Does Developmental Editing Make Better Writers?

Developmental editing, according to Wikipedia, is a “form of writing support that comes into play before or during the production of a publishable manuscript, especially in the area of non-fiction writing.” As explained by Scott Norton in his book Developmental editing: a handbook for freelancers, authors, and publishers, developmental editing involves “significant structuring or restructuring of a manuscript’s discourse”.[1] Developmental editors are a type of language professional.

what do developmental editors do?

As the definition continues, a developmental editor may guide an author (or group of authors) in conceiving the topic, planning the overall structure, and developing an outline—and may coach authors in their writing, chapter by chapter. This is true developmental editing, but not the most common way of working.[1] More commonly, a developmental editor is engaged only after someone (usually the publisher) decides that the authors’ draft requires substantial revision and restructuring. In these cases, developmental editing is a radical form of substantive editing.[2]

MY APPROACH TO NONFICTION DEVELOPMENTAL EDITING

I have twin goals when I work with an author from the beginning of their project: (1) To ensure they write the best book they have in them; and (2) to ensure the experience improves them as a writer. Because of my belief in lifelong learning as an important part of a healthy, vigorous, happy and productive life, I studied adult education as a way to formalize and propel my understanding of how adults learn. This has trickled down into my coaching style and process, which is as much about learning and improvement as it is about reaching the goal of a physical end product. So I do tend to edit chapter by chapter, and though this is not the most common way of working, it helps me better serve my twin goals.

To test my theory of whether or not this approach can improve a new writer’s skills and knowledge, I have begun to collect data about the process with a few past FreshVoice authors. My goal in this research is increase my understanding of how I can better do my job; to help me understand the question, Can developmental editing make better writers? One such data-gathering exercise yielded this information…

Risk & Reward: an Experiment

The first project I tested this on was a book called Risk & Reward, written by Gail Krawetz. While not a writer for a living, Gail has a strong background in writing, having been an English and history teacher who now blogs regularly. Gail was a competent writer from the get-go, understanding the nuances of the written language, and a good understanding of storytelling. Her grammar, spelling and sentence structure  (of course!) were pristine.

Still, she had never written a book. As much as you try to explain it to new authors, there is nothing else in written form that compares with the book-writing experience. It is long, tedious, and requires careful development of the  content map that will keep your readers interested from page one to the index. Given its permanent nature (being listed in the national archives), a book must be carefully researched, with proper attribution given and permissions acquired from all third-party sources.

It’s just different than any other kind of writing  that can (these days) be fixed or corrected or changed after the fact. (If you do that with a book, it doesn’t erase the existence of the previous book; it’s stored separately as a new edition, or revised edition.)

Gail hadn’t experimented much with the use or conventions of dialogue, or with attribution of researched content, so these were some of the key coaching points we worked on.

 

the results

The numbers. After the manuscript was completed, I counted up the number of revisions each chapter went through, as my versioning and filing system allows me to have this information. You can see the results below. To my own surprise (and I must say, delight), it was clear (see chart below) that the editing process we worked together on increased Gail’s knowledge and exposure to new storytelling tools and devices, and increased her ease with creating better and better first drafts.

In this example, it’s easy to see that improvement in first drafts was considerable through the Risk & Reward book project. (Data/Infographic – c. 2018 FreshVoice LLC)

 

The author. But how did Gail feel about the experience? I was interested to know if it was just numbers, or if she felt real learning and growth in skills. So I sent her a list of questions, and here’s how she responded:

Q:  Do you feel the chapter-by-chapter editing process helped you write a better book and/or improve as a writer? If so, how (in each case that is relevant)?
A:  The chapter by chapter approach worked very well. At first I was shocked by the number of edits needed, but then I realized that writing a book, especially a nonfiction book, called for a different approach and had a set of “rules” far different than any writing I had done to that point.
I loved that I could rely on you to catch what needed to be fixed on a chapter by chapter basis. And I got better as we went along. My confidence grew.

Q:  If not, why not? Did it cause you more problems than a process of editing the manuscript at the end would have?
A:  To have all the required edits come after writing the entire would have been overwhelming. Your approach was manageable and the best means to learn and apply that knowledge.

Q:  Was there anything about the process you would change, now having gone through it?
A:  I can’t think of any changes that I would make. Maybe knowing some things ahead of time would have helped, but how could you know my writing background or how familiar I would be with the process?

Q:  Any other comments you want to make that you think are germane to this subject that I haven’t asked you about?
A:  What I loved most was your encouragement and the fact that you never tried to change my style of writing and what was my comfort zone. I have been recommending your services to any first-time writers who don’t know where or how to begin.

In the end

Well, thanks for that, Gail! I appreciate your kind words. I learn each time I work with an author and try to use that learning to improve my process and the tools and resources I make available to authors. It’s always a work in progress–progress, not perfection, is the goal. (By the way, Gail’s book pre-sold more than $40,000 in crowdfunding, and is still selling strong, which shows the interest in the subject matter, her perspective/voice and the great job done by Relish Design in Winnipeg (my go-to guys for award-winning book design)

I’m sure that there is a considerable debate to be had over the efficiency of this process – it may be much more cumbersome than the end-of-draft edit, and then revisions by the author, but I’m not sold on that. It’s clear that though we spent more time at the outset on revisions, these grew fewer and fewer as the book went on.

If there had been no support in the early stages, the entire first draft would likely have appeared in the same shape as the first few chapters, thereby requiring overall much more editing time (and money). That’s just a theory though, and I’d love to hear what other editors and writers have to say on the subject!

Oh, and by the way, this blog post underwent 14 revisions. 🙂 Not that I’m counting.

REFERENCES

Norton, Scott (2009). Developmental editing: a handbook for freelancers, authors, and publishers. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. pp. 1–4. ISBN 9780226595146.

Wikipedia, found online on August 5, 2018,
 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Developmental_editing
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