“10 Tips for Developmental Editing Your Fiction”
by Joe Walters
You wrote a novel, novella, or short story.
It’s awesome and amazing, and the world is going to love it. All you need to do is share it with your beta readers, let them tell you how great it is, and prepare that baby for publication. 5-star reviews are waiting right around the corner.
But what if your beta readers say it’s not perfect? That this part confuses them. A different section doesn’t feel natural enough. This character is so unlikeable that they don’t want to listen to them talk anymore.
What do you do next?
Well, first, take a breather. This is totally normal. Set your book aside and let your beta readers’ comments steep for a little while.
Then ask yourself honestly, “Are they right?”
In order for your book to be the best it can be, you have to be willing to accept that you might not have nailed your story with your first, second, or third draft. This doesn’t mean it’s time to give up or that your readers are wrong. It means it’s time to keep trying.
Head into your manuscript and make big-picture changes based on their feedback. Leave the clunky sentences alone and focus instead on improving the story as a whole with new ideas and new scenes. If necessary, push back your publication or querying date. Do what you have to do to write your best book, not just a finished one.
After you’ve made these changes, how do you know that your story is fixed? Well, keep on reading. As a developmental editor and beta reader, it is my job to help point out which elements of your manuscript should be improved prior to publication or querying.
With this list of developmental editing tips, you’ll be able to ask yourself questions relating to different big-picture storytelling elements to make for a better revision. I’ve outlined the categories of developmental editing below.
Here are 10 tips for developmental editing for fiction writers.
1. Create a sound structure
The structure of your novel or story is perhaps one of the most important aspects of developmental editing. If you hire a developmental editor or work with one in a traditional publishing house, you’ll likely receive the bulk of your feedback relating to your book’s structure.
The editor will point out if the inciting incident achieves its goal of jumpstarting the primary narrative (or plot) and makes readers feel like they know where they’re headed from that point on. Is your rising action constantly making the character’s goal harder? Are the obstacles believable? Does your climax feel like the high-point in your plot? A developmental edit can help you recognize important changes to the structure that could accentuate your goals as an author even more.
2. Help us understand your main characters’ goals
Whether you are the main character in your narrative nonfiction book or your protagonist is an alien-fighting cowboy in a far-off realm, you’re going to want to make sure your reader recognizes the protagonists’ goals and plans to achieve them during each scene. Instead of accepting your character as they are, see if you can improve their issues like passivity, unlikability, and inconsistency.
When you’re developmental editing your fiction, go through each scene and focus only on your main character(s). Have they changed/grown from their previous scene? Are they actively pursuing their goals? Are they staying consistent from one scene to the next? Are their motivations always clearly established?
3. Don’t forget about your supporting cast
While the protagonist might be the most important character in your book, the secondary characters should still offer something tangible to the primary narrative. Your developmental editor should help you recognize when scenes fall flat because of dull and/or useless secondary characters and what you can do as an author to fix them.
Common issues with secondary characters often include unclear motivations and/or operating without motivation altogether. It’s possible that some of your side characters are only asking the right questions and providing the main character a person to talk at. Each secondary character should have their own personal goals at all times, regardless of if those goals are included in the text or not.
Discover more about the complete editing process from developmental editing to proofreading in “Self-Editing for Fiction Writers: How to Edit Your Book Like a Pro.”
4. Bring your primary narrative to the forefront
If you have studied your craft, you’ve probably seen the diagram of the narrative arc that takes a story from inciting incident to rising action to climax and to resolution. Even though you’ve likely tried to fulfill this arc in your book, it’s possible that some of your scenes don’t succeed in propelling the primary narrative forward. That’s where a developmental edit can help.
I’d recommend you jot down an outline of each scene or action that takes place. After jotting these down, ask yourself a few questions like, “Does something in this scene impact the primary narrative?” and “Is this obstacle to the characters’ primary goal strong enough for my character to struggle against?” If you answer is no to either of these questions, you’ve got some more work to do.
5. Include secondary narratives but don’t focus too much on them
Secondary narratives help keep novels emotionally resonant and constantly moving. They can tell stories of romance, friendships, secondary character arcs, and more. Basically, if it’s not the main character’s pursuit of their goal, it’s a secondary narrative.
To make sure your secondary storylines are efficient, you’ll want to ask yourself questions like, “Does this romantic storyline have an inciting incident?” “Does this friendship reach a point of no return—and then emerge with a climax?” “Should this secondary story be removed because it doesn’t directly impact the primary narrative?”
Looking to get specific? Check out these “31 Specific Strategies for Improving Your Novel.”
6. Is your pacing consistent and effective?
You might think the middle of your book is filled with unique information, but are we sure it’s not a little too slow? How about too fast? Maybe your climax arises too quickly and your reader feels rushed because of it. Regardless, a developmental edit can focus specifically on making sure the novel’s pace has an up-and-down rhythm to it.
When going through your text, count the number of pages that a particular plot point takes to build up, happen, and resolve. If it’s an important moment (like the climax), there should probably be more pages. If we’re nearing the climax and we spend a few pages in a sock drawer, maybe you should consider whether or not that scene is really helping us.
7. Is your setting playing a role in your story?
“Setting” refers to the area in which scenes take place. You may have many different settings throughout your novel. An outdoor prairie setting. A damp basement setting. All sorts of colorful places.
While developmental editing your fiction, you should go through your book and take note of each new setting that a scene takes place in. Ask yourself, “Is this setting activating the story in some way?” It doesn’t have to start raining on top of them for us to recognize our characters are down on their luck, but maybe there is something in the setting that can activate this recognition in us as readers.
8. Make sure we recognize what could happen through your worldbuilding
Even if your story takes place on Earth, you still have work to do on worldbuilding. In addition to helping you establish a foreign planet, worldbuilding can help your reader feel oriented in each scene and help them understand characters on a deeper level.
Your reader should recognize what types of things could happen to the main character in the world that they have placed themselves in. If your character is nervous that they didn’t lock their door, we should recognize what kind of world is around them. Is this character being a little paranoid if they live in a safe area, or are they being realistic if they live in a place with high crime rates?
Discover the truths of how you should be working with your editor in “The Author-Editor Relationship.”
9. Recognize your genre and either write to it or subvert it
As writers, you are taught to write the best story you can. You are told to focus on improving your craft and placing important scenes in the right places. But when it comes time to start querying or self-publishing, you’re going to need to know how to sell it.
Developmental editors work with books and stories regularly. They read widely and pride themselves on understanding what makes a certain story tick. Because of that, they become aware of the specific genres and tropes and can help you recognize which market you should try to corner.
If you are developmental editing on your own, make sure you read widely in your genre and category. Pick up books at your local indie bookstore or check out some from your library that fit your genre. Take special note of the ways in which characters overcome obstacles, the ways they achieve their ultimate goals, and the secondary narratives that run alongside the plot. Your reader expects things from specific genres, so make sure that you satisfy their needs while also keeping your plot points fresh and new.
10. Make sure your theme comes across clearly
A theme is an idea that permeates and grows throughout your book. Themes can include topics like friendship, breaking monotony, chasing your dream, and much more. Basically, this aspect of your story can often be recognized as one of the morals in your story, so you’ll want to make sure that it’s consistent and that your idea comes across clearly in your book.
When you read your book after you finish a draft, jot down the theme(s) that you are trying to convey. Are your main characters’ actions helping that thematic arc? Are there scenes which are counterproductive to your point? If you want your reader to learn something from you, you’ll want to make sure this theme is handled subtly and effectively.
If you’d like direct big-picture feedback on your fiction, check out our Group Beta Reading service or Editorial Letters.
About the Author
Joe Walters is the founder of Independent Book Review. When he’s not doing editorial or reviewing work at IBR, he’s working on his novel and trusting the process.
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