Most writers agree that hiring an editor to find the errors in their book before they publish is a good idea. But when you start talking about story-level editing (sometimes called developmental editing or content editing), some writers balk. They feel that the plot and character development shouldn’t be open to discussion and worry that bringing an editor in at this stage will rob them of their voice or change their story into something they don’t recognize. The problem frequently seems to be that authors think that story-level editing works the same way as copyediting, with an editor pointing out what’s “wrong” with the story.
While the concepts of right and wrong work okay when we’re discussing grammar and spelling (and not even 100% of the time in this realm), they do not transfer well into higher level edits. That is because there is no right or wrong way to tell a story. There aren’t rules that you have to follow to a T that will result in a great novel. But this doesn’t mean there isn’t anything to discuss. Rather, it means that when we discuss story-level ideas, we look at whether the particular plot point or character or point of view serves the story well. In story-level editing, this should always be the benchmark. And an editor can be very helpful in helping you ensure that everything you have put in your book is serving the story. This is hard for an author to do themselves because they know too much. They know all of the details about these characters and this world and may not be able to tell when something won’t work for a new reader, someone without all this background.
Let’s look at some examples of the types of things a developmental editor might bring up during an edit to give you an idea of how this might work in your book.
Let’s say you have written your story in the first person (using the pronouns I and me) because you feel this gives readers the deepest insight into your main character. First person does do this well, so at first blush it seems like the best choice. Readers get a very direct look into your character’s head and heart, helping them connect with her deeply. But because you needed to let readers know some things that your protagonist does not know, you occasionally veer into the point of view of an omniscient narrator in a way that is jarring. Does this mean writing the book in first person is wrong? Nope. But your editor may suggest that you consider whether it would serve the story better if you wrote it from a deep third-person limited perspective. A deep third perspective (which refers to she and her rather than I and me) can still bring readers very close to a character’s inner thoughts and feelings. But when writing in third person, it is easier to give the point of view to other characters who have something important to tell readers. (Giving the point of view to other characters in first person isn’t impossible, but it’s harder to pull off.) It is possible that the slight loss of intimacy you get from switching from first person to deep third person would be worth it in order to gain a better way of getting vital information to readers. Neither point of view is right or wrong, but one or the other might serve your story better, might do a better job of giving your readers everything they need to connect with your book. A developmental editor can help you figure this out.
In another example, let’s say you’ve written a novel that has several minor characters that add a lot of color to your book but don’t play a vital role in the story. They help readers get a slightly better feel for who your main character is, but they also take up a fairly significant amount of real estate in your book without a lot of payoff. Does this mean it is wrong to have a bunch of side characters? Nope again. But if the inclusion of all of those characters means that readers have a hard time connecting with your protagonist, paring down the number of side characters to allow readers to focus on your main character might be a good idea. On the other hand, maybe readers need to dive more deeply into your character’s personality to really root for her, and the best way to do that is to give the side characters a bigger role so we can learn about the protagonist from them. In this case, it may be best to keep the minor characters but tweak their scenes so they are using their time in your book more wisely to tell readers something vital about your protagonist. There is no right or wrong about the number of minor characters you can have, but more of them or fewer of them might better serve your particular story.
Can you see how this is different from the more objective edits you get in a copyedit? The job of a story-level editor isn’t to tell you what’s right or wrong. It isn’t to get you to write the story one particular way. A story-level editor’s job is to help you look at your book in new ways and guide you as you decide which changes will make your story stronger. Helping you to write the best story that you can is always the final goal.