How Is Developmental Editing Different from Copy Editing?

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We’ve said it before, and we’ll say it again: Good writing requires good editing. No matter how good they are at their craft, all authors rely on editors to help them shape their manuscripts into commercially successful books that will engage readers and impress the publishing industry. Yes, that includes even the top-ranked, world-famous, best-selling authors whose books you’ve voraciously devoured since childhood. 

So, don’t go thinking that hiring an editor is a mark of poor writing ability—rather, it’s an indication that a writer is dedicated to producing a high-quality manuscript. 

However, there are multiple types of editing, and it can be hard to know which one you need at any given stage of your writing process. Most people think of editors as expert grammarians who mercilessly exterminate all the typos, spelling mistakes, and grammatical errors in your manuscript, but there’s far more to editing than that. 

Developmental (or big-picture) editing and copy editing are equally important but focus on different aspects of your manuscript. In a nutshell, the former is concerned with the book as a whole, tackling issues with the narrative, plot, and characters, whereas the latter looks at it in parts, paying more attention to linguistic and structural problems. 

If you’ve just finished your first draft and would like a professional editor to give you suggestions on fixing plot, character development, and structural issues, check out our big-picture editing services. In case you’re further along in the writing process and want an expert to check for linguistic accuracy, flow, and consistency, contact our copy-editing team

Many authors ultimately need both services, but they come at different stages of the writing process. Let’s take a closer look at what each entails and when you should use them. 

What is developmental editing?

Developmental editing looks at the big picture, focusing on literary elements such as structure, character arcs, genre, themes, and point of view to make sure your story will grab readers’ attention. To ensure the narrative is engaging, it also analyzes elements such as exposition, conflict, climax, and resolution. It isn’t concerned with the individual words you use to tell your story but the intricacies of your plot and message and the literary devices you employ to deliver them.

A developmental editor suggests what can be fixed at a macro level to make your manuscript more cohesive, refine your characters’ motivations, and strengthen the themes in your story. They assess the overall structure of the book and determine whether any chapters or sections should be moved or eliminated. Obviously, any suggestion to delete a section, a scene, or a character that you’ve poured your heart and soul into can be difficult to accept, so be sure to prepare yourself emotionally before hiring a developmental editor. Just keep in mind that all these suggestions aim to unlock your manuscript’s full potential.

Typically, you should expect lots of notes and suggestions from your developmental editor, which can mean extensive rewriting, but don’t worry—that’s all part of the writing process. A manuscript is never finished after the first draft, and revising, rephrasing, and rewriting are simply the next steps to crafting a better, more organized, and clearer second draft. Yes, it can be a lot of work, but it’s worth it to make your story the best it can be.

When do you need developmental editing? 

Developmental editing is for authors who have finished the first draft of their manuscript and are looking for suggestions on improving it by fixing any inconsistencies and plot holes. If you feel there’s something off about your manuscript or it’s just not working the way you’d envisioned in your head but can’t pinpoint why, developmental editing is for you.

You can always get a fresh round of developmental editing, even if you’re on your fifth draft, but since it deals with the broader ideas, messages, and structure of a manuscript, it is highly recommended during the earlier stages of the writing process so you can fix any big issues with the plot and characters before you start focusing on details such as sentence structure, spelling, and grammar. Working on linguistic issues before tackling any overarching narrative and plot problems will just lead to more work in the end as big-picture editing is likely to necessitate a great deal of rewriting.

Another major benefit of developmental editing is that you’ll know if you’re giving your audience what they want from your story by making sure any expected genre tropes, devices, and character archetypes are present within a compelling plot. This is why developmental editing is a crucial part of the writing journey regardless of genre, style, category (fiction or nonfiction), and your experience as an author. No matter how brilliant a writer you are, you’ll inevitably have your own biases and blind spots, and an objective, third-party professional opinion can go a long way in polishing your plot.

What is copy editing?

Copy editing works on a micro level, focusing on elements such as language, sentence structure, grammar, and stylistic issues that might distract from the story you’re trying to tell. From word choice to voice, copy editors carefully review your manuscript to ensure it’s error-free and the writing flows well. It’s not just typos and grammatical mistakes, as people often think when they hear copy editing—it also focuses on consistency in tenses, pronouns, settings, seasons and time of day, and other issues that can affect continuity to ensure you’ve produced sharp, clear, and concise sentences and paragraphs.

Hiring a copy editor doesn’t mean you’re not great at writing. Just as with plot and narrative issues, it’s important to get an objective pair of eyes on your writing structure. For one thing, it’s all too easy to overlook careless errors in your own work; for another, an explanation that makes sense to you, the all-knowing author, may be confusing to a reader who doesn’t know anything about your story world, but it’s hard for you to identify that on your own.  

When do you need copy editing? 

You should get in a round of copy editing before you share your manuscript with anyone, whether that’s a group of beta readers or a potential agent or publisher. A copy editor will make sure your sentences and paragraphs read smoothly and clearly and that your manuscript doesn’t have any typos, spelling mistakes, bad grammar, shoddy punctuation, or glaring factual errors that will detract from the story and your credibility as an author. It’s a bit like cleaning your house before company arrives—even if you’re killing it with your interior design, spots of dirt will mar its beauty.

Both developmental and copy editing can be incredibly beneficial for any author, whether they’re publishing industry veterans or just starting out, which is why all writers are advised to collaborate with both types of editors. By offering constructive criticism, editors help authors get out of their own heads and analyze their work with more objectivity, enhancing their story and writing in the process. However, it’s important to know what kind of editor you need and when. 

If you’ve just finished the first draft of your manuscript, contact our big-picture editors for expert feedback on your story as a whole. For help refining its linguistic aspects, check out our copy editing services.

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