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.
I’m interested in how you communicate the developmental edit. Is it primarily through an editorial letter? A combination of a letter and comments in the margins of the manuscript? Do you meet with the author on Zoom, talk on the phone? How often?
Absolutely no to Zoom! My poor little introverted soul couldn’t take that kind of spotlight – though video or phone sessions definitely work for some editors.
The way I deliver my feedback will depend on the scope of the service I’ve defined and the needs of the manuscript. For example, for some general feedback, I’ll write an editorial report that doesn’t go beyond a certain number of pages; there will be no notes in the manuscript.
But for a full developmental edit, I’ll provide a longer editorial report, and I’ll leave notes in the manuscript. How extensive these are will depend on what’s needed. I might make some direct changes to the text, I might not. I might extensively highlight the manuscript, I might not.
Do you use book maps or other visual aids?
I might, I might not! (See above.)
Book maps take time to create. If I think the plot is going to need some extensive work, I’ll suggest that I make a book map as part of my developmental edit. Sometimes, I’ll get the author to make one for me (this saves me time and saves the author money) and I’ll use that to help form my analysis.
I’ve made a basic narrative-arc graph that I often insert into my editorial reports when explaining the three-act structure. Sometimes I’ll use tables or graphs if they help me present information more clearly. It’s something I want to make more use of, actually, so I’m always on the look-out for ideas in this area!
I love to know about workflows and the practical side. How do you do the processing of reading, analysing, assessing and suggesting? Do you use a step-by-step process? How much back-and-forth is there with the author?
There’s no one right way to conduct a developmental edit, but this is my general approach:
- Read the manuscript straight through, quickly, without taking notes.
- Let thoughts percolate for a day or two.
- Jot down my main impressions for what needs to be addressed.
- Plug these notes into my editorial report template.
- The next step will depend on the scope of the specific service.
- For a critique, I’ll flesh out those notes, scanning the manuscript to refresh my memory, if needed.
- For a full developmental edit, I’ll work through the manuscript page-by-page, making the notes in the manuscript and my editorial report inform one another.
I’ll only get in touch with the author during the edit if I need them to clarify something relevant to the feedback I’m crafting. I won’t send them the manuscript to work on while I’m also working on it.
How many times do you read each manuscript, and what sort of notes do you make for yourself on each pass?
Usually once for a critique, twice for a full developmental edit (leaving notes and making edits during the second read-through).
I try not to make any notes on the first read-through as I want to experience the story more like a reader on this pass. I might highlight text I think could be useful to my analysis, and I might leave a few scant notes if I notice emerging recurring problems, but I won’t go into any detail or think about ways to fix the issues yet.
After you return your feedback to the client, is that the end of the process or do you then review any changes they make in light of your comments?
I let authors know that they can ask me for any clarifications if there’s something in my feedback they don’t understand. I ask them to batch their questions and let them know that I won’t spend more than another hour addressing them.
I don’t go back over the manuscript to check the revisions unless we’ve already agreed that this will be part of the service. This takes time, and needs to be considered in the fee and my schedule.
How do you balance how much you suggest and how much responsibility the author needs to take for fixing their own book under your guidance?
I won’t make substantial changes to an author’s book – that’s completely their responsibility, since it’s their book. I can only provide guidance and suggestions. How general or specific that is will depend on the scope of the service we’ve agreed upon.
How do you edit books in which authors have written to a formula, such as the frameworks in books like Save the Cat! Writes A Novel or Story Grid, especially if you’re not familiar with such frameworks or if the author is highly resistant to deviating from them?
If an author wants to use a framework you’re not familiar with, either don’t work on that book or take the time to learn about the framework.
If the author wants to use a framework, that’s up to them. You might be able to make the case for them to deviate from it, but if they decide they don’t agree with your justifications, that’s their right.
Authors often use frameworks as learning tools. They might not be ready to delve into more original or experimental story structures, and doing so might not help them achieve their writing or publishing goals so isn’t always necessary anyway.
As well as that, frameworks don’t produce cookie-cutter stories (if used well). Understanding archetypal story structure is hugely useful – for both authors and editors. Originality is found in the details, and the combination of new ideas – all of which can be hung beautifully upon frameworks.
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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The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the CIEP.