous concepts. Give every little bit of this a lot of thought, and you will help yourself even if you think I don’t know what I’m talking about.