Developmental Editing: The Ultimate Guide for Writers

Developmental editing can be the difference between a fine story and a bestselling book. Here's how to do it.

Your story has everything an exciting bestseller needs. You may have never heard of developmental editing but you have characters so real they jump off the page, prose that makes your mother cry, and a fantasy world so astonishing you dream about it every night.

So what’s holding your manuscript back from becoming a great book?

Your answer and path forward could lie in the magic of developmental editing.

At Conquer Books, we work one-on-one with authors to perform a developmental edit on their story. Here’s some of our top tips for developmental editing.

What Is Developmental Editing?

Developmental editing is an early stage editing process that refines the overall development of a manuscript. This stage comes after drafting and before line editing. The writer or their editorial team reviews and fixes big-picture elements like plot, character development, theme, pacing, and structure.

If you imagine your book as a cake, developmental editing is like stacking your layers of sponge and jam but you’re not yet frosting, and nowhere near decorating.

Instead of a tasty bite, our end goal is a manuscript that is comprehensive, marketable, and ready for line editing.

Examples of Developmental Editing

To get a better understanding of developmental editing, let’s take a look at a couple examples.

Example 1: A science fiction writer is working on a space thriller. Their developmental editor will evaluate the structure of the story and character arc, as well as ensure it stands up to the subgenre expectations. This may look like suggesting ways to make the story more suspenseful, tighten up the narrative, and add more twists and turns to keep the reader engaged.

Example 2: A woman is writing a fantasy story with a feminist lens. She may work with her book coach to determine if she has the right voice for the story and work through how to make that mean ol’ jerk of an antagonist more realistic. The book coach’s work culminates in a manuscript peppered with comments and a 14-page editorial letter analyzing the text and outlining a path to a better book.

How to Get Better at Developmental Editing

Developmental editing is a skill you will develop your entire career as a writer. But instead of just expecting the skill to come with time, there are things you can do now to get better at it.

  1. Read Widely and Actively: The more you read, the better you’ll become at identifying the strengths and weaknesses of a story. This will help you develop a strong sense of what works in different genres, and what doesn’t. While you read, ask yourself how the author foreshadowed the big twist or what made you like the protagonist in the first three pages.
  2. Study the Craft of Writing: It’s important to understand the building blocks of storytelling, especially structure. We’ve built a custom reading list that you can check out on  The more you read about writing, the more you build your craft vocabulary, internalize examples, and make studying structure second nature.
  3. Practice: The best way to get better at developmental editing is to practice. It can be hard to take a clear look at our own work, so volunteer to edit or beta read for others. You may want to consider joining a writing group. You can also purposefully set aside one of your stories for several months. When you come back to it, you’ll have fresh eyes and be better able to identify flaws on the developmental level.

Working with a Professional

Seeing a developmental edit in real time on your own story leads to powerful periods of growth. A good developmental editor will not only identify areas for improvement, but facilitate a conversation with you to decide exactly how to fix them. Before working with anyone, be sure to consider their experience, expertise, and work style.

Most developmental edits take about at month. At Conquer Books, we have a standard three-week turn around, culminating in a 10+ page developmental edit letter, in-manuscript comments, and 1-hour video call to discuss the edits needed. We’re also available via e-mail to discuss new questions and ideas that come up during the editing process.

Critique Examples

Here’s an example of developmental edit focus areas we identified in one client’s science fiction project:

  • Introduce the scope of the science fiction elements earlier in the story. Our impression of the society is built right away and we want to be sure readers move forward with the right scope.
  • A number of side characters were hard to visualize and felt flat. We suggested a list of specific items to add that would give these characters more autonomy on the page.
  • Itemized inconsistencies in the protagonist’s decision-making process.
  • Challenged the role of female characters in the story and outlined possible changes to incorporate that their ideal reader would appreciate.
  • There were a number of chapters where the pacing needed tightening.
  • We had concerns about the marketability of the working title.
  • We shared a timeline and checklist for moving forward.

If you’re interested in learning how to take your manuscript to the next level, schedule a free 20-minute chat with us now so we can learn more about your project. If at the end of the call we feel we’re able to support your vision, we’ll send a custom proposal for you to consider.


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