Many writers often ask how their first draft gets turned into a polished manuscript that is ready for publication. This first step is called the developmental edit, which takes place after the text has been completed. This is one of the most in-depth parts of the process because it’s when the manuscript as a whole is refined and cleaned up. With that being said, it is also one of the most confusing parts in the process. Most people think of editing as just grammar, punctuation, and proofreading, but those are more line level elements; developmental editing, or substance editing as it’s sometimes called, is all about the content: the meat of the story and what form it will take by the time it reaches readers. This is the phase where we analyze characters, plot, setting, and even the pace of the story. These are the big issues that require the use of three techniques to help refine the story: growing, pruning, and shaping.
When a writer or editor is looking for places to grow the story, they are often looking for scenes and elements that can be expanded in order to better serve the story as a whole. These are often places where there is confusion or where additional content can be added to provide clarity. In some instances an element may need to be added such as stronger character development or world-building in order to round out the story or clarify a specific plot point. When looking at the text it’s important to ask yourself: What does this story need in order to make it feel complete?
Pruning is useful for cutting out elements that don’t fit with the overall story, but it’s more than just trimming away bits and pieces. It’s more about providing space for adding elements or details that might work better for the story. It’s important to use this technique in places that stand out. Ask yourself: Are there pieces that feel out of place, unnecessary, or repetitive? Keep in mind that repetition isn’t just repeated words, but also repeated elements, characters, and plot devices. While some repetition isn’t bad, it’s important to make sure that repetition is clearly intentional and not just the by-product of creating a longer manuscript.
Shaping the story is more than just adding and subtracting pieces to the text. Sometimes you need to change the order of events, clean up errors in continuity, or change the overall structure of the text. Sometimes this can mean breaking up a longer paragraph into smaller paragraphs that don’t tire a reader or cause fatigue, but it can also mean turning chapter six into chapter two, and reorganizing the events of the story to better fulfill the overall narrative. Sometimes this reorganizing creates a better opportunity to go back and try growing and pruning again. When shaping your text, ask yourself: Do the events of the story make sense? Are there places in the text that are too wordy? How can I restructure this to make it better?
Developmental editing requires time and patience. It may even take several rounds to create the best version of the manuscript, but these tools and techniques can help guide you through the process.