If you contract with a content (developmental or substantive) editor, you might wonder what, specifically, the edit will entail. While you may expect to receive feedback on all aspects of your novel, it might be helpful to get a glimpse into how an editor will help you in some key areas. All novels are unique, and therefore so is the advice given, but here are some of the areas an editor will assess, along with some ideas of what kind of feedback you might receive:
Plot: In good novels, a clear problem and /or goal is evident, and the story rises in action and/or tension toward a well-executed climactic point and denouement. An essential element that relates to plot is the opening of your novel. More commonly than not, today’s novels need to captivate the reader’s attention early in the book. An original plot/premise and with a strong opening scene that “hooks” the reader is desirable. An editor may be able to suggest ways to grab the reader’s attention earlier in your story. Another common issue in many novels is under-development of the plot. Sometimes steps are missing along the way or are not relayed with enough detail.
Often an editor will point out such missing steps, as well as any plot holes or missed opportunities for drama. An editor might also be able to suggest some plot points and/or twists that could take the story to a higher level of intensity. On the other hand, some novels contain a plot that is overly intricate, complex, or confusing. Sometimes a story seems to veer off its original course and lose its purpose. In these cases, an editor will also be able to make suggestions about stories needing streamlining and more focus.
Characters: The best novels feature a clear protagonist or protagonists that are highly observed and known to the reader. Protagonists need not be good people, but they must be developed so that they are, in some way, found sympathetic by the reader. A strong cast of supporting characters is usually necessary, too. A common problem among authors is under-development of their characters. Because we, as writers, imagine our characters so distinctly in our mind’s eye, sometimes we forget that they are strangers to our audience and must be drawn in such a way that the reader has a clear vision and feeling for them. In this case, an editor will be able to make suggestions about what is commonly called “fleshing out” of a character or characters, therefore making them more understood, seen, felt, and relatable. Other problems seen during a developmental edit are characters who are overly done by too much internal dialogue, a protagonist without a character arc, so many supporting characters that they begin to blur, and lack of any antagonistic force or character.
Setting: Personally, I love a novel that has a strong sense of place. Sometimes a powerful setting is not called for, but readers still like to get a feeling for where the story takes place. In many novels, the setting is so integral it is almost like another character in the novel. Particularly in science fiction/fantasy, a vivid setting is a crucial component. Some authors tend to forget to describes scenes and set the stages, whereas others have focused so much on setting that the characters and plot begin to play a secondary role. This is particularly true in the case of some science fiction/fantasy novels, in which world-building is essential to the story. A strong sense of place is necessary for these genres, but characters and plot must always remain in the forefront of the reader’s mind.
While these are some key elements addressed in a content/developmental edit, you may expect much more from the editing process. You will receive an assessment of your novel’s structure; voice, tone, and style; timing and pacing; title; point of view; theme; dialogue; ending; and anything else that needs to be addressed.
ANA HOWARD writes and edits contemporary and historical children’s, young adult, and adult literature. She has seen one of her novels made into film and has won numerous literary awards.