How a Book Editor Can Be Your Partner

If you’re a first-time author, chances are you’re pretty confused about what a book editor can do for you. Most likely, you’ve  heard three terms over and over: Developmental editing, Line editing, and copyediting. So what’s the difference? Editing is editing, right? Well, it’s a little more complicated than that.

How developmental editing is the most crucial step in crafting your book

Developmental Editing 101

What does a developmental editor do, exactly? Well, she begins with the story. No matter how brilliant a writer you are, how fascinating your characters, how crisp your dialog, if the story is not in place, you don’t have a book.

It’s always been my mission to build authors for life — not just point out what’s wrong with a manuscript and suggest quick fixes. So, my manuscript critiques were really quite comprehensive and I always followed them up with a phone consultation to be sure the author knew exactly what needed to be done to make the work marketable.

The only problem was, all-too-often, the authors didn’t go deep enough into the revision process to get their work to the point where it needed to be. Most of the time they were just tinkering — fixing things directly on the existing manuscript — and the result was that the manuscript was only a little bit better. It would take multiple rounds of critiques — sometimes over a period of years — before the author had a marketable manuscript.  It worked. But it was a long, drawn-out process.

But, life has a funny way of intervening. When I found out I needed major surgery, I never thought that it would be a benefit for my authors. As I had a long recovery time, I could not sit at my computer and hammer out out a critique. So instead, I consulted with authors by phone. And — because I had nothing else to do during that time — we talked. A lot. I had discovered a whole new way of working with authors that allowed us to work together to improve the structure, deepen the characters, etc.

It was a new and wonderful back-and-forth. One author was able to revise his manuscript in only a couple of months. Soon, he had publishers fighting for his book. All the constructive feedback I had could not have hit home in letters or emails — no matter how fabulous the critique letter was. It would not have taken the place of that valuable dialogue between author and editor.

Your Editor is Your Partner

Now, many of my authors have complete drafts. But what if you’re not there yet? When’s the best time to bring in an editor? Actually, it’s never too soon. Often, I have authors who want to get everything “just right” before they’ll let an editor look at it. But remember: the editor is on your side and not there to judge you, only to help you.

Keep in mind that the books my authors write are entirely theirs. All I do is help them ferret out the story they want to tell in the most effective way. A good developmental editor will not try to take over the story or force you into writing it the way she would. Instead, she’s like a midwife, helping you to birth the book that’s in you. Anybody can recognize problems in a manuscript. You want someone to take on the challenge of finding solutions right for you.

In my experience, 99% of authors — even if they’ve completed a draft and had it workshopped — need developmental editing, not just someone to go through and smooth out the writing and fix some errors.

To make that partnership work, keep 3 things in mind

  1. Be open to suggestion and listen to what your editor is trying to tell you. Avoid the temptation to justify your writing choices. If you have to explain it, it doesn’t work.
  2. Keep to the schedule you’ve set up with your editor. This not only helps you make good writing progress, but it respects your editor’s time.
  3. Don’t hesitate to tell your editor if you feel uncomfortable about anything she’s suggesting. Remember: this is your book, and you have ownership of it.

If you’re a first-time author shopping around for an editor, you want to find someone supportive but not controlling, and who has a firm hand in holding you accountable to your goals.

It’s not just the words on the page that you want fixed, it’s the relationship with your book editor that will help you succeed. And for me, that’s the most joyful process, the thing that gets me out of bed in the morning. That’s saying a lot!


6 comments on “How a Book Editor Can Be Your Partner

  • “If you have to explain it, it doesn’t work” is something I’ve been learning over and over in these writing classes I have been taking. It can be just so frustrating! But, I suppose that is a valuable part of the process. Hopefully, I have evolved in my communication skills. Still, I agree about these points. A developmental editor is a great guide.

  • It all comes down to crafting a great story. I completely agree. The character arcs must be cemented, the story arc must have the right flow. I’ve found personally in writing that having these elements figured out allows finer details like motifs and symbols to grow in a more organic and more promising way. For instance, when I knew what themes drove my dystopian thriller, I was able to nurture sub-themes out of different characters’ transformations. I enjoy this post very much.

  • Sigh. I’ve been trying so hard to shop around my first romance novel and this post rattled me a bit. I have not invested in what you call the essential “workshopping” that so many authors (like myself! Oh my) forgo. I suppose it was stubbornness. Looking back at the first stages of the project, I did indeed tinker.

  • Hello this is my first time on this blog, a friend forwarded your site to me, and I am enjoying it very much so far. What I truly LOVE about this post is the emphasis on collaboration. So often, authors position themselves as inferior to editors, due to inexperience, a need for someone to hold their hands and guide them, etc. Thank you for highlighting what authors should be entitled to walk away with — while still ensuring that an editor gets all she needs to be as effective as possible. I wish I read this years ago.


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