The 3 Main Story Elements Developmental Editors Focus On

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Most people think of professional editing as having a singular focus on typos, spelling, and grammar, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. There are several types of editing that help authors with various aspects of their writing, and they are appropriate for different stages of the writing process. 

Developmental editing is typically the first type of editing a manuscript will undergo. It looks at assorted big-picture aspects—from storytelling and themes to clarity and consistency—in order to improve and polish the book. While a developmental editor may flag any number of issues in your manuscript, there are three main story elements they focus on. 

Authors usually hire developmental editors if they’re feeling stuck or know something in their book isn’t working but aren’t quite sure what it is and need a professional to help them figure it out. It’s a more in-depth version of a manuscript critique, with developmental editors carefully combing through your story and leaving an abundance of notes throughout to tell you what’s working, what isn’t, and how you can make your manuscript even better. 

The editor’s job is to help authors reassess, restructure, and rewrite whatever needs improvement to ensure a quality reading experience, which is why developmental editing (also known as big-picture editing) is such a critical step in the writing process.

To learn more, check out our big-picture editing services for authors and take the next step in your publishing journey. If you’re still not sure whether a developmental edit is what you need, let’s take a look at the three main elements it focuses on. 


The plot—everything that takes place between the first page and the last—is one of the most crucial aspects of any story. Without a plot, there is no story, so it needs to be engaging, believable, and free of plot holes. 

A developmental editor will ensure that your plot makes sense, that there are no continuity issues with the story arc, that the messaging is consistent with the voice and point of view, and that the premise is engaging. Despite an author’s best efforts, it’s common for a plot to be a bit rough around the edges in the first draft, and a meticulous round of big-picture editing is the perfect solution.

A developmental editor will also make sure that each scene has a purpose, that it moves the story along, and that the key plot points have been fleshed out and serve the narrative. This could result in suggestions to eliminate certain scenes, characters, or subplots that don’t add to the main narrative, which can be painful for an author to hear, so prepare yourself emotionally before you hire a developmental editor. Importantly, this type of editor will also verify that the resolution makes sense and that the readers feel like they’ve joined the characters on their journey. 

Character arcs

The characters and their arcs—their progression and development—can be even more important to the story than the plot itself. In many cases, the characters make a story, so investing sufficient time in their rigorous development is worth it. If readers can connect with the characters and like them, they’ll gladly follow along and root for them all the way through. For this to happen, however, your characters have to be relatable—not necessarily likable but definitely compelling—and their conflicts, actions, and reactions have to be believable, reflecting their backgrounds, occupations, habits, and cultural context. 

A big-picture editor will focus on how the characters are portrayed, whether they change and grow from beginning to end, and whether they’ve been sufficiently developed. It’s okay if characters with a minimal presence are a bit one-dimensional, but the stars of the show should be properly developed, realistic, and growing throughout the story. 

Too much character description can feel overwhelming and is usually unnecessary, but if you don’t give your readers enough background information, it can be difficult for them to truly connect with your characters and understand their behavior. An editor can help you find the right balance and follow-through for a credible evolution, and if the characters in your story are underdeveloped, they can guide you in fleshing them out. 


This is the final major element a developmental editor looks at in a manuscript, but it can have the most drastic consequences as far as rewrites go. If the structure of a book isn’t working, the editor might suggest cutting or rearranging sections or even entire chapters to bring more order and streamline the flow. They’ll also consider pacing and assess whether you’re hitting the right marks in terms of exposition, climax, and resolution. Are you moving too fast or too slow? Is the second act too long? Does the ending leave something to be desired? These can be tricky elements to master, but they’re crucial in ensuring an enjoyable experience for the reader.

Basically, a developmental editor breaks your story down into its major parts and sees whether there’s a better way to rearrange it. It’s not easy to hear criticism, even in the form of constructive feedback from a professional, and it’s even harder when it leads to extensive rewriting, but it’s important to trust your editor’s experience and take every one of their notes into consideration. Even if you choose not to implement all of their suggestions, think about why they thought there was an issue and how you could solve it in another way. 

It’s perfectly understandable if you’re intimidated by the prospect of rewriting vast portions of your manuscript. It’s not easy, but this painful process of revision is a crucial and inevitable part of authordom. Think about it this way: If you already wrote a manuscript, you can certainly revise one.

Ready to take your manuscript to the next level? Then contact our developmental editing team without delay!

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