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Not a Moment Too Soon: When is the best time for a developmental edit?

A developmental edit is an edit that focuses on story-level concerns such as plot, pacing, character development, and point of view. Because of its focus on big-picture issues, it comes earlier in the writing process than does a line edit (which focuses on the craft of writing) or a copyedit (which focuses on finding errors). But when should you hire a developmental editor? How far into the process should you get before letting someone else take a look?

For nonfiction books, some authors hire a developmental editor before they even begin writing to help them organize their ideas. For fiction books this is much less common. Some people recommend a fiction developmental edit on the first draft, and this can be helpful when you really aren’t sure if you’re on the right track. If you’re feeling stuck and don’t know how to proceed, a developmental edit can bring clarity to the process and either steer you to a better course or confirm that you were on the right road to begin with.

If you’re feeling confident about how things are going, however, it can be good to get a second or third draft under your belt before getting an edit. That first draft is really about getting things down. As author Shannon Hale puts it, “I'm writing a first draft and reminding myself that I'm simply shoveling sand into a box so that later I can build castles.” At this stage, you get all of your ideas on paper, letting it flow without too much critical thought. You turn off your editing brain and let your creative brain take the wheel. Once this is done and you’ve got that first draft, it will be easier to see what’s working and what isn’t, which parts of the book are necessary and which aren’t. You’ll be able to focus your story and fine-tune your characters. You’re letting your editing brain make some decisions now, but you’re still creating. If you bring an editor (or any other readers) in before this stage, you run the risk of getting sidetracked, of losing your vision of the book before you really have it firmed up. Things are still pretty fluid at this stage, and unless you are unsure which way to go, sometimes it’s best to keep moving forward on your own before letting other people’s ideas into the mix. An editor should always be trying to help you write the best book you can (not helping you write it the way they would write it), so they should be guiding you, not telling you what to do. But they’ll still be making suggestions. Make sure you have a clear idea of what you want your book to look like before soliciting advice.

That doesn’t mean, however, that you should work the book to death before getting a professional opinion. A developmental edit usually leads to fairly major changes in a manuscript and if you’re five years and eight drafts into the process, you may be too invested in the book as it is to be willing to do that. Getting criticism of your work is difficult no matter how long you’ve worked on it, but the more time you’ve put in, the harder it gets. You don’t want to wait until you can’t stand the sight of your book to get a developmental edit. You want to be able to face the recommended changes with excitement and approach the next draft with enthusiasm. If you’re sick to death of the story, that’s going to be difficult.

What if you’re planning on using beta readers? When do they fit into the process? Unless you’re that author who feels stuck and is hiring a developmental editor after the first draft to help get you out of the muck, I recommend that you get some beta readers to look at your book before hiring an editor. While beta readers don’t have the training or experience of an editor and may not give feedback that is as detailed as you’ll get in a developmental edit, they can be very helpful in picking out major flaws in your book. And they are typically free (though it is good practice to return the favor). Since an editor will base their fee partly on how much work they feel your manuscript needs, it makes sense to get as much free help as you can before contacting an editor. You don’t want to send a rough draft to beta readers, though. They are readers, after all, and will expect a fully formed story. Get enough drafts under your belt that you feel good about putting the work out there, and then see what your readers have to say. If several beta readers make the same comment, you probably have a problem that needs to be addressed. Fix whichever criticisms ring true to you. By now you should have a fairly solid draft and a good understanding of what you’re shooting for with your book, but you shouldn’t yet be worn out on rewrites. That’s a great time to hire a developmental editor.

Is there one right time to hire a developmental editor? No. It depends on the author, the story, and how the process is going. But these tips will help you decide when to bring a professional into the mix so that you get the most bang for your buck and you feel you are getting the help you need to move forward with the next step in the writing process.

Have you ever hired a developmental editor? How many drafts did you write before bringing them on? I’d love to hear how the developmental process worked for you.

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