Developmental edits are when you look at the “big stuff” in your manuscript: characterization, arcs, plot, pacing—all the stuff that make readers enjoy (or not) what you wrote. Word choice, grammar, and sentence structure are all important, but nothing is as crucial to get right as the actual story itself. Even veteran writers benefit from a second look at their manuscript, but if you’re starting out, you definitely need developmental edits. The editorial process can take your first draft from, well, a first draft to a polished product that publishers and readers want to dive into.
Should I Self Edit or Hire Someone?
Almost everyone has blind spots to their own writing. It’s hard to see a flaw in your own work because you presumably wouldn’t have written it the way you did if you didn’t think it was the right choice. However, the character you think is funny can be grating to others. Your protagonist’s actions might not make sense to readers who don’t know this person as well as you do. Plot points that seemingly wrap up the loose ends can be a sieve to another reader, with all their holes. Again, you wouldn’t have written it this way if you could see those issues. So, when it comes to developmental edits, do it yourself or hire someone?
The Professional Experience
I hired a developmental editor, and it was money well spent. She was able to point out and explain to me, in a way I was able to accept the information, where I could improve and why. She caught things my agent, other beta readers, and I couldn’t see. It was a great experience, but it was expensive. I also didn’t sell the book she edited (for many reasons, including the fact that an extremely similar one was purchased instead of mine…boo!). Anyway, a friend told me to think of the cost as paying for a one-on-one writing course, which is what it was for me. I learned more from that experience than I ever have at a conference or taking a class where we didn’t use my work as the case study. If you can afford it, and especially if you plan to self-publish, you should consider it.
The Beta Reader
Another option, and this is one I always do, is get a beta reader. A beta reader is someone who will read your work and give you constructive feedback. This person should ideally be a reader or a writer—someone who understands story and can explain what worked and what didn’t and why. They should also be kind. You want honesty, but you don’t want anyone to put you down. Sometimes getting a few opinions helps you figure out what is just personal opinion and what are issues you’ll want to correct. Fellow writers who are at your level make good critique partners. Family and friends can also work, but sometimes navigating constructive criticism from these folks can be dicey. Here’s an in-depth article on working effectively with beta readers: Get the Most From Beta Readers.
We all must learn to self-edit to some extent. Even if you give your manuscript to a beta reader or a professional, you want it to be the best it can be. The first step to self-editing is to put your manuscript down for at least a few days. It feels like a Herculean task to reach The End, and the thought of deleting words that took weeks to write is awful. You might not want to do it, even if you need to.
When self-editing, look at plot. Does it have a beginning, middle, and end? Do any surprises make sense? Now look at character. Do your major characters change from the beginning of the story to the end? Is their arc clear? Do characters act believably and consistently in every scene? Does your conflict grow through the book? Is your character’s motivation and the conflict they encounter trying to get it compelling? If the answer to these questions is yes, then you’re ready to put your baby into the world!