Manuscript Critiques vs. Developmental Edits: The Difference Explained

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Authors who have just finished a manuscript often don’t know where to turn for professional help with moving their book into the next stage of the publishing process. Every writer needs a good editor—in fact, they need multiple good editors. 

If you’ve just completed your first draft, you’re probably not ready to dive into paragraph and sentence editing, which, as its name indicates, examines linguistic issues at the paragraph and sentence level. At this stage, you’ll likely benefit more from a manuscript critique or a developmental edit, which look at the big picture and help you identify story elements that aren’t working, such as issues with character development, theme, or narrative arc. 

However, most new writers don’t know the difference between a manuscript critique and a developmental edit and aren’t sure which they need or at what stage in the writing process they need it. To clear the confusion, we’ll take a close look at how these two services differ and what specific elements manuscript critics and developmental editors evaluate so you can step into the publishing industry with confidence. Even the most renowned authors rely on help from skilled editors, so don’t feel bad about purchasing editing services—it’s a necessary part of the publishing process.

Check out our manuscript critique and developmental editing services for yourself—we love to help authors get their books ready for publication.

What’s the difference?

Manuscript critiques and developmental edits both focus on similar story elements (more on that in a bit), but there are important differences between the two services. While you’ll receive similar insights from your editors in both cases, the primary difference lies in how detailed the feedback is.

A manuscript critique is a much broader evaluation. The author receives an editorial letter of several pages that essentially summarizes the major strengths and weaknesses of the manuscript and provides general recommendations (and a few specific examples) on how to improve the story and get it ready for an editor. While a manuscript critique can offer invaluable insight into what is and isn’t working in your story and how you might be able to improve it, it can be difficult to act on the advice with only a few specific examples.

Developmental editing is a more in-depth evaluation with detailed recommendations. A developmental editor will often include an editorial letter, but it will be paired with copious comments throughout the manuscript to draw the author’s attention to the specific sections that need improvement. Rather than simply offering a summary, a developmental edit is a complete assessment of the manuscript, and with a more detailed guide, it’s easier to implement the suggestions and polish your story.

What is the focus?

Whether they’re providing a manuscript critique or a developmental edit, your editor will be focused on the big-picture elements: the overarching themes, the plot, and the characters. Is your story’s message clear, or do competing narratives cloud the overall theme? Do your characters’ motivations make sense, or are they hard to believe? Is your plot robust and able to stand up to scrutiny, or are plot holes undermining the narrative? Is your writing consistent, or do fluctuating points of view make it difficult to follow? 

At this stage, an editor is concerned only with the major story elements, not with any paragraph or sentence issues. They don’t care about your typos although an abundance of careless mistakes in your manuscript will likely prove distracting. They aren’t there to nitpick the writing—that’s a copy editor’s job. Manuscript critics and developmental editors aim to provide feedback that will help you improve the story as a whole.

What specific things does an editor look for in each case?

Keep in mind that not every element is equally important in every novel. Some books are more plot-driven, while others are more character-driven. Some novels might need a stronger sense of place, in which case the setting is crucial. Each editor will also have their own set of questions as they read through a draft, and these questions may change depending on the genre. 

This means that every manuscript critique or developmental edit will be a little different, depending on the manuscript, editor, and author. If there’s anything you specifically want the editor to pay attention to—something you have questions about or a section you feel isn’t working—you can tell them before they begin their work. 

Here are some examples of the kinds of questions an editor may ask themselves as they read through your manuscript, whether for a critique or a developmental edit.

  1. Are there strong themes? 
  2. Do the themes develop over the course of the story?
  3. Is there a clear point of view? 
  4. Do the characters have distinct voices? 
  5. Is there adequate character development over the course of the book?
  6. Is there a balance of telling and showing?
  7. Are there any plot holes?
  8. Is there a strong conflict and resolution?
  9. Is the pace too slow or quick anywhere?
  10. Is the writing consistent? 

Which service do you need?

Every manuscript needs developmental editing, even those of best-selling authors with dozens of books under their belt. A writer is simply too close to their own story to identify certain issues, so they need another pair of (well-trained) eyes to comb through their manuscript and help them unlock its full potential.

Unlike developmental editing, a manuscript critique isn’t always necessary, but they are beneficial, especially for authors new to the publishing world. Getting a manuscript critique can save you a lot of headache by identifying big-picture issues that you can remedy before an in-depth evaluation, freeing your developmental editor to dive deeper and provide more detailed suggestions for improving your manuscript even further.

Have us critique your manuscript and let us help you make your book as great as it can be!

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