What is Developmental Editing?

Doug Landsborough
February 12, 2024

Picture this: you’ve spent months, maybe even years coming up with a fascinating story, clever plot twists, interesting characters, and you’ve just finished drafting it all. Congratulations! That’s one heck of an accomplishment.

But what comes next? You have a couple of options, including beta readers, a critique partner, getting feedback from a writing group, or maybe just moving on to some final revisions.

One of the best things you can do at this stage—for both your own writing craft and the quality of your book—is work with a developmental editor.

Developmental editing, also known as substantive or structural editing, is just one of the many types of editing out there. Unlike copy editing (which looks at grammar, punctuation, spelling, etc.) and line editing (word choice, prose, dialogue, and more), developmental editing takes the most macro-level look at your work.

From a bird’s eye view, a developmental editor helps with your plot, character development, story structure, and all the elements that make your story tick over all those words and chapters you’ve written.

It’s a pretty big undertaking and requires a fair amount of collaboration between you and the editor, but it elevates your story to a place where it couldn’t be if it was just you working on it. And I think that’s dang cool.

It’s also daunting, costs a good chunk of change, and a style of editing most new authors don’t know a ton about. So that’s why we’re going to talk about everything you need to know about developmental editing in this article, including:

  • The key components of structural editing
  • The developmental editing process
  • Choosing the right structural editor

We often think of writing as a solitary endeavor, but that’s not the case. Developmental editing is one of the best opportunities for you to improve your book with outside expertise, so let’s make sure you know the ins and outs of this step of the writing process.

Key Components of Developmental Editing

Developmental editing is really like having a personal trainer for your manuscript. It's about looking beyond the surface, diving deep into the meat of your craft, and ensuring your story's muscles are strong, flexible, and ready for the marathon that is your reader's attention.

And that's a great simile, but what exactly does a developmental editor do?

Almost all authorial work can be divided into four parts: story structure (or plot), characters and their journeys, themes, and your personal writing style.

Structural editors help with all of those. Here's a look at them in more detail, as well as some tips to start focusing on improving your craft right now.

Story Structure 

Imagine building a house without a blueprint. You might end up with a standing structure, but will it be livable? Will the flow from one room to another make sense? 

The same goes for your story. A well-structured plot ensures readers are guided smoothly from the beginning through the middle to the satisfying end without getting lost.

A developmental editor ensures your story makes sense, flows well, and isn't riddled with Swiss cheese-like holes.

Tips for Improving Plot Coherence and Flow

Outline your story - Before diving into your first draft, sketch out a roadmap of your book. It doesn't have to be detailed, but knowing your story's major milestones can keep you on track.

Check your pacing - Ensure your story's pace keeps readers engaged. Mix up longer, descriptive scenes with shorter, action-packed or tense sequences.

Ensure logical progression - Each scene should logically lead to the next. If a scene feels out of place, consider its purpose in the story and whether it advances the plot or develops a character.

Character Arcs and Development

Characters turn your plot into a story. Readers follow their journeys, cheer for their successes, and feel their defeats. Compelling characters are those who grow, change, and face challenges head-on.

A structural editor doesn't just make sure your characters have half-decent traits. They look for backstories, goals, motivations, and the challenges that force them to grow or change.

Methods for Refining and Developing Characters and Character Arcs

Define goals and motivations - Every main character needs a clear goal and accompanying motivation driving them forward. These should be clear to your readers and influence the character's actions throughout the story.

Create obstacles - Growth comes from overcoming (or succumbing to) obstacles. Challenge your characters with conflicts that test their resolve and push them to evolve.

Show, don't tell - Instead of narrating a character's growth, show it through their actions, decisions, and how they interact with other characters and challenges. Click here to practice your show, don't tell skills.


Themes make stories matter. They offer insights into the human condition, society, or universal aspects of life. A well-articulated theme can elevate a story from simply entertaining to memorable and thought-provoking.

Developmental editing plays a crucial role in clarifying and enhancing a novel's themes, ensuring they are tied seamlessly throughout the story without becoming overbearing or preachy.

Advice for Mastering Themes

Don't force it - Some of the best themes emerge naturally as you write and your characters change. Go in with an idea, but let it form without forcing it into places it doesn't belong.

Be genuine - Though your themes don't need to be direct reflections of your life, you should understand and care about the message you're trying to share.

Read for themes - While you're reading for fun, think about what your favorite authors are trying to say and what they do to communicate that message effectively. How can you incorporate those skills in your own writing?

Writing Craft

How you weave words together can turn a simple story into a compelling tale that grabs hold of your readers and makes them beg you for more in comments on social media. Every aspect of your writing craft plays a crucial role, from prose and dialogue to the tone of your storytelling.

While specific word choice and prose refinement tend to fall under line editing, a developmental editor will still point out areas for improvement, especially if they impact other areas of your writing.

Tips for Improving Prose, Dialogue, and Overall Writing Craft

Read widely - Reading is the best homework ever, which is great because one of the best ways to enhance your writing is to read. Pay attention to how your favorite authors construct sentences, handle dialogue, and build tension.

Practice makes perfect - Writing is a skill that improves with practice. Experiment with different styles and voices to find what works best for you and your story.

Seek feedback - Join writing groups or connect with beta readers where you can get constructive feedback on your work. Fresh eyes can spot issues you might have missed and offer valuable insights into how to improve your writing.

The Developmental Editing Process in Four Steps

Now that we know the big buckets a structural editor will help you with, let’s get some clarity on what the entire process looks like. 

To be clear, there is no one-size-fits-all approach to developmental editing. This is a very subjective, very involved process, and it often needs to be tweaked to meet an author’s needs.

That said, here’s a look at what commonly happens during the developmental editing process.

Step One: Connect With an Editor

First you need to find an editor to work with. We have a whole section dedicated to this further down this article, so we won’t dwell here for too long.

Look for some sort of social proof: reviews, a referral from a trusted (and experienced) writing friend, or a portfolio of work. Connect with them through whatever channels they have. Some editors might offer a small sample for free, others won’t, depending on their experience. 

Once you’ve chosen your editor, sign a contract with them and get going.

Step Two: The Initial Substantive Editing Assessment

Next, the editor will do an initial assessment of your work. If you’ve written an entire draft, this might be an initial readthrough. It might include an in-depth meeting or two to get your perspective on what you’ve written and discover any areas to focus on.

This isn’t a quick process. This is where your editor is meticulously picking apart your strengths and weaknesses so they can eviscerate you (or help you improve).

They will also use this time to figure out your goals, target audience, and the messages or themes you’re trying to share. Your editor might ask questions to dive deeper into your intentions so any subsequent advice aligns with these foundational elements.

This review also helps highlight what your manuscript does well and where it deviates from industry standards or fails to communicate your intent effectively. Tools like detailed critique letters or editorial reports are often used to provide feedback.

Step Three: The Back and Forth

A successful developmental editing process hinges on a strong, collaborative relationship between you and your editor. This partnership, like any relationship, is built on trust, open communication, and a shared commitment to enhancing your story.

Your editor will, through comments or meetings, point out problem areas and help you figure out ways to fix them. This will cover all the big buckets we discussed in the previous section about key components.

This will only work if you are both comfortable exchanging ideas and going back and forth with each other. If you aren’t vibing with your editor, you need to hash out how to get on the same page.

But that means you need to be open to constructive criticism, too. Hiring a developmental editor isn’t an exercise in ego stroking. Yes, some of a developmental editor’s feedback will be subjective, but they are experienced professionals. If you aren’t thrilled with some feedback, chat about it to learn more about the why behind it.

Step Four: Incorporating Developmental Edits

I’ve listed this as a separate step but it kind of happens at the same time as the back and forth. This is where you take the feedback you’ve received and the genius things you’ve come up with and incorporate them into your work.

Start by reviewing your editor's feedback to understand the suggested changes fully. Just read through them all before making any changes so you can get a big-picture view and understand where recurring issues might be. 

When you start making concrete changes, prioritize revisions based on impact and feasibility, focusing first on major structural changes before moving to character development and then fine-tuning language and style. 

This is a process—one that will take weeks or months to fully realize. It might be handy to create a revision checklist or a timeline of due dates to help manage your time and keep you on track. Trust me, it’s tough to find motivation to look at all the areas you can improve on.

You might do multiple rounds of revisions, especially if you make substantial plot changes in one go-through, then fix up character arcs in the next one. As you revise, it’s worth making notes about what else needs to be modified as a result of your changes.

Pro tip: Dabble lets you make comments or post sticky notes in your manuscript for easy references. No need to find notes in a notebook or open up a second document!

Choosing the Right Developmental Editor

Choosing the right developmental editor is a step in the process that can’t be understated. While you might consider a dozen different professionals, none of them will be as beneficial as they can be if they aren’t a right fit for you.

That’s easier said than done, though, and usually involves speaking with strangers—which I know isn’t fun for some folks who just want to write their books. But developmental editing isn’t cheap, so you want to maximize your investment and the impact it has.

Here are some things to keep in mind when choosing your structural editor.

Understand Your Needs and Goals

Let’s start with everyone’s favorite thing: some introspection.

You want to get a good understanding of what your manuscript needs and what you, as an author, want.

First, take a critical look at your writing and try to determine where you need the most help. Whether it's structural issues, character development, or pacing, knowing where the manuscript stands will help you find the right editor.

While all developmental editors should have a firm grasp on the big buckets we discussed before, some might excel in particular areas. If your story needs that specific help, that’s a good place to start.

Then figure out what you want from this whole process. Outline what you hope to achieve through working with a developmental editor, like improving your writing craft, making your manuscript ready for publication, or deepening the complexity of your characters and plot.

If you’re hoping to tailor your manuscript to current market trends, find an editor with publishing experience. If you want your fantasy world to feel more alive, find someone who excels at worldbuilding.

Research Potential Editors

With goals and needs in mind, the next step is to research potential developmental editors. This involves looking into editors’ backgrounds, areas of expertise, and previous works to ensure they align with your story’s genre and your expectations.

There aren’t any specific tips or tricks for this one. Look for editors with a strong background in the field, relevant educational qualifications, or experience in your genre.

Check their portfolios and read testimonials from other authors to get insight into their style and processes. You can look for editors on websites like Reedsy and Fiverr.

I strongly encourage you to reach out to your author friends or colleagues for recommendations, too. While a recommendation doesn’t mean they’ll be a perfect match, having a more personal look at an editor’s work can help narrow down who is best for you.

Evaluate Compatibility

Compatibility between you and your substantive editor is as important as their qualifications. The back and forth between you two, the ability to work together and build off constructive criticism to a common goal is nothing short of essential.

So, once you’ve researched some potential editors, get in touch with them. You need to find someone with whom you can build a two-way relationship of respect, understanding, and communication.

While you’re at it, make sure to determine what communication style they use and what you prefer. If they only leave comments via Track Changes or Suggestions but you want more explanation than that, you won’t jive. Similarly, if they’re all about weekly live reviews but you don’t have the time or hate video calls, it’s not going to be a great experience for you.

Discuss Expectations

Before finalizing an agreement with a developmental editor, you should discuss expectations, the editing process, timelines, and costs. This helps set a clear framework for the working relationship and editing project.

And for newer authors, I can’t understate this enough: understand how much this kind of editing costs. Developmental editing, because of how involved it is, is the most expensive type of editing. Yes, it will make your book better, but consider how much you are investing in your book and whether this is a service you can afford on your first couple of books.

If you can afford the editor’s quote, establish a clear timeline with milestones for you both to abide by. Life happens and this timeline might shift, but you should have a clear understanding of what will happen by when in an ideal world.

On top of that, ask questions until you understand what the editing process will entail, including the type and depth of feedback to expect, the number of editing rounds, and the way feedback will be provided.

And sign a freakin’ contract. This is a business agreement between two professionals: a contract protects both parties.

Developmental Editors Need You to Write a Story

Hiring and working with a substantive editor is an exciting part of your writing journey. Seriously, it is incredible how much your book can improve when you bring in someone whose entire career is dedicated to making stories better.

Hopefully, if you’ve made it this far, you have a better understanding of what a developmental editor brings to the table, the process you can expect with an editor, and how to choose the right partner in crime.

But there’s something else you need to do before you hire a structural editor: write your book.

That’s no small undertaking. It means balancing plot lines, character arcs, themes, conflicts, points of view, worldbuilding, relationships, and more. And, after you come up with and refine all of that, you need to turn all those ideas into tens of thousands of words.

But I’m going to let you in on a little secret: Dabble can help you out with all that.

When you use Dabble, you’re using a writing tool made for fiction authors like us. You get access to the Plot Grid, which can make your outlining as simple or detailed as you want it to be. You get goal-setting tools, focus tools, editing tools, character profiles, and can even work collaboratively in real time.

And one of my favorites: you can write on any device from anywhere, and all your words will automatically be backed up whenever you have a connection. As someone who suffered the wrath of a cranky OneDrive and lost some words (about 30,000 words), this is a must these days.

All of that plus regular updates informed by Dabble user requests. And you can try everything Dabble has to offer for free for fourteen days. No credit card required for this trial, so you won’t get a surprise charge if you aren’t totally sold.

So, if you want to write your best book that you can bring to a developmental editor (and make even better), click here to try the best novel writing software.

Doug Landsborough

Doug Landsborough can’t get enough of writing. Whether freelancing as an editor, blog writer, or ghostwriter, Doug is a big fan of the power of words. In his spare time, he writes about monsters, angels, and demons under the name D. William Landsborough. When not obsessing about sympathetic villains and wondrous magic, Doug enjoys board games, horror movies, and spending time with his wife, Sarah.