Hiring a Developmental Editor: What You Need to Know

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Throughout your story creation process, you’re going to come to specific waypoints that will direct you toward your next steps. Working with a developmental editor to flesh out your worldbuilding, characters, and plot is one of these important stages.

All authors have their own nuanced approaches to writing and no two processes look the same from start to finish. But having an extra set of eyes (or two) on your book will get you out of your own head and give you the perspective you need to make your story the best it can be.

Before we dive in, a bit of clarity: a developmental editor deals with your overarching story elements such as your worldbuilding, plot, and character development. They take an objective view of a book from start to finish and offer directional advice on adjustments an author can make to sharpen and refine the story before it goes to a line editor (who deals with edits to the text itself).

There are thousands of editors for hire online these days, so you need to know how to vet your prospective developmental editor before you hire them. Here are a few things you need to be on the lookout for, based on my experience so far.

1. Strong reviews, social proof, and solid work.

It’s crucial to know who you’re hiring before you sign an agreement with any editor. Take time to do your research online and look for reviews from other authors who have worked with your editor of choice. (Bonus points if one or two of your favorite authors in your genre have worked with them before.)

Looking at an editor’s reviews on their website alone is good, but it’s not enough. Dig into social media to see if you can get a well-rounded picture of the editor. Can you pick up on the kind of rapport they build with clients? Little details can clue you in to what it’s like to work with them, so pay close attention.

Make sure you pick up a book or two that your editor of choice has worked on, as well. It never hurts to take a look at the finished product (caveat: if it’s an indie book, keep in mind that the author has the final say).

2. Clear communication of terms and process.

Once you’ve begun communicating with your editor about the possibility of working together, find out what their project terms are and what their process looks like. Your timelines will need to sync up with your projected publication date. You’ll also want to understand exactly what you’re getting from your editor.

Some developmental editors offer hybrid edits (like developmental and line editing), while others only offer editorial advice (as described in the intro). Your developmental editor will likely leave feedback in your manuscript, as well as provide an editorial letter which outlines their impression of your story and some specific guidance on its major elements.

Don’t be afraid to ask your prospective editor for a sample of their work. Most editors are happy to provide either an example of a past edit or a sample edit of your first 10 pages to give you an idea of how they work, and whether you’re going to be a good fit.

3. Firm grasp on character development, worldbuilding, and plot.

Developmental editors need to have an inside-and-out understanding of your major story elements so they can provide guidance to you on what’s working and what’s not. That level of know-how comes from a good combination of instinct, knowledge, and experience (I like to call that “story intelligence”).

Your editor doesn’t have to fit a specific list of prerequisites. They just need to know a good story when they read one—and how to make that story great.

4. Solid understanding of (and experience in) your genre.

Genre writers, take note: you’re going to want a developmental editor who knows your niche. If you’re a YA fantasy writer, for example, you don’t want to hire an editor who works primarily with adult contemporary. Or, if you’re a romance writer, an editor specializing in sci-fi probably isn’t going to be a good fit.

There are absolutely editors who work cross-genre, though, and have a well-rounded understanding of each genre they work in. Your only rule here is to make sure you hire someone who understands exactly where you want your story to sit.

5. No coddling.

Every writer hands their draft manuscript over to their editor, secretly wishing they’ll hear something like, “I really don’t know what you could do to make this better. It’s amazing as it is, so PRINT that sucker now!”

…Nope. As an author, you’d do a disservice to yourself, your story, your characters, and your readers by hiring a yes-person to edit your work. Every writer needs a developmental editor who will handle their story with equal measures of respect, kindness, and constructive honesty.

A developmental editor is an investment in the growth and refinement of your book. Their job is to partner with you to take your story from good to incredible. That means they can’t just tell you what you want to hear—otherwise, the process won’t be as transformative or valuable as it should be.

Remember how Tom Hanks said there’s no crying in baseball? Well, there’s no crying in developmental editing, either. (Okay, maybe a little crying. Or a lot. …It’s your story, so do what feels right. Fetal position optional.)

6. Respect for your final say as the author.

While a developmental editor is a tremendous wealth of information and experience, there will be times when you don’t agree with specific pieces of advice or direction. This is a normal part of the editing process, and there will be times when you, as the author, choose to table suggestions from your editor. (That applies more to self-published authors, as they have more say in their process. But don’t be afraid to push back or open a discussion with your editor at a traditional publishing house.)

Finding a developmental editor who respects your opinion and doesn’t take ownership of your story is worth its weight in gold. The ability to exchange ideas and opinions on story direction without taking those viewpoints personally makes for a productive and healthy relationship with your editor. And, if you plan on publishing multiple books over the years, it just might lead to a long-term partnership.

Looking for an editor? We can help!

If your book is ready for a round of developmental or line editing, Allie and Jo are here to help. Check out our editing services for more information, and don’t hesitate to reach out if you have questions! We’ll be upfront if we don’t feel we’re a good fit, but we’re always excited to work with new authors.

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