To Dev or Not to Dev

I don’t know when developmental editing became a thing. Or beta-readers, for that matter. Is a developmental edit really necessary?

In 1985 I placed my first novel with an agent and he sold it to Del Rey, first crack out of the box. Nobody had read it before I sent it to him, and he never suggested changing a word. The editor at Del Rey did a bit of line editing (most of which was good, though there’s one edit that still rankles), but she didn’t ask for story changes. In 1991, my critique group had read an early version of The Wall at the Edge of the World, after which I completely rewrote it. I don’t recall that they read it again; they may have. But my agent didn’t have a single suggestion to offer. The editor at Ace did suggest some changes in the dream sequence at the climax, and I made changes (though not the ones she had suggested). Her line edits were good. The book was published.

I suspect freelance developmental editing got its turbo on when the self-publishing boom hit. As we all know, most self-published novels are garbage. (Not yours, of course. Yours are mah-velous!) Every year, thousands of would-be novelists crank out manuscripts, get ignored by agents, and then, if they’re smart, start to wonder whether maybe the story could be spruced up just a bit. And if they have some money to spare, they may hire a freelance editor.

Some freelance editors are very good and very professional. If you’re thinking of hiring one, though, take a look around. Caveat emptor and all that. Anybody can claim to be an editor. All you need is a website and a red pencil; no credentials are required. There is, to be sure, a freelance editing organization, but I don’t know what their qualifications are for membership. There are also online services, such as Reedsy, that do actually screen the freelancers they put on their website. Whether their screening means that all their editors do a great job is, of course, a slightly different question.

The real question, though, is not, “Is this editor any good?” The real question is, “Do I need an editor?”

In 2018 I paid a freelance editor $5,500 to do a developmental edit of my Leafstone epic. I don’t think her work was worth quite that much, but it was a four-volume epic, and she put a lot of time into it. Some of the changes that I made after I got her notes were a result of what she pointed out, but a lot of them weren’t. They were just improvements that, as I went through the story yet again, I could see were needed.

I now have a new novel that’s approaching completion, so it’s time to think about whether I want to drop the big bucks (a couple of thousand, at least) on a developmental edit. Would it be a good investment? I’ve been corresponding with an editor who seems to be very good indeed. But do I need her services? Or is the book just fine as is?

One can never be objective about one’s own work. We all have both obsessions and blind spots, the former generating material that ought to be cut and the latter leaving gaps that ought to be filled. But what is this “ought” business, anyway? Is there a single way that a given novel ought to be put together? Literature is, after all, an art form. An artist may know that some particular brush stroke, or chord, or tone of voice, is what’s needed, but without being able to say quite why. Also, there are times when the freshness of a work can be ruined by over-analyzing it and using a ball-peen hammer to try to bang it into shape. Over-analyzing with an eye to marketability is fine if your main concern is making money, but if you aspire to any sort of artistic excellence, editing to try to make the book marketable will be self-defeating at best, and possibly a tragedy.

There’s always room for improvement, granted. I’ve just been reading David Madden’s how-to book Revising Fiction. It’s well stocked with examples of how some very well-known authors revised their own work before (or in some cases after) publication. But in every case, it’s the author’s vision that takes precedence.

Madden mentions a case where an editor insisted that F. Scott Fitzgerald change a word, and it’s clear Fitzgerald had the right word. The editor was wrong. This brings to mind the trouble Norman Mailer had with his first novel. It was apparently a pretty seamy story, and the publisher simply wouldn’t allow Mailer to use the word “fuck.” After a tussle, he changed it to “fug” throughout the book. After the book was published, somebody (it may have been Dorothy Parker) met Mailer at a party and said, “Oh, you’re the man who doesn’t know how to spell ‘fuck.'”

The danger in a developmental edit is that the author will lose the fuck and end up in a fug. And only the author can judge, intuitively or consciously, whether the potential benefit outweighs the danger and will repay the cost.

Just to be clear, though: You, dear reader, certainly don’t need to hire an editor. Perish the thought! Your manuscript is mah-velous.

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2 Responses to To Dev or Not to Dev

  1. Your first novel got published? That sure breaks all the norms of ‘If you want to be traditionally published, get ready to be rejected a million times.’

    Coming from a country where the publishing scene isn’t that great (Malaysia), I am pretty much on my own when it comes to editing before sending it off to publishers.

    I enjoyed this piece. Thanks for sharing!

    • midiguru says:

      The first and second novels both, yes. The publishing industry was different 30 years ago; I’m sure it’s more competitive now. Also, I had an advantage: At that point I had already been a full-time writer and editor of non-fiction (at a monthly magazine) for close to ten years. I was already up to speed on crafting professional-quality prose.

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