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.

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  • Suma Mathai

    So on point! Imagine that a year ago my book was but just a figment in a fog. After I was introduced to my developmental editor Zach in couple months, the structure of my book came became clearer to actually form a draft manuscript that was ready for an acquiring editor. So grateful for that relationship!

    March 4, 2023 at 1:44 am

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