To celebrate the launch of our new guide, Developmental Editing for Fiction, we are publishing a series of three blog posts in which Sophie Playle – author of the guide – answers CIEP members’ burning questions about this service.
What’s the most common developmental editing problem you see in fiction?
New writers often underestimate how much they don’t know.
Completing a full draft of a book is an immense achievement in and of itself, and authors will usually find their writing technique has improved by the time they get to the end of their first draft. But just as writing technique takes practice, so does the art of hanging plots together.
So the most common developmental issue I see in fiction is a weak or unclear premise (because the author will have usually started writing with a vague idea that they developed as they wrote) with a plot that doesn’t hit enough significantly dramatic, interesting or relevant events (because a good structure is built from a good premise).
Often the solution is to teach the author how to refine their premise and make better use of the archetypal plot points that lend themselves to a classic three-act structure.
Other common issues include narration that focuses too much on summary and exposition (instead of building dramatic scenes) and unfocused point of view, causing distance or confusion between readers and characters.
Have you ever come across a developmental problem so huge that it could not be resolved? If you have, how did you handle this with the author?
No, because what does it even really mean to resolve all the issues in a book?
There’s no such thing as a perfect book. In my eyes, my role is to help the author improve what they have, and I can always make suggestions on how they might do this.
Fiction authors tend to be emotionally involved in their writing. How do you deal with authors being upset and/or resistant to your suggested amendments? Or are they generally happy to receive constructive feedback?
You’d think that when someone asks for professional feedback and is willing to pay for it, they would be open to receiving said feedback … But that’s not always the case!
I’ve worked with authors who have replied to my feedback quite curtly, affronted. Over the years, I’ve developed a better instinct for the kind of authors who are secretly looking for validation and the kind of authors who are genuinely looking for constructive guidance, and made sure I’m working with the latter.
I work really, really hard on writing my feedback with sensitivity and tact, and I tell the author what they’re doing well, too. If they resist my feedback, there’s nothing I can do about that – and it’s their prerogative.
It’s possible the author needs to work on their own emotions around receiving feedback, but it’s also possible that I’ve not quite understood what they’re trying to do or that some of my suggestions aren’t right for the book, so I try to maintain some humility and distance from how an author receives my work.
There have been times when I’ve felt like an interloper in the private, intense author–text relationship. How does an editor create the space for themselves to work, and for the author to coolly re-evaluate the text?
Similar to my answer above: the author is responsible for their own mindset, but there are things we can do as developmental editors to help them feel good about the feedback we’re giving – by communicating with humility and tact.
What do you do when it feels as though everything needs fixing?
I put the manuscript aside for a day or two and let the small issues sink to the bottom of my mind like sediment so I can see the bigger issues more clearly. Then I focus on addressing those.
If I feel it’s appropriate, I’ll suggest multiple rounds of feedback – so the author will go away and address the first round of suggestions, then I’ll reassess the new draft and give them different, more nuanced things to focus on for the next draft.
I try to suggest this approach upfront, before I even start working on the manuscript, so that I’m not suddenly asking the author to shell out for more editing that they didn’t expect or budget for. To be able to suggest this approach to the author, I need to spend a little time looking at the manuscript and getting to know the author’s creative goals beforehand.
You (and the author) have to take into account the law of diminishing returns, though. Authors don’t have infinite budgets or time, so sometimes it’s about doing the best you can with the resources available, and accepting that.
Even if you and the author can’t get the manuscript to the point you’d like, it can be a valuable learning experience for the author and they can take what they’ve learned to their next book.
About Sophie Playle
Sophie Playle is a professional fiction editor who also teaches online courses to other editors. Speculative and literary fiction are her favourite genres to edit, and she loves working with authors who are passionate about high-quality storytelling.
Sophie is an Advanced Professional Member of the CIEP, and has an MA in Creative Writing from Royal Holloway, University of London.
The Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading (CIEP) is a non-profit body promoting excellence in English language editing. We set and demonstrate editorial standards, and we are a community, training hub and support network for editorial professionals – the people who work to make text accurate, clear and fit for purpose.
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Posted by Harriet Power, CIEP information commissioning editor.
The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the CIEP.