I'm Rebecca Mahoney, a freelance journalist, fiction writer & manuscript editor who likes to chat about books & writing, share editing tips, and muse about the freelance life. Visit my full website at rebeccamahoney.com.
Last week, a writer-friend sent me his manuscript to edit. At 146,000 words, it was his opus and his albatross – a book he’d taken eight years to write, starting and stopping, growing discouraged and abandoning it, then picking it back up again. “No one’s read it before,” he said when he sent me the file.
“Why not?” I asked.
He shrugged. “I thought I had to wait until it was done.”
It’s a fair assumption many writers make; why get an editor involved until you have a complete draft? But as I started editing his book, I couldn’t help but wish my friend had asked me to help while he was writing. Not only would he likely have finished his book sooner, but also he would have avoided a couple of writing pitfalls throughout the process – and ultimately produced a stronger, more cohesive draft (he told me it was okay to share this, by the way).
This kind of editing is called developmental editing, also known as mentoring. It’s when a writer works with an editor during the writing process to gain feedback and insight on what’s working, what’s not working, and how to improve his or her writing. It can cover both the story side (plot, characters, structure) as well as improving the writing itself (sharpening dialogue, making language more vibrant, using more active verbs, smoothing transitions).
The benefit of developmental editing is that writers can identify problems early in the process, when it’s much easier to fix them, rather than having to rip apart a completed manuscript. For example, if there’s no identifiable triggering event in the first chapter of the book – the event that sets the protagonist on his or her journey, the event that readers (and publishers) want and need in order to get hooked – then right away, the book has a major flaw that is going to be harder and harder to rectify the more you write.
Developmental editing even helps with smaller problems. For example, a friend said her editor pointed out that she relied too much on adverbs (modifying words, often identified by an -ly, like “quickly” and “firmly”). The problem with adverbs (aside from the fact that publishers and agents hate them) is that they make for weak, boring writing. It’s much more active and vibrant to say that someone sprinted, jogged, galloped, or hurtled than to say they “walked quickly.” It’s a small issue, but one with huge impact – the difference between good, strong writing and bland prose. Unfortunately my friend had a 90,000-word manuscript filled with adverbs, and eliminating them was a tedious, time-consuming process.
Some writers join writing groups or ask their spouses or friends to read their works-in-progress. That’s great for motivational purposes – I’m in a writing group myself – but they’re reading your work as a reader, and probably as someone who cares about you and may be reluctant to give you the unvarnished truth. True developmental editing – the kind that elevates your work and makes you a better writer – has to come from an objective, professional.
Hiring an editor during the drafting process may not work for everyone. I’m partial to developmental editing because it’s the way most Master of Fine Arts programs work, including the one I went through to earn my graduate degree in writing. Every month, I’d submit 30 double-spaced pages of writing, and get in-depth feedback from a professional, published mentor. It helped me stay on track, feel more motivated, develop more dynamic characters, polish my prose and improve the book overall. That mentoring I received during the drafting process ultimately helped me get signed by the very first agent who read my manuscript.
But writers don’t need to enroll in an MFA program or even submit regularly to get help from a developmental editor. Submit 20-30 pages whenever you feel comfortable and ready for feedback, then use that feedback to improve the rest of your work.
Editing is a vital part of the writing process. But it doesn’t have to take place after the draft is complete. In fact — it shouldn’t.