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Common Notes from Your Developmental Editor


Once you’ve written the best book possible, read it yourself, have had others (Beta Readers) read it and provide feedback, then you can move into the editorial process. The first editor you should approach is someone like me, who provides developmental editing.

Developmental editing is the process by which an editor will help the writer make global changes and/or corrections to the story, character arc, plot, settings, and worldbuilding aspects. Developmental editors will read through the manuscript and mark-up your document with notes to further expand (or sometimes pull back) your story elements.

Below are some examples of the type of notes of a developmental editor will provide you about your book.

Working with someone to improve your writing doesn't make you less of a writer. - Megan Hannum

The Notes and Solutions

Your Characters Lack Motivation

Your developmental editor (DE) will look at all aspects of your book: characters, pacing, plot, setting, theme, tone, mood, etc. What main element I typically look out for in regard to characters, especially speculative (sci-fi, horror, and fantasy) stories, is whether or not a character has motivations for their actions. If I see a lack of character motivation, I will point it out to the writer and inform them that there needs to be a rethinking of your character actions.

How to Solve:

When a DE tells a writer that their characters “have no motivation,” they aren’t referring to agency, the character’s ability to move the plot or whose decisions alter the course of things, but on the character’s reason for doing what they do. Your characters must embark on the journey for a good, solid reason. Not because or to survive, but there must be something underlining there.

Essentially, determine what the reward is for going through these obstacles. What is the character trying to achieve and is it tangible enough for the readers to connect to? Inner peace, tranquility, fun, and others are abstract and intangible. But to marry someone they love, win a NASCAR trophy, or defeat a rival (Voldemort, maybe), are goals that come with motivation. Your main character (MC) is motivated to face the obstacles for a solid end goal.

Where Are the Stakes?

In that last concern, we talked about motivation, the thing that the MC is trying to achieve or get by the end of the story. The idea of obtaining that thing or reaching that milestone provides the motivation to continue the journey. And of course, motivations can also be to save a loved one from a dragon or prevent total financial annihilation. So, you’re in big trouble if your DE asks, “Where are the stakes?”

The MC has goals, which is great. However, what happens if the MC doesn’t reach his or her goal? What’s at stake? Believe it or not, not every character reaches their goal. And generally if they don’t, something bad happens. Also, stakes provide a great deal of conflict and makes the reader root for your MC. For that to happen, something must be at stake.

How to Solve:

So, maybe not winning that cookoff could mean the MC loses his restaurant and main source of income. Maybe not defeating Voldemort means death to friends, family, and enslavement of the Muggle race. Something must be at stake and it must be clear for the reader. Your MC can even say it in the dialogue:

“Without that money from the cookoff, I’ll lose everything—my restaurant, my house, my car. I must win this!”

There Needs to be More Conflict

Conflict has a broad definition when it comes to writing. And there most definitely needs to always be some sort of conflict. A DE will add in that there needs to be more conflict in your story because it seems like your MC is perfect and nothing bad ever happens, and essentially, nothing is at stake. Conflict does not necessarily mean physical fight scenes or even arguments. it can mean a lot of different things.

How to Solve:

Writers forget at times that conflict can be internal or external. While a fight scene with the antagonist most definitely adds conflict to a scene, a tense conversation about an uncomfortable topic with the MC’s mother can also be conflict. These things are external.

An internal conflict may by the MC’s ambivalent nature or a struggle to make a very hard decision. It may also be an MC’s urge to do the opposite of what society asks of him or her. It could be a battle of wits. Either way, if there is a lack of conflict, find ways to create natural moments of tension and scenes where stakes are raised. Maybe an argument that could end a meaningful relationship or threaten outright chaos. Think in those terms when adding or reassessing conflict in your story.

There’s Not Enough Worldbuilding

When it boils down to it, worldbuilding is one of the most important aspects of storytelling. Whether your story takes place in a fantasy world or here in the real world, or in a world within a world, there needs to be enough worldbuilding to bring your reader into your story. Your characters, plot, setting, and other aspects also fit under worldbuilding. Your DE will tell you that there isn’t enough worldbuilding for several reasons:

  1. There are no rules

  2. There are rules, but you don’t follow them

  3. Where are we? (Time and place)

  4. I thought he was on their side (Characters + Roles)

How to Solve:

Nope. Worldbuilding isn’t just applicable to fantasy and sci-fi stories. All writers create a “world” for their readers to live in. And in that world there are rules. With number one, there are no rules, you need to make sure your world has rules. Is gravity a thing? How high can a person jump? Are there celebrities? With number one, make sure you have some strong rules set in your world. For fantasy and sci-fi, know your magic and technology systems. Know how your places should be described. Be consistent.

In number two, a lot of writers will determine the rules, but deviate from them to make it easier on themselves. This can cause a deus ex machina moment where something that’s impossible (according to the writer) suddenly becomes possible without backstory or a reveal. That’s called lazy writing. If you create worlds, especially in speculative stories, stick to them.

When it comes to number three, consider that the readers must be able to understand what’s going on in the scene. Time and place always influence worldbuilding and what sort of circumstances your protagonist is in. When a DE asks, “where are we?” it likely means that the writer hasn’t established the time and place well enough. How did we get here and why is this place important? Consider that potential confusion with every scene that you write.

Lastly, with characters and their role, clearly show it in a way that doesn’t jar the reader. Each character has a specific role to play in your story. Ensure that that role is clear and don’t deviate it from it unless it is a part of a story arc. Characters, like mentioned before, must have motivation for their actions. If roles switch dramatically, there must be some underlying reason for it. And with that your storyworld should be complete.

You might not write well every day, but you can always edit a bad page. You can't edit a blank page. - Jodi Picoult

In Conclusion

No matter what notes your developmental editor has given you, take them seriously and use them to improve your story prior or a line and/or copyedit. The developmental editor always has your best interest at heart and advise based on story strength alone, never on personal preference or to judge your decisions as a writer.

Ask your developmental editor for a follow-up to get a solid grasp of their feedback. There are more notes that can be provided, but the provided list consists of the most common notes you may receive. So, what are you waiting for? Get going and make those changes!

Only a blank page needs no editing. - Marty Rubin


Editing Essentials: What Is Developmental Editing? - The Masterclass Staff outline the basics of developmental editing and highlight five key points to hit when in the editing process.

5 Types of Editing: Which One Do I Need Right Now? - The Reedsy Staff compiled a list of each type of editing and when each one, including developmental, should be done.

What Is Developmental Editing? The Writer's Guide to Developmental Editing - Alice Sudlow breaks down developmental editing so that, as a writer, you don't miss any important parts.

What is a Developmental Editor and What Can You Expect? - Katherine Pickett defines a Developmental Editor and what a writer can expect when working with one.

What is Developmental Editing? - In this blog piece James highlights the main point of each type of editing and how developmental editing is different.

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