by Susan DeFreitas, Collaborative Editor
Your mother loves your book. Your writing group loves it. Your beta readers think it’s ready for the New York Times bestseller list. Why, then, should you make the investment in developmental editing?
As a collaborative editor specializing in developmental editing—which helps to shape the content of a book before we move on to issues at the level of the line—I get some variant of this question on a regular basis, usually from newer authors.
Which is why I’ve put together this handy list of ten reasons why, when it comes to editing, developmental editing is one of the best investments you will ever make.
1. Readers are more forgiving of errors at the level of the line than they are those in the content of the book.
This is not to say that readers won’t leave critical Goodreads reviews about a book that went to press with typos in it. But a book with a weak or inconsistent argument or structure (for nonfiction) or two-dimensional characters making their way through an unclear plot arc (for fiction) will generally be regarded as worse.
2. Your friends may be brilliant, but in all probability, they can’t see your book the way your readers will.
Critique groups only see a chunk of your manuscript at one time, and unless your beta readers are trained professionals who have no personal relationship with you, they cannot provide the kind of perspective that a seasoned editor offers.
3. And even if they do, they probably won’t know how to fix it.
Your best beta readers and critique partners may be able to spot what’s not working in your manuscript, but chances are, they won’t know how to help you address those issues. (Or they’ll have ideas for fixes that would work for them but not for you.) Developmental editors will often offer more than one possible fix for a given issue, simply because they have more tools in their toolboxes.
4. Your five-star Amazon and Goodreads reviews are worth their weight in gold.
See number one. Whether your book is a history of the Civil War or a cunning cozy set in Nantucket, the number one thing your book will be judged on is its content.
5. Structure is harder to nail than you’d think.
We all recognize good books when we read them. But to produce one requires a big-picture grasp of a whole lot of elements of craft that are intimately intertwined. No matter how smart you are, it can be hard to see the whole thing yourself.
6. If the book isn’t in good shape, developmentally, you won’t get the most bang for the buck on your line edit.
Many newer writers see developmental editing as a first step they can skip to trim costs. But a line editor who’s distracted by plot holes, inconsistencies, and redundancies is more likely to miss the sentence-level issues she’s hunting for—which is why manuscript editing is generally handled in distinct stages.
7. Even books that are good can be made better.
If you’ve got a good book, developmental editing can make it great. And in today’s tough marketplace, that can make all the difference.
8. For self-publishing—if your content isn’t top notch, all the effort (and money) you spend to market and promote your book may wind up being a waste.
It takes a whole lot of effort (and, often, hard-earned cash) to get your book in front of its target market and to get individuals within that market to buy. If the people who read your book are less than impressed with it (and fail to recommend it to friends), all that effort on your part could wind up being wasted.
9. For traditional publishing—if your content isn’t top notch, it’s unlikely to attract the attention of agents or acquisitions editors.
Many first-time authors believe that if their concept is compelling enough, the voice strong enough, an agent or acquisitions editor will take a chance and work with them in developing the story. While this used to be true, to an extent, it is seldom the case anymore, as far fewer publishing deals overall are being offered today than even ten years ago. The few slots available will go to the books that require the least effort to bring to market in competitive shape.
10. Hindsight is 20/20, and the Internet is forever.
You’ve put in a bazillion hours on your book. Why run the risk of publishing one that falls short of your readers' expectations—or, when you look back, makes you cringe? Even if you wind up taking your book down later (for self-publishers) or regaining the rights (for those traditionally published), the reputation you establish with that first book is likely to follow you in your writing career.
Finishing a manuscript is no minor achievement, so it’s understandable that you might feel eager to see all that hard work published. Just make sure that, on your way to that long-awaited pub day, you don’t skip any of the steps that will make that book truly shine.
Susan DeFreitas is a collaborative editor at Indigo specializing in developmental editing. She is the author of the novel Hot Season (Harvard Square Editions, 2016) and holds an MFA in Writing from Pacific University. She believes in the power of story to help, heal, and make whole. She also believes in The Chicago Manual of Style.