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.

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