How to do a developmental edit yourself (and save lots of money on editing in the process)

Editing is expensive.

In an ideal world, before publishing you will invest in editing. But how much can you do on your own?

Today I’m going to provide a step-by-step procedure for you to address higher level editing on your own. This will not replace the benefit of hiring an editor. But it will equip you with tools to become your own editor should you not have the budget for full editing.

The core principles of developmental editing explained

Developmental editing is the first step in the editing process. It comprises two steps.

First, an editorial assessment. Your editor reads over your manuscript, front to back, making no markings in it. They will take notes. At the end, they will analyze your story, based on storytelling and craft principles. This is where an editor’s training, experience, and expertise comes into play.

The result of this analysis is an editorial letter. Think of it like a book report. A book report is about the strengths and weakness of a book, and your interpretation of it. An editorial letter is more rigorous. Imagine you could write a book report, and give the author instructions on how to fix what’s still wrong with it. That’s an editorial letter.

Your editor sends you the editorial letter and you then have the fun job of rewriting your book. The editorial letter gives you broader guidelines. It’s not focused on paragraph-by-paragraph issues. It’s focused on characters, scenes as a whole, plot, theme, and structure. When you rewrite your book based on an editorial letter, you’re changing whole scenes. You’re altering (sometimes deleting) characters. You’re mending the plot or even recasting the premise. Voice can change. Point of view can change. This one’s the wild wild west.

After you’ve completed your rewrites, your editor will go over your manuscript again. This time, they will leave you comments in-line. They will follow up on the effectiveness of your rewrites. They will push you further. Here, they will flag issues on a paragraph-by-paragraph basis. They will nitpick sentences that aren’t quite working. They will point out every specific place where something doesn’t make sense, or where the plot is off.

When you get your developmental edits, you will be working through these comments. This is usually much more straightforward. You usually work in order, though I recommend you break it into two or more passes.

First, work through and address simple issues. While you’re doing this, read every comment. Anything you aren’t certain of, leave it alone.

When you’re done, go back to the beginning. By now you’ll be aware of all the issues in your manuscript. Work your through once more and pick your battles. Again, anything you aren’t ready for, leave that alone.

When you’re done, go back to the beginning. By now, you’ve seen the hardest issues twice. You’ve also had a lot longer to think about them. Again, work your way through and pick your battles.

Continue on in this fashion. Usually, by the third pass you’ve resolved most of the issues.

Once you’re done this revision, you send your manuscript back to your editor. They will go over your revisions and push you further where needed. You will revise further and send back. They will push you further where needed. You will revise further. And on and on.

I have worked with some authors like this into thirteen exchanges. We’ve called this the “ping pong stage”. It’s lots of fun.

How to do a developmental edit yourself

Now it’s time to switch hats.

Before we do, a caveat. If you have trained yourself in storytelling and craft principles you can edit your own work. If you’re a writer, no doubt you’ve got an intuition for story.

What you lose by eliminating an editor, though, is objectivity. As creator, you are usually too close to your work. You also see your work in a different way. An editor trains in how to assess how your book is going to translate with readers.

I’m giving you the “don’t do this at home” lecture. So, now that you’ve decided to do this at home, let’s proceed.

Step 1: Print your manuscript out, or put it in .epub or some other format where you CAN’T change it as you read

This step is very important. If you are self-editing your work, you must divorce yourself from your inner writer. To do this, you must remove yourself from the ability to “fix” what you see as you go.

Step 2: Read your manuscript through like you’d read a book

There’s another reason printing your manuscript (or creating an ePub) is important. You want to experience your book at reader speed. This is the same reason your editor first reads your manuscript without making any edits. Reading over your book at the same speed you’d read a book as a reader allows you to appreciate things you miss as writer.

Step 3: Take notes, but be sparing

You don’t stop to take notes when you read a book, so you’ll want to take notes without losing momentum.

It helps to develop a shorthand. Include a page number and general term. Say a particular dialogue on page 31 between characters Anabel and James feels pointless. You’d then write, “p31 Anabel/James dialogue pointless”.

It might not be linear. Say by page 100 you realize you overuse the word “darkness”. Or say you realize you use a lot of run-on sentences. You can make a general note, i.e. “overuse darkness” or “run-on sentences dragging me down”.

Especially avoid notes to your inner writer. While it may be tempting to write out the solution to a plot hole, remember, you’re wearing your editor hat. Take that off and you’ll lose the perspective of experiencing your book at reader speed.

Step 4: Analyze your story

Once you’ve finished, you can start going over your notes and reflecting. You can go back to earlier chapters now. You can start thinking about your book as a whole. You can also start taking more detailed notes based on this analysis.

Here are some questions I ask myself at this stage when I’m doing an editorial assessment:

1) Does each scene advance your protagonist’s journey in a meaningful way?

2) If the protagonist is not involved in a scene, does the scene still advance the protagonist’s story? Does the reader realize this scene’s significance later?

3) Do all promises pay off? If something gets introduced in one scene, does it get used later? Are there any dangling ends?

4) Are the scene narrators’ motives always clear to the reader?

5) Do scenes move with a reasonable amount of dialogue to balance passages of narration? Are there places where the story seems to drag because it’s “told” to the reader?

6) Is the pacing consistent with the scene mood and genre?

7) Do scenes all open on a hook? Upon reading the opening paragraph, is there a connection to narrator? Is there a sense of place and time? Does this hook move forward without relent until the closing scene hook?

8) Does each scene have a focus? How does it advance the protagonist’s inner journey of change?

9) Does every scene have a closing hook? Is something revealed that makes the reader want to jump into the next scene?

10) Is your the voice consistent in every scene? If there are more than one points of view, does each one have consistent voice?

11) Do elements of the plot feel contrived or confusing? Are the reveals at all times clear and logical or do they sometimes feel forced or thrown in? Does the plot move the protagonist’s inner journey forward in a meaningful way?

12) Is there repetition? Do certain scenes or sequences of scenes feel similar? What about characters or plot devices? Scenes? What about repeated words or phrases or sentence structures?

Step 5: Put all your notes together

You will now see something coming together in your notes. At this point, it’s time to start writing an editorial letter for yourself.

Try to organize your notes by grouping similar things together into categories. It helps separate plot, character, and craft into main sections. After this, you can include an appendix of scene-specific notes.

Step 6: Write yourself a letter, but pretend you are writing it for the author of the book, and that author isn’t you

Your goal is to create an editorial letter for yourself. Once you’ve organized your notes into major categories, you are ready to begin.

There are three parts: an introduction, body, and conclusion.

In the introduction, open by complimenting yourself. What’s great about your book? What’s done well? What’s working? This is important because it tells you where the gold is waiting after you do your revisions.

Then do the opposite. What’s wrong with your book? What’s not working? Be honest.

In the body, you’ll use the categories and scene-specific notes you prepared in step 5. You will likely end up revising and refining it once it’s in place.

In the conclusion you will give yourself a road map. What strategy does “the author” (remembering, with your editor hat on, that’s not you) need? Give your advice on how rewrites might proceed and some recommendations.

Step 7: Rewrite your manuscript using your editorial letter as a guide

Now you can become a writer again. Open your manuscript. Open the letter you finished writing yourself. Read it over and think about what you need to do.

I recommend you approach this in batches. Tackle everything that seems easy first. Then go over your letter and decide what you want to do next. Save the hardest work for last.

One technique I find helpful as a writer is using the strike-through in Word in my editorial letter. This lets me “cross off” items like a to-do list, but keeps it visible so I can see my progress.

Step 8: Become an editor again and this time do a developmental edit

After you are all done your rewrites, “submit” your manuscript to yourself (editor hat back on now).

This time, you can open it in Word. Use the comments / track changes feature to edit it, but remember, you must not do any rewriting. I can’t emphasize this enough. If you catch yourself in writer mode, try to be cognizant of this and switch out.

Easier said than done, which is one reason why writers usually prefer to hire an editor.

Step 9: Specific issues for developmental editing

You will still use the same focus as laid out in step 4, but you might add:

1) Does the given sequence within a scene move it forward? Has something occurred to disconnect you as a reader?

2) Is the description or narration in a sequence confusing? Does it feel rushed or inconsistent from the tone and mood of the rest of the scene?

3) Is the point of view consistent?

4) Is there an awkward part to a given dialogue?

5) Does a given scene narrator feel absent in what the narrator is describing at any time? Are there places they might share more of what they intend or think as they are learning new information?

6) Does something seem off to you but you don’t know why? If so, highlight it and say that. If you can’t put your finger on it, don’t spend too long. When you come back and rewrite, you can contemplate this note further.

Step 10: Become the writer again and do a developmental edit

“Submit” your edits to yourself, then take off your editor hat. Now you can open your manuscript in Word and address the comments like a writer.

Use the technique I mentioned above. Work your way through the entire novel in iterations, address easy things first. Leave anything not easy alone. Come back and pick your battles, leaving the bigger battles alone. Come back again and fight some more battles, until there’s nothing left.

Step 11: Now you’re ready for copyedits

If you can, submit your revised manuscript to beta readers. Beta readers are readers of your genre who you ask to read your book. You can find beta readers by asking in critique forums or group. Check out Reddit for the best places to ask for readers. This article on Reddit has some helpful discussion.

Once you get some beta reader input, you’re ready for finalizing. Usually this means hiring a copyeditor and/or proofreader. We’ll talk more about this another time.