Embracing Criticism and Feedback: Using Red Ink (Literal or Figurative) to Improve Writing

Writing a book is a mighty achievement. Not many who start a manuscript ever finish, and not many who finish a manuscript seek help to improve and make the work suitable for publishing. Anyone can write a book, and anyone can publish a book, but what does it take to make one’s writing any good? Writers need editors. A writer must embrace that fact if they ever want to publish a book that meets professional standards, especially if working on their first book. Once a book is published, it is out there, forever, and it defines the author and begins their brand. Closer to publishing a book, writers must also consider other professionals in the industry who can help, such as book cover artists and layout designers, but working with an editor (preferably editors, plural) is the first step to publish a book to the best of their ability.

The Many Types of Editors

In one’s book-writing journey, a writer may be involved with any number of editors. There are many types, and all have different specialties:
  • Developmental Editors
  • Structural Editors
  • Revisions Editors
  • Copy Editors
There are more than four types of editing, including line editing, mechanical editing, as well as beta and proofreading, but for self-, independent-, and hybrid-publishing consideration, those are perhaps the most commonly seen, and the lines more often than not blur between editors. A revisions editor, for instance, may assist early on with line editing, or a developmental editor might point out repetitive writing habits to help with structural or revisions editing down the line. Developmental editors, who sometimes offer substantive or content editing, assist writers anywhere from concept to completed draft. Developmental editing, as the first word in the title defines, helps with overall development of the manuscript, such as pointing out issues with fundamentals, helping to source content, referencing necessary chapter components, suggesting improvements for narrative flow, etc. Developmental editors sometimes even function as a mentor and writing coach. Structural editors take an overall look at the first draft manuscript upon completion, or near- completion. They sometimes work with writers during developmental editing to offer further guidance, but more from a structural standpoint. Is everything where it should be? Does the narrative flow in terms of style, tone, and overall quality? They look at the core components of future books and provide an analysis. Revisions editors work with manuscripts that are already completed, turning first (or second) drafts into more well-defined drafts. Revisions is an umbrella statement, of course, since manuscripts go through multiple revisions (or should, even rewrites). But revisions editors, in this case, work with writers to improve writing by way of improving the writing fundamentals: hook, character, plot / conflict, point of view, show vs. tell, dialogue, voice, pace, etc. They point out what works and what doesn’t and offer suggestions while also putting the writer to work collaboratively. Copy editors should be the final step before a manuscript goes into layout. This includes making minor spelling, grammar, and punctuation corrections, as well as enhancing the writing quality, searching for passive voice, awkward sentence or paragraph structure, and if working on nonfiction they make sure citations are properly formatted, among other things. Once a manuscript goes through copy editing, no further significant changes should be made other than to fix last-minute proofreading errors. Other types of editors exist, all playing different (or sometimes crossed) roles. A line editor, for instance, goes through the manuscript line-by-line, examining word choice, making sure author / character voice is consistent, pointing out clichés and run-on sentences, and focusing on clarity. A mechanical editor, on the other hand, focuses primarily on the mechanics of the writing, making sure it conforms to style guides, and uses consistent capitalization, punctuation, and abbreviation, which are tasks copy editors sometimes absorb as part of their duties. That is a lot for a writer to take on if attempting to create a book on their own, and so multiple sets of eyes are always recommended (and should be required) instead of a lone set of eyes.

Editing Is Highly Collaborative

No matter which type of editor (preferably editors, plural) a writer works with along their publishing journey, it should never be assumed the editor(s) will simply fix issues and return a perfect manuscript back to the creator. All editing is highly collaborative and ultimately on the writers’ shoulders. Developmental and revisions editors, arguably, spend the most time with writers hands-on. Depending on their services, this could be anywhere from eight to sixteen weeks or longer; for structural editors, this could be anywhere from four to eight weeks or longer. In either case, a relationship between writer and editor is established, and during that time the writer needs to put in as much time and effort as the editor, or significantly more. Working with a structural editor is no different. They are not there to change the manuscript, but to suggest changes to help make the writing better. Are there inconsistencies with the writing compared to the outline? Are there incomplete or missing chapters? Does the manuscript feel complete? They offer a book-level evaluation so the writer can fix such things before going through further revisions. The least amount of interaction is between writer and copy editor. Since a manuscript draft is considered “final” by the time it reaches them, having passed through the hands of many previous editors, copy editors work on the practical details that do not need much writer interaction, although an interaction is still there, no matter how small. Yet it is not an editor’s job to simply make changes to a manuscript (except in the copy editing phase, in most cases), but to point out what could be improved so the writer can make those improvements. It is the author’s job, and obligation if they want to be a writer, to put a manuscript through multiple revisions before their work ever becomes a published book. The goal of every editor is to help writers become better writers. After all, it is not their book; it is the author’s. In fact, editors—although they put in a significant amount of work into manuscripts—are not listed as contributors within books other than seldomly appearing in an acknowledgment page. Editors have a passion to help writers, which is why they do what they do. They have a need to insist upon the world the highest quality of writing when it comes to published books, otherwise the world would be (and is, unfortunately) inundated with mediocre, unprofessional books.

Hard Work and Dedication

What many novice writers do not expect is the level of hard work they must put into revisions. It takes a significant amount of time to write a first draft manuscript, but it should take significantly more time to put that manuscript through multiple rounds of revisions before ever becoming a book. Consider a 60,000-word first draft manuscript, completed entirely by the author alone, with no help from any type of editor. Did the manuscript go through an extensive round of self-editing at least? More often than not, this is not the case, since most novice writers are not familiar with self-editing other than basic checks for grammar and spelling. Is this a first draft, second, or third? It all matters how familiar a writer is with the writing, editing, and publishing process, which is extensive. Let’s say, for the benefit of the writer, the manuscript at least went through a round of self-editing, which means it is a second draft. Then, after collaborating with a developmental editor, they put it through a third. Next, they send it off to a structural editor, who works with them on putting it through a fourth. Then a revisions editor, who helps them put it through a fifth or sixth. Then a beta reader, a copy editor, perhaps a line editor, a proofreader, etc. What draft number is it now? Some argue there is no such thing as a “final draft,” that a manuscript can go through endless revisions, that at some point a writer must simply be done with the thing and abandon it, either publishing their work or not. But if the writer decides to publish a book and become an author, wouldn’t it make sense to put it through as many drafts as possible and write / revise to the best of their ability? If this is the case, a writer needs to embrace the red. When editing by hand, many editors use a red pen to note suggested changes, and in word processing programs, edits are typically found as red text. And if the editing is done right (in the case of novice writers), there might be more red text on the page than black, and this can scare a person at first glance.

Embracing the Red

My first experience with an editor was for a 7,500-word short story called “Unstitched Love.” I put it through a weekend writer bootcamp that focused on self-editing because I wanted to learn more about the process and about my writing. One instructor leaned heavily on plot and conflict, another on dialogue and voice, another on point of view and show vs. tell, and the fourth took a line editing approach. When first turning in the story, I thought it was great, and then I received the feedback. The pages bled with red ink. While “a story is there, somewhere,” I was told, it had conflict but no plot, and I had a lot of dialogue that was unbelievable when spoken aloud, and my point of view was all over the place and hopping between characters, and I was telling more than showing. And from a line editing perspective, if I were to fix each of those items previously mentioned, I needed to cut (according to the blood on the page), at least a third or more of the text. I was horrified, at first, then I put their suggestions to use. I turned my conflict into story beats and suddenly had a plot. I created believable dialogue that sounded right for each character (instead of all sounding like me). I took the “camera” off the various characters’ shoulders, as it was analogized, and instead put the lens solely through the mind of the main character. From a line editing perspective, I trimmed the manuscript from 7,500 words to 4,000, cutting the story almost in half. After struggling for years writing alone, and not selling short stories to the markets I was seeking, I suddenly had my first professional manuscript. I sent it out and it instantly sold to a market in Sweden. I then went on to sell that same story to a market in South Africa, twice, and finally published it in the U.S. Without incorporating their feedback, I would have continued struggling as a writer. Today, I put those same practices to use, and from every new editor I work with—whether for a short story, nonfiction article, poetry collection, or novel—I learn a little more each time, forever improving my writing and editing to the best of my abilities. As an editor myself, I pass on what I have learned over the last twenty-something years to other writers and editors and hope they will do the same. Not until you embrace the red and incorporate criticism and feedback will your writing improve, which is an investment of the self. The more editors you work with over the years, the better your writing will become, thus needing less and less editing. It hurts, at first, until you realize it is a necessary pain and part of the process of writing successfully.
Michael Bailey is a Senior Editor and the Head of Developmental Editing at Manuscripts, LLC. He is a recipient and nine-time nominee of the Bram Stoker Award, a four-time Shirley Jackson Award nominee, and a multiple recipient of the Benjamin Franklin Award, along with over thirty independent publishing accolades. He has written, edited, and published many books. His latest is Righting Writing, a nonfiction narrative about dedication to the craft. He is also the screenwriter for Madness and Writers: The Untold Truth, a creative documentary series about writers. Find him online at nettirw.com, or on social media @nettirw.

Why Category-Defining Books Start With a Question (Hint: You Don’t Need to Be an Expert Before You Write a Book)

“Why would anyone listen to me?” “I don’t know enough about the topic.” “Do you think I need to get a Ph.D. first?”
Expertise. It’s a common misconception about writing a great book. So the thinking goes, you become an expert and then just tell people how. But the reality is quite the opposite.   I asked author Dan Pink about the origins of his recent book When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing, and his answer surprised me. “That book had its genesis in this office. In an attempt to answer how I should approach my work.” A question he wanted to answer for himself. I asked Arianna Huffington why she wrote Thrive: Third Metric to Redefining Success and Creating a Life of Well-Being, Wisdom, and Wonder. “I collapsed from exhaustion and burnout in 2007, and started studying the whole phenomenon of burnout, covering a lot of it in the Huffington Post that I was running at the time. And then I started wanting to write about it. So, that's how Thrive came about it. It was really my new passion.” A question she wanted to answer for herself. Even my recent book Super Mentors began with a question: “Why wasn’t I a very effective mentor?” And the resulting work and book taught me something compelling that I shared with others through the book. This a question I wanted to answer for myself. None of us were experts, but we became experts by writing these books. Great books begin with a question.  But how do you find yours? * * * First, some wrong questions often clog the potential book writer’s mind:
  • Is it unique?
  • Will it sell?
  • Can I finish?
Those are different from the kinds of questions to fixate on. Sure, they are concerns, but truthfully they are much less relevant when you have a driving question.

Find Your Driving Question

Great books are based on a type of question I call your driving question  Driving questions are deeply personal, cross-cutting to numerous aspects of your life, and they nag at you often through an emotional thread.   It’s something that bugs you.  
  • Why can’t I . . . 
  • How come I . . . 
  • What’s stopping me from . . .
  • Why don’t we . . .
  • How come they won’t . . .
For Dan Pink, it was when he should be working to maximize his happiness, health, and success. For Arianna, it was how she should take care of herself to maximize her long-term well-being. For me, it was how to make a difference with others when I tried to help.   The way I summarize this is to ask yourself: What annoys you – and no matter what you’ve read, watched, heard, or done just doesn’t seem to fix it for you? That is a driving question.   What’s vital about driving questions is that conventional wisdom – what most people think or believe – is just unsatisfactory to you.   Sure, there may be answers from experts, research, and other places. But it’s unsatisfactory for you. You’re annoyed that you can’t find something that works or is satisfying for you.   Congratulations. You’ve got your driving question.

Is It Worth Finding Answers to Your Driving Question

Finding a question is relatively easy. Finding a driving question is more challenging. But the real trick is deciding something different: Is it worth finding answers to your driving question? Most likely, answers exist to this question. Books have been written. Podcast interviews are out there. Blog posts are plentiful.   Don’t expect to be the only one thinking about your driving question. Driving questions likely drive others too. That’s a good sign people are trying to answer it. But you’re on the right track if you find the answers unsatisfactory, incomplete, or too general. Remember, Dan wasn’t the first person or only person to write about the power of timing, luck, time management, or similar themes. There were dozens and dozens of books on wellness, sleep, purpose, etc., before Arianna wrote her book. And mentorship is one of the most covered subjects on the planet.   But none of them were satisfying, complete, or specific to us. Something was missing.   Remember, driving questions are deeply personal, and that’s part of what makes books special and unique:
  • Dan Pink was a modern, independent worker. As an author, he doesn’t punch a clock. Many books about time management or understanding timing were built when we didn’t control our schedules. He needed a unique and updated view for people like him. 
  • Arianna wasn’t a scientist, but she’d risen to fame and simply couldn’t go off in the wilderness and meditate to find her wellness. She needed to examine it for busy and ambitious professionals who wanted more. 
  • I was exploring modern mentorship in the digital era where the internet had changed access to advice and information. Nothing I’d read offered that modern look. 
But how will you know if it is worth finding answers to your driving question? I suggest you answer two questions:
  1. Is it something I’m willing to spend the next year going deeper into for myself?
  2. Is it something I’m willing to teach to others like me?
If your answer is yes to both questions, then you have checked a very important box in the book process:  This is a driving question worth finding answers to.

Where to Find Help Answering Your Driving Question

This is where many aspiring authors get stuck – answering your driving question isn’t easy or straightforward.   The answers will be nonlinear, more like a treasure hunt than a path.   And this is where the process is critical: You don’t look for an answer. You look for people who can contribute to your answer. This is critical – you should assume there is no answer. Dan Pink shared that he took a yellow notepad and began creating a list of people he wanted to learn from or talk to to answer his question.   Assume every expert will offer you something helpful, but it’ll be unsatisfactory, incomplete, or too general. There is no one magic TED Talk, book, or framework that answers your driving question. But they will have helpful contributions. What is a contribution? According to our good friend Webster (the dictionary), it’s when you give (something) to help achieve or provide something. For an aspiring author, the “something” here differs from what people usually expect from hunting for answers. Hunt for stories. I recently wrote a longer post about the hunt for stories called "Master Story Gathering: Four Steps to Research Story Ideas for Any Nonfiction Book". Especially early in your journey, you’re looking for contributions through the stories of others.  

Share Answers to Your Driving Question

Early in your writing journey, keep your writing short – usually, 50-250 word snippets that summarize the story from a podcast, an experience in your own life, a TED Talk, an interview you did, or just something random you thought of.  These smaller answers – contributions – are what will guide you toward answers that are:
  • More satisfactory
  • More complete
  • More specific
Remember, your book isn’t the only answer out there…  I can't guarantee that reading one book will change your life. But I can guarantee that writing one will. Through that process, you’ll answer your driving question,  and have something to share and teach others who also feel like you. * * * Most of the best books I’ve read didn’t start from a place of expertise; they started from a place of curiosity. Find your driving question and commit to answering it yourself and sharing it with others through a book. So, what’s your driving question?
Eric Koester is the founder Manuscripts, LLC, a b-corporation whose mission is to inspire, teach and support tomorrow’s creators — authors, podcasters, speakers, entrepreneurs, corporate innovators and course builders. Through his work he’s coached nearly 1,000 first-time creators. He is also a Professor of Entrepreneurship & Innovation at Georgetown University and the school’s only two-time entrepreneurship professor of the year, faculty at Growth University, and the executive director of the Intrapreneur Institute, which researches, trains and develops future innovation leaders.

Righting Your Writing: How to Improve Your Craft by Working With a Developmental Editor

The job of the developmental editor is often referred to as substantive editing, with a goal of improving the writer’s potential by taking a deeper dive into the work and helping them improve with early constructive feedback and constructive criticism; helping to further develop not only the writing but the writer.
I recently finished a manuscript for a nonfiction book called Righting Writing, an exploration into the madness of writing, editing, and publishing. A book for those who need to write. It took a few years to complete, but I consider 2022 a great year because the manuscript went through multiple revisions and at the start of 2023 became a book. “Need” is used in the statement above because while many want to write, those who need to write almost always follow through, and those who want to write rarely do. Righting Writing exists because of my never-ending need to help other writers improve their craft. The title holds meaning in its tense: writing needs constant righting; otherwise, the title would be Writing Righted, or Writing Right, which, of course, means there is only one way. A writer, no matter their level of expertise, can always improve; their writing can always be righted. Every successful writer-turned-author relies on an editor to make them better. And there are many ways to better one’s writing, especially for novice writers, such as by seeking the help of a developmental editor. I am currently working with Eric Koester on his second book in his Pennymores series (and soon a third). My main focus is developmental editing, but I offer advice to help prepare his manuscript for later revisions editing, such as with point of view, show vs. tell, and tightening prose by way of immersive language. My other focus is to help him realize his full potential. Eric has proven time and again that his storytelling is a need, not a want, and he takes my honest and constructive criticism to heart. He has a desire to ever-improve, which is key. The words flow out of him not with a “my writing is great” (and it is) attitude, but with a mindset of “no matter how great it is, it can always be better.” As a developmental editor, I have helped hundreds of writers: nonfiction narratives, memoirs, novels, fiction collections, poetry collections, and even graphic novels. And every writer who shares that same mindset of self-improvement publish. Along with providing developmental editing for Eric, I help train and manage developmental editors at Manuscripts, LLC, and assist with revisions editing and other departments. We all experience one thing in common: our writers not only finish manuscripts, but they put in the work it takes to turn manuscripts into incredible books. And yet it still surprises me that some first-time authors do not seek help. I thought I’d share my experience working as a developmental editor for Eric Koester’s latest book in his Pennymores series and how we collaborate, as well my experiences working with other writers.

My Fear of Providing Feedback as a Developmental Editor

When I first became a developmental editor at Manuscripts, LLC, I was terrified of my critiques coming across as being too brutal. Before that, I had nearly twenty years of freelance experience editing for various publishers, and so I was (and still am) well aware of writers resisting feedback. The world of editing can be precarious. If my reviews of works-in-progress were taken as too harsh, for instance, perhaps writers would not take my reviews as helpful but hurtful. Their impostor syndrome was quickly becoming my impostor syndrome, despite what I knew I could offer. Years later, I have learned that the writers who utilize the many services offered at Manuscripts, LLC have the following in common:
  • They need to write manuscripts and publish books.
  • They want honest criticism from editors.
  • They have the passion (suffering) it takes to put their manuscripts through the gamut that is developmental editing, revisions editing, structural editing, and later copy editing.
  • They publish their books, successfully.
  • They typically go on to publish more books, successfully.
My own fears as a developmental editor dissolved as soon as I realized what I had known all along: writers who need to tell stories, although they may hesitate when first seeking or receiving feedback, are usually willing to learn what it takes to write to the best of their abilities. Once a writer realizes a developmental editor (or any editor) is on their side, and willing to work with them in all sincerity to improve, that’s when the magic happens. They not only begin to believe they are ‘good enough’ to write, but that they can become great (and they do).

Expect More Than Editing

When collaborating with a developmental editor, know they are not there to simply edit what is already written. And don’t expect them to write if nothing is written. Developmental editors are not ghostwriters; they are mentors, coaches, cheerleaders, and sometimes even therapists if impostor syndrome kicks in (and it will, at some point). Developmental editors are sounding boards. They brainstorm. They work with writers to develop a book from the ground up, or, if an unstable framework is already established, they can help stabilize the foundation. They help turn ideas into stories, help turn stories into chapters, and help form those chapters into a workable Table of Contents. If a manuscript is already written, they can help develop that draft into something stronger. To quote a section in Righting Writing:
A developmental editor offers advice on basic writing fundamentals but does not necessarily correct spelling or grammar mistakes, although often points out such things. They can either be brought in during the book’s development—even prior to any writing whatsoever—or after the first draft of a manuscript is already written.
Developmental editing is thus more focused on a book’s structure rather than prose, such as with character, plot, conflict, voice, theme, and setting. Do chapters have enough hook to pull readers along? Do chapters have the right components? What about the 3 D’s: dialogue, detail, depth? What about the other fundamentals of writing that can be righted: intrigue, prose, pace, tense, point of view, show vs. tell, and imagery? Developmental editors work with writers to improve upon each of these areas, noting what is working well while also pointing out what is not. Working with any editor is highly collaborative, but think of the developmental stage as creating the architecture of a book. Consider the original idea and what it will take to turn that concept into a reality. Then realize there’s a professional on your side to make that happen. Questions to ask developmental editors prior to utilizing their services:
  • What is your experience / training?
  • What are your editing styles or how do you edit?
  • What are your specialties / strengths?
  • What are your expectations?
Questions to ask while utilizing their services:
  • What goals / routines should we establish?
  • What can I expect and what is expected of me?
  • What are my strengths and weaknesses?
  • What can I do to improve my writing?
Expect lots of communication. Schedule weekly meetings if at all possible. Ask for advice on impostor syndrome or writer’s block. If struggling, ask for help! Above all else, do not be afraid to share “ugly” writing, those early first drafts. Developmental editors have seen it all (and do not judge). They can help turn ugly writing into good writing, then good writing into great writing. When working with Eric, if he doesn’t ask the questions above, I bring them up. I offer my experiences to help him better his writing. I point out strengths and his weaknesses, but more importantly suggest ways to improve not only his weaknesses but his strengths. We establish weekly goals and routines. I expect his writing, no matter the quality, and he expects my critiques, no matter how harsh they may seem (although they are always positive). We always push forward.

Five Tips to Get the Most Out of Your Developmental Editor / Writer Relationship

Developmental editors are on your side. All editors have a desire to help other writers improve, which is why they became editors in the first place. And most developmental editors, specifically, are writers, so they know the importance of having the help required to complete a manuscript and publish a book. 5 tips to consider:
  1. Connect: Plan to meet weekly with your developmental editor by way of a video call, or at a minimum weekly messages. It can be daunting at first, so break the ice and then jump right into the writing / editing. It will get easier with time, and might become the highlight of your week. 10 to 30 minutes, depending on what’s needed, even if it’s a simple catch-up or to ask for advice. Are you stuck, overwhelmed? Your developmental editor can help.
  2. Communicate: Send messages over whatever platform you are using. Constant communication with your editor is key. Ask questions. Answer questions. Leave notes and respond by way of in-line comments and wrap-up comments within the document(s). Be precise, always asking yourself and your editor, “What can I do next to improve?”
  3. Collaborate: Editing is highly collaborative. For every hour your editor spends on your work, plan to 4 or 5 times that to further improve your manuscript, maybe even as high as 10. And remember: your developmental editor is not there to make changes or to write for you, but to suggest improvements with your writing. They may suggest sources for additional information, or point out what’s working and what isn’t with your writing.
  4. Set routines / goals: Work with your editor on weekly expectations. Take your word count (expected or already written) and divide that by the number of weeks working with your editor. 60,000 words and 16 weeks? That’s 3,750 words per week, which can be anywhere from 2 to 3 hours of developmental editor time, and 8 to 12 hours for the writer, at a minimum. Keep in mind that you are most likely not your editor’s only client, so be respectful of their time. Punctuality for meetings is important.
  5. Have an understanding that writing / editing is tough: If you put in the effort, your editor will do the same. Your editor will spend a lot of time not only reading your work but suggesting edits (always with the overall book in mind), so also be respectful of their expertise. They know what they are doing. Ask questions if you need clarification.
Developmental editors work with all types of writers, so a big part of the editor / writer relationship is determining your writing style and figuring out what works best in terms of all 5 items listed above. They are experienced working with writers who suffer from impostor syndrome or writer’s block, so listen to their suggestions. The primary goal of the developmental editor is to help writers, no matter their level of experience, finish manuscripts, and become better writers. There is nothing an editor loves more than to experience a writer they have worked with succeed and become great. * * * I am first and foremost a writer, and it is my passion to consistently improve my craft. And as an editor (developmental or otherwise, as I wear many hats), helping other writers improve their craft is also my passion. As an editor, I need Eric and other writers who are motivated with their own work (and their own betterment as writers) to keep me motivated. I read a dozen or two books each year, but perhaps as many as a hundred or more unpublished manuscripts. And when I see one of those projects turn into a beautiful, published book, knowing the writer and their editors did everything in their power to make it wonderful? Nothing makes me happier. Nothing written is ever perfect, but why not get it as close to that as possible, and then make the next writing even stronger, and the writing after even stronger, and so on . . . A special thanks to Eric Koester for not only founding Manuscripts, LLC, which cranks out countless inspiring book each year, but also having the drive to showcase his writing and the books of so many others. Righting Writing is the title of my latest book, but also my mission. It’s an active statement, the continuous art of righting one’s writing, of taking the written word, no matter whose, and ever-improving upon it.
Even the best editors need editors.

Michael Bailey is a Senior Editor and the Head of Developmental Editing at Manuscripts, LLC. He is a recipient and eight-time nominee of the Bram Stoker Award, a four-time Shirley Jackson Award nominee, and a multiple recipient of the Benjamin Franklin Award, along with over thirty independent publishing accolades. He has written, edited, and published many books. His latest is Righting Writing, a nonfiction narrative about dedication to the craft. He is also the screenwriter for Madness and Writers: The Untold Truth, a creative documentary series about writers. Find him online at nettirw.com, or on social media @nettirw.

Righting My Writing: What It’s Like to Work With a Developmental Editor

We believe writing a book is a solitary activity. But you can't make it solitary if you want to finish writing your book. I learned the hard way I had to Stop Writing Alone.
2022 was a very different year for me as an author. I published two books. Both books sold thousands of copies in their first year. Both books have won multiple awards. Why was 2022 such a great year for me as a writer? Two years prior, I began working with a developmental editor – a book writing coach. And if there’s a single thing that impacted my writing, it was that. I’m not unusual – I’ve interviewed and spoken to several hundred professional and successful published authors writing nonfiction, memoirs, novels, and essays. 70-80% of them shared they worked with a developmental editor or writing coach during their book development. And yet it surprises me that most first-time authors don’t. I thought I’d share my experience working with my developmental editor, Michael Bailey on my latest books: Pennymores 2 and 3 (I’m writing them both concurrently). I’ll share a bit about what held me back from working with a developmental editor on my first two books, then will talk about how Michael and I collaborate.

My Fear of Feedback as a Writer

I published my first book in 2009 and my second in early 2011. Honestly, I was terrified I’d written terrible first drafts when I shipped them to my acquiring editor. I was late on submitting them – five months late on each, actually – and was politely told if I didn’t submit them, I’d likely lose my opportunity to publish. I had what I’ve come to learn is a very ‘traditional’ view of book writing.
  • A writer writes until they finish a good draft.
  • An acquiring editor at a publisher gives you a ‘Roman-style’ thumbs up or thumbs down.
  • Revisions happen.
  • Publish.
This belief system holds lots of writers back from seeking or receiving feedback. And for many of us, we never actually produce something we think is ‘good enough’ to even submit to that terrifying acquiring editor.

You Want a Coach, Not Just Editing

Many first-time authors don’t work with a developmental editor because they believe editors simply edit what you’ve written. And unless you’ve written a lot or the entire thing, there’s nothing for them to do. It turns out that’s not what developmental editors do. Developmental editing is a different category, more focused on the structural components of the book rather than the prose. The analogy is building your dream home. The developmental editor is the architect who helps you design your house. Everything from the number of bedrooms to your kitchen layout to maximize the light. We think about other editors who help us with the prose, writing, copy editing, and proofing. They’ll help make the home feel right. Both are critical to having a home you’ll love, but you don’t do interior design until you’ve got the designs done, the foundation poured, and you are confident you don’t need to add a sun room. Great developmental editors coach. According to the ICF, 80% of people who receive coaching report increased self-confidence, and over 70% benefit from improved work performance, relationships, and more effective communication skills. 86% of companies report that they recouped their investment on coaching and more. That’s why I tell people Michael is my writing coach, and our working relationship is built very differently than I imagined:
  • We do a weekly call. We talk strategy, we work through ideas together, we talk about my writing time, and he coaches me when I’m struggling.
  • I share first drafts, and I share them as I write them. Usually, I’m sharing chunks that are 500-1,500 – so it’s not something that needs to be ‘complete’ or ‘done’. Michael reads what I write each week, and offers feedback on it as it’s written. But he also tells me not to make the changes – just read them and use that feedback to improve.
  • He doesn’t fix my grammar. Michael reads everything I write, but his comments are on strategic questions from structure, pacing, flow, and consistency. He doesn’t worry about my grammar or writing since that will all be part of revisions.
ICF defines coaching as partnering with clients in a thought-provoking and creative process that inspires them to maximize their personal and professional potential. Michael isn’t editing or fixing my writing; he’s helping me realize my potential as an author.

The Psychological Benefits of Working With a Developmental Editor

I realize now that my first two books were written from a near-paranoid state. I didn’t share drafts with anyone, I didn’t tell many people I was writing them, and I spent a lot of time worrying about my grammar. I realize now it was a pretty lonely process. Working with a developmental editor provides me with a wide range of psychological benefits, both during the editing process and after the book is published. One of the main benefits of working with my developmental editors is that I gained a deeper understanding of my writing and general writing craft. A good developmental editor can provide feedback on the structure, pacing, arguments, and character development of a manuscript, as well as help an author identify and overcome any weaknesses or inconsistencies in their writing. This process helped me develop my writing skills, but the added benefit was enhancing my confidence in the book. The second psychological benefit of working with my developmental editor is that it has helped me to overcome writer's block and to stay motivated during the writing process. I’m now working on books six and seven, and I still struggle with feelings of uncertainty, self-doubt, and frustration when working on a book. A developmental editor can help provide guidance, support, and a sense of accountability. Michael has worked with hundreds of authors to navigate this, but he’s an author himself, having had the same feelings. Maybe it’s obvious, but having someone counting on me and a call scheduled each week to talk strategy has been central to staying focused and productive, avoiding getting bogged down by self-doubt or procrastination. I’ve also found a massive difference in the amount of rewriting I’ve done. My developmental editor offers perspective on my work as it’s happening. Writing a book can be an intense and personal experience, and it can be challenging to be objective about my writing. I’d spent quite a bit of time wrestling through a complicated scene, and after sharing it with Michael, I could sense he enjoyed it. He wrote in his comments that he wanted to hear more detail about it. A developmental editor provides an outside perspective on the manuscript, which has helped me see my work with fresh eyes and to identify areas that need improvement.

Five Tips to Set up a Positive & Productive Relationship With Your Developmental Editor

The most important thing is to remember your developmental editor is your writing coach, not just revising or editing what you write. You’ll need to collaborate, communicate, and iterate to success.
  1. Communicate effectively: Clearly express your goals, concerns, and feedback to your developmental editor. Understand the objectives of your coaching relationship. I recommend a weekly conversation, whether a zoom chat, phone call, or messaging over text/DM. But you want to have a conversation, not just send written comments on your writing back and forth.
  2. Be open to feedback: Listen actively and be receptive to constructive criticism. Your developmental editor’s role is to help you improve, so be willing to take their advice. Michael offers written feedback on what I write, but we begin each call and conversation by discussing things that I didn’t understand or wanted to clarify.
  3. Be proactive: Take responsibility for your development and work on achieving your goals. This includes following through on any action items or tasks your developmental editor assigns. We set weekly goals and realistic outcomes.
  4. Be honest: Be honest with your developmental editor about your strengths and weaknesses. This will help them tailor their coaching to meet your specific needs.
  5. Be respectful: Show respect for your editor’s time, expertise, and experience. This includes being punctual for meetings and keeping agreements and commitments.
* * * As an author, my work is essential to me. It’s my legacy and a craft I’m committed to improving. And that means being real with myself that I can’t do that alone. I need Michael and others to help me to maximize my personal and professional potential. Coaching has helped me. But more than anything, working with a developmental editor has provided me with a professional opinion. I’m fortunate to have Michael bring years of experience to me. Besides being an author, he has coached hundreds of authors like me as the Senior Editor for Manuscripts, LLC and trained dozens and dozens of other developmental editors. He’s able to consult with peers when I had questions on my use of tropes and quickly get me perspectives outside my own. I’ve grown as a writer, author, and creative. I’ve improved more in the craft of writing than anything – and even if my recent books hadn’t done well both commercially and critically, I’d still know I’m a better writer today than before. A special thanks to Michael Bailey and ChandaElaine Spurlock who have been my writing coaches and developmental editors. You both have helped me Right My Writing.
Eric Koester is the founder Manuscripts, LLC, a b-corporation whose mission is to inspire, teach and support tomorrow’s creators — authors, podcasters, speakers, entrepreneurs, corporate innovators and course builders. Through his work he’s coached nearly 1,000 first-time creators. He is also a Professor of Entrepreneurship & Innovation at Georgetown University and the school’s only two-time entrepreneurship professor of the year, faculty at Growth University, and the executive director of the Intrapreneur Institute, which researches, trains and develops future innovation leaders.

Writing Through Your Imposter Syndrome: Three Steps to Share and Publish What You Write

I hate the term Imposter Syndrome. It’s like you’re afflicted with this disease… shunned by society and destined to live out your days in the dark forest. I meet so many writers who struggle with it… stopping them from sharing or publishing what they’ve written. Here’s the truth: Every writer is an imposter (or at least has these feelings). We all are. Don’t try to stop feeling like an imposter. Instead, surround yourself with a community of other imposters who are putting their work out too. The advice in this post is pretty simple… Stop Writing Alone. But how?

Why Does Every Writer Feel Like an Imposter?

Most people believe writing is a solitary activity. We have this vision of a solitary writer, alone in a cabin with just a typewriter, silently working on her manuscript for a year before emerging with a perfect, complete book. In 2022, I was fortunate to have author Victoria Schwab speak to my class of writers. The past several years for her have been, to put it bluntly, unbelievable. Her work has garnered awards, praise, movie adaptations, and recurring spots on bestseller lists. She’s one of the top fiction writers today. As she joined our Zoom chat, I casually asked her how she was doing. “Better,” she said. “I spent the last two hours sobbing on my floor. But I’m better now.” The look on my face was quite telling. You were sobbing about your manuscript? You have doubts about your books? Victoria explained that she’d submitted the final manuscript to her publisher for a new book and she was convinced it was terrible, but she had a deadline and a contract. So, she submitted the revised manuscript and sobbed for two hours. This is from the woman who has had her books nominated for at least ten Goodreads Reader’s Choice Awards. When I asked her about advice for other writers she said, “If you're struggling with a story or struggling with creativity, it's not a reflection of your ability, it's a reflection of the fact that this is hard.” Victoria shared how she pushed through these feelings: She wasn’t writing this alone. She had others help her. Her parents had read it. Her editor had read it. Her peer authors had read it. And all of them encouraged and helped her to continue. Victoria doesn’t write alone.

The Science of Overcoming Imposter Writing

Two leading thinkers on distraction – Cal Newport and Nir Eyal – offer the same advice and guidance about beating imposter syndrome and distraction: Accountability. We are our own worst enemies. We believe what we’ve written is terrible. We believe we’ll be judged. We believe no one will care. And it turns out we are terrible judges of these things. Now, this isn’t to say that your fears aren’t rational. They are. Your brain is wired to mitigate risks. We’ve survived this way as a species because our brain is looking for that lion who could eat us or that cliff we could fall down or that berry we could eat that poisons us. Humans are wired to use fear to survive. But that same fear that helps us survive often prevents us from thriving. And that’s why writers need community. You need a system to help. Here are the three steps to build your community, create accountability, and share more of what you write with others.

STEP 1: Identify Your Who

You’re not sharing what you write with everyone. Start there. Building confidence in your writing starts by selective sharing. Picking the right people to start with is key. Be strategic and thoughtful, and you don’t need to post a draft of your unfinished book idea online or email a first draft of a blog post to your entire contact list. You just need to get the right people involved in your writing. This is the power of pacts. Nir Eyal, the author of Indistractable: How to Control Your Attention and Choose Your Life, highlights the power of pacts in combating imposter syndrome and distraction. Pacts are loose or informal agreements we make with others to hold us accountable. They aren’t usually formal, firm contracts (“You commit to writing 1,000 words a day”). Pacts operate more subtly, often playing on our personal feelings of guilt (“I’m going to get you a new chapter to read this week” or “I’ll get you a draft of my introduction by the end of the month”). And the secret of leveraging pacts to create accountability to move beyond imposter syndrome often comes from choosing the right people to help us. Pacts are the secret to accountability. As humans, we’ve been wired for them – these informal agreements between us. But not all accountability is created equal. Research finds that simply posting our goals online doesn’t create real feelings of accountability for most people. Two main types of accountabilities help writers improve and publish:
  • Professional accountability.
  • Peer accountability.
Professional accountability are people who have expertise in what we are looking to do or accomplish. In most cases, professional accountability is something you pay for such as a professional editor, a writing coach, or someone from a publisher. These are people who understand the craft. Peer accountability is people who know us as humans. They may or may not be experts in the profession, but they are people that we know – or at least believe – have our interests at heart. Often a brother, sister, family member, close friend, or peer also goes through a similar process. These are people who understand the person. My advice for aspiring writers is to have at least one professional accountability partner and at least two peer accountability partners. For me, I work with a developmental editor for my fiction writing, and I have two writer-friends who serve as my peer accountability.

STEP 2: Create Pacts

The bigger the writing goal, the easier it is for your inner critic to rear its ugly head. That’s why the secret of pacts is to think smaller… much smaller. Whether it’s a professional accountability partner (like an editor or writing coach) or a peer accountability partner (like a friend or another aspiring author writing their own work), I like to think about writing by time, not words. Many writers think about writing a thousand words or five hundred words or, heck, ten thousand words. We often think in word count because that’s how we’ve been trained to think about our writing – submit a 10-page essay or a 3-page paper. Research finds that we overestimate what we can accomplish early in learning any new skill:
  • We overestimate how much of a puzzle we’ll complete
  • We overestimate how much editing we’ll complete on our first videos
  • We overestimate how many words we’ll write when we start
This overestimation problem manifests a disappointment problem. If you thought you’d write 1,000 words and only wrote 300, you must not be a good writer or must not be motivated. Create pacts built around time. “I’ve got two hours blocked off to write this week. Can I send you something to read from that?” Here’s what you’ve done with that sentence:
  1. You’ve set aside the time. Here, you’re committing to two hours of writing. We know humans are better when they work for a set period of time. We accomplish more in less time than if we set an output goal.
  2. You’ve scoped your deliverable. You’re not committing to a word count or a form factor. You’re going to send them “something.” And that “something” is being done in a two-hour block of time over a week-long period.
  3. You’ve limited your feedback loop. You’re not spending six months, but you’re spending a week. You can play with these dates – two weeks, five days, or even up to a month. But much more than a couple of weeks can create greater expectations. You’ve told the person you’ll send them something this week. Their expectations should be lower (as should yours).
This is a writing pact that is built for success. You’ve made a loose commitment to your coach, editor, or friend, but you’ve scoped it for success by limiting expectations.

STEP 3: Gather Feedback

The first two steps are the most important in this process – truthfully, a substantial portion comes from building this feedback system. But the third step is important to build this into a compounding process. You’re putting yourself out there – even in this small way to this small group – and there’s a risk that they could accidentally make your imposter syndrome worse, even accidentally. You can ask for this feedback in person or over a video call or written. But often, I’d suggest early on making this a live conversation to get context. Don’t assume people know how to give productive feedback. Ask for feedback in the way you’d like to receive it. Here’s how:
  1. You don’t want them to edit your work. This may be the most important thing: tell them you are not looking for feedback or changes to the text. There are spelling issues, grammar issues, etc.
  2. You’d like them to identify two or three things they liked about the piece. You want to hear what concepts resonated, what stories landed, etc. You’re looking for insights about what worked for them. Not generalities (“I loved it”), but specifics (“I liked how you…”). And if they don’t offer them, push them on this.
  3. You’d like them to identify one or two things you could improve. Limit the scope to one or two things for them, and again make them specific. Sometimes people will hesitate, so you can guide them as “where could I have gone deeper,” or “what was unclear,” or “what would you add?”
Here’s a specific sentence you can use when you send a piece to someone: “This isn’t a polished piece so I’m not looking for editing on grammar or spelling. I’d love to know 2-3 specific things that worked for you and 1-2 specific things that could be improved in the next draft.” Here’s what I’ve found from this process: I’m always excited by their critical feedback because it means I know what to do to improve.
Writing gets stuck when we’re writing alone. Putting yourself out there is hard. It is. And it's the single reason so many ideas, stories, manuscripts, and concepts never see the light of day. The myth of the writer is that it’s a solitary endeavor. While it’s true you do spend a lot of time with just you and the keyboard, everything significant I’ve written is touched by lots and lots of others before it’s published. I sent the unpublished draft of my first book in The Pennymores series to more than 1,000 people. Part of that was to improve the book and the story. But a big part of that is accountability. I need others to help me push through my imposter syndrome. Remember, you don’t need 1,000 people… but you need a couple of people, often someone who is a professional and someone who is a peer. Find the right people, build the right system, and week over week, you’ll gain confidence in yourself and in your writing. It’s not a light switch that you go from imposter to not an imposter. It’s a process where you get the confidence to share or publish what you write despite feeling those imposter thoughts.
Eric Koester is the founder and CEO of Creator Institute, a b-corporation whose mission is to inspire, teach and support tomorrow’s creators — authors, podcasters, speakers, entrepreneurs, corporate innovators and course builders. Through his work he’s coached nearly 1,000 first-time creators. He is also a Professor of Entrepreneurship & Innovation at Georgetown University and the school’s only two-time entrepreneurship professor of the year, faculty at Growth University, and the executive director of the Intrapreneur Institute, which researches, trains and develops future innovation leaders.

A Need for Storytelling

Discuss books and at some point in the conversation someone will say, “I always wanted to write a book” or “I have an idea for a story” or, if talking with a writer, “Hey, maybe you can write one for me.” The defining word hidden in that first of three statements is want. There may be a desire or passion to share a particular story with the world, whether fiction or nonfiction (imaginary or factual), but is there also the need?

Determining Want vs. Need Is Crucial

Want vs. need is crucial to determine. Want is an aspiration, whereas need is an essential requirement. Many want to write and become a published author, but who really needs that status, and what is the difference between writer and author? I recently worked with a musician from Nigeria who wanted to write a book about music’s ability to change the world. He showed signs of impostor syndrome early on, despite displaying incredible prose with his nonfiction work-in-progress. The storytelling seemed to come naturally, and although his opening chapters needed structure, his words held power. The emerging story, his story, was absolutely captivating. He said at one point, “I want to write this book, and tell my story, but what if no one reads it?” I then asked the all important question: “Do you want to write, or do you need to write?” After a look of confusion on his part, I clarified: “What if you finish and publish this book, and sell only a single copy? You reach only one person in the world but they are inspired by your story; your words move them, perhaps even change them as a person. Would it be worth it?” “Absolutely,” he said without hesitation, and I could see the passion in his eyes. “Then you don’t want to write, you need to write.” We worked together on his manuscript for sixteen weeks, building chapter by chapter, and every week his impostor syndrome faded while his confidence strengthened. Soon he had a completed first draft manuscript and quickly raised funds (and beyond) to publish and promote his book. Prior to that manuscript going through the revisions stage, I said to him, “You know what this means, don’t you?” and I received that same look of confusion but also wonderment. “You are a writer. This is something you need to do. And you’re going to write and publish future books.” His smile revealed this would be true, and Nifemi Aluko’s first published book, Press Play: Music as a Catalyst for Change was well received and won an award in independent publishing. But would this book be his last, or would he go on to further explore and develop his creative abilities and tell future stories? A one-time author, or forever a writer?

A One-Time Author, or Forever a Writer?

Storytellers should always have a need more than a want to create, and the difference between writer and author is a matter of tense. An author is in the past, and a writer in the present and always looking toward the future. A writer cannot be an author until after having first written, but a writer possesses the continuous need to write whether their work is ever published. “Author” is a wonderful word, such as in the phrase “I am a published author!” Author is also a wonderful title to have on your resume, but consider its meaning. With modern technology, anyone can write and self-publish words strung together, whether digitally or in physical form, and no matter the quality. If a person writes on a website, on a blog, on social media, or elsewhere, they are from that point onward the author of that work and hold copyright (unless relinquishing those rights). So, how much weight does “Author” hold? “Writer” is a stronger delineation for a storyteller. “I am a writer” is not only a great thing to say about oneself, but “Writer” holds more meaning. It says, “I write, and I publish my words, and I will continue doing so.”

Managing Through the Book Writing Process

To compose an entire book, however, requires a lot from a person, including many sacrifices, and so a writer who manages to publish a book, even if only ever writing and publishing a single book, should be proud of that accomplishment because they are in a minority when it comes to creativity, despite the level of readership. Fast-forward a few years, and Nifemi Aluko, now a published and award-winning author, returns with a concept for second book. “I want to write a novel,” he says. “Writing is music, and I need to keep making music.” So we begin working together for another sixteen weeks on a first draft manuscript for a science fiction novel. The developing manuscript shows a lot of promise, the power of storytelling akin to Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 and George Orwell’s 1984. The words flow out of him. As a writer, he is passionate to tell this new story, and as his editor I am passionate to help him breathe life into this second book. The manuscript is stronger from the start, both easier for him to write and easier for me to edit, and together we strengthen his words. And not long after another book finds its way into print, Toffy’s Divide, a novel, which does well and wins him another book award. Will this writer (and now author of multiple books) go on to write a third? It’s likely more music will pour out of him. He possesses the desire to create. Not only does he have the aspiration to write, but storytelling is an essential requirement of his very being, and he is willing to put in the hard work it takes to make books.

The Need for Storytelling Always Prevails

Writing, editing, and eventually publishing takes a need for being a storyteller, not just a want, as well as time, dedication, routine, and continuous self-development and improvement. Most who have the desire to write a book either never begin, or begin and never finish. Their manuscript, if ever started, is never fully completed and improved upon and thus never turned into a book as originally planned. The work is at some point abandoned, and so the story they wanted to share is lost to the world and stuck in the past. A very small percentage of writers who start the journey of writing ever finish a first draft manuscript. An even smaller percentage of writers who finish a first draft manuscript ever put their work through additional drafts. And an even smaller percentage of writers who put the manuscript through additional drafts ever see their work published. So, ask yourself: Do I want to write to write, or do I need to write? Once you realize the answer is the latter, find any means necessary to make that happen. Write the story not because you want to, but because you have to, and then do whatever it takes to share your story with the world. Don’t be the one in the conversation about books saying, “Hey, maybe you can write one for me.” Instead, set out to write, revise, and ultimately publish a book. Plan to not only become an author of the past, but a writer in the present looking toward the future. If you have always wanted to write a book, or have an idea for a story, write it! But remember: you don’t have to go through that journey alone. If passionate about writing, look for mentors, and editors (there are many types willing to help), as well as fellow writers who might share those same impostor syndrome nerves. Do not write alone. What is it going to take to tell your story and share it with the world?
Michael Bailey is a Senior Editor at Manuscripts, LLC. He is a recipient and eight-time nominee of the Bram Stoker Award, a four-time Shirley Jackson Award nominee, and a multiple recipient of the Benjamin Franklin Award, along with over thirty independent publishing accolades. He has written, edited, and published many books. His latest is Righting Writing, a nonfiction narrative about dedication to the craft. He is also the screenwriter for Madness and Writers: The Untold Truth, a creative documentary series about writers. Find him online at nettirw.com, or on social media @nettirw.