Self (Publishing) Help: Get a Developmental Editor!


Ego Schmego

Writing is so complicatedly ego-driven.  On one hand, we have to be somewhat narcissistic to love the writing life.  All the time alone, in our own minds, reading and re-reading our own words, writing more of them, clamoring after friends, peers, editors, agents to read them, dealing with the rejection and keeping on…

But on the other hand, the ego battles us!  We have to come up with strategies for silencing our inner editor.  We have to figure out how to block the negative, self-hating thoughts that will keep us from finishing work.

And on a third hand (handy!), I know a lot of authors and writers who would be just as happy being invisible.  I write because the stuff my brain does through my fingers is way more interesting than anything it does through my mouth.  And because I’ve always done it.  I don’t know how not to.  I feel like it’s a calling of sorts, or at least a strong compulsion.


So when we work on our novels and stories and essays and memoirs, in the brave new self-publishing world, it’s incredibly tempting to just say, “I know I’m interesting.  I’m just going to self publish.  I don’t need an editor!  I’ve been hard enough on myself along the way.”

Yes you do need an editor!  If you’re looking for a good one, call this lady.  If you want a manuscript review or critique, and some advice on what to do next, call this guy.

And any traditionally published author, or author who makes money writing books will tell you, revising is the hardest, most essential part of writing, and you simply can’t do it alone.

We can’t get enough space from our egos to get where we need to go.  We need a person with a pair of first eyes who we trust, who gets our writing aesthetic, and who will not be afraid to tell us hard truths about our stories, characters, or plotting impulses.  These people will help us, if we can figure out how to let them.

There are three main types of editors that someone who’s considering self-publishing should find.  Start with a developmental editor.  Much more on this below.

Then hire a copy editor, who reads for technical inconsistencies (name spelling change and hair color change, plot queerness, syntax, grammar, style, consistency throughout, etc).

Then hire a proofreader, typically a last set of eyes, focuses in on punctuation and spelling primarily, but may flag larger issues.  Hopefully there will be few if you’ve chosen well for developmental editor and copy editor.

Why hire a developmental editor?

I’ve been in hundreds of hours of writing workshops and read tens of thousands of pages of student writing and writing that’s on its way to book form, and I’ve  become acquainted with some of the common faux pas of early drafts, even from the most brilliant writers.  We all do these things.

Here are just a few that are also reasons to hire a developmental editor:

Editorializing–where the character will think something clever, and while the implication is transparent, go on to explain the joke or thought in the next line or two.  My favorite thing to say to writers, and the best thing I ever learned from a writing teacher is this: “Trust your readers!”  Writers Digest has a great article with a segment on staying true to your IQ in the most recent issue.  The thesis is basically this: people who read books are smart.  Do NOT try to dumb yourself down.  Do NOT explain something that’s obvious to you. If it needs explaining, your developmental editor will tell you.

Using flashbacks or dreams to cover up poor plotting–a lot of writers, unwilling to return to the story board after hundreds of hours of work, or much too married to their plot maps, decide to throw in a dream sequence or flashback to explain away their poor planning.  Developmental editors have radar for this kind of thing.  They’ll tell you, honestly, whether you’re employing some trick that a reader will see through, or whether you’re missing an opportunity to take your character someplace affecting or compelling or wonderful or story-propelling!

Replacing actual character depth with wardrobe ticks and social stereotypes–A lesbian is portrayed as a short-haired, aggressive, ugly girl with her septum pierced, camouflage cargo pants, and  two pit bulls.  Developmental editors will tell you if you do this, and they won’t re-write your characters for you, but they will have tricks up their sleeves to guide you to deeper characters.

Using verb tense and point of view changes without knowing why–suddenly switching verb tense or point of view from one chapter to the next with no reason that’s related to propelling the story or providing some other literary benefit.  You can’t artlessly apply these techniques.  Verb Tense and Point of View are two very intimate things about any story, and they are also promises to a reader that are made in the first pages, and that you need a MASSIVELY compelling reason to break.  Developmental editors can tell you if you’re doing this successfully.  Here’s a post from another time on this blog about my personal aversion to extraneous past perfect (or pluperfect) tense.

State of (Self) Publishing

The trouble with self-publishing is that–unless you have a bunch of besties with MFAs or who work in publishing, and sometimes even if you do–you have to pay people to help you make your good work great, and chances are, you’re not independently wealthy or some kind of writing idiot savant to whom none of this applies, so hiring the team that traditional publishing houses (still) have on hand gets pricey.

I was recently asked to review a self-published book.  It was published through Create Space, which is Amazon’s self-publishing service that offers comprehensive copy editing and proofreading as well as book marketing for prices that range from $220 all the way up to $4,000.  I think that the old adage, “you get what you pay for” applies here.  It probably costs a publishing house in the neighborhood of $25,000 to see a book from manuscript to press-ready.  That amount of money pays acquisitions and developmental editors, copy editors, proof readers, and book artists, cover designers, etc.

Getting yours to the mouth of the press for $4,000 seems like a dubious bargain, doesn’t it?

Copy Editors and proofreaders are not paid enough to do developmental editing for you, it is not in their job descriptions, plus it’s massively beneficial to use multiple sets of professional eyes.

Don’t be a Diva!

And don’t you want people to read your book? You have to figure out how to shut down your ego’s diva.  Send her shopping for shoes or something.

Let the developmental editor help you.  Chances are she’s been to school to study stories, writing, and grammar.  She probably has an advanced degree or years of practice or both.  She loves books and stories and has read thousands of them over the years.

And don’t stop there.  Hire more help.  The investment will return itself to you in the form of book sales.  What good is a quickly published book if it’s so sloppy nobody will read it?

If you want to self-publish, TERRIFIC.  It’s a good business decision.  Being your own book’s puppeteer sets you up for maximum benefit.  But it’s short-sighted and a poor business choice (and it diminishes your credibility as a writer) to unleash your novel or memoir or collection of short stories on the world without investing in yourself, your work, and your business to present the most polished product you can muster!

Additional Reading Great advice specifically about self-publishing. Jane Friedman collects and offers for free almost every day piles and piles of great information about the world of publishing, about the evolution of media, and about all kinds of concerns for all kinds of writers. This is a great resource for thinking about your writing as a marketable product.  It will give you invaluable tips, including when and how to write for free to make money writing. Penelope is a great source of information and advice about writing, selfhood, career, and how to make the writing life pay off. Julianna Baggott blogs here about all sorts of literary things, but also for writers.  Her writing is lovely, and her advice is practical. Justine Musk writes about creativity and writing and being a badass.  She also writes about pop culture and feminist concerns.

Author: April Line Writing

Writing about whatever the f*ck I want.

10 thoughts on “Self (Publishing) Help: Get a Developmental Editor!”

  1. Excellent post, April. (And thank you for the nod.) I love what you are saying here. To use the analogy of building a house, building a book (and future books) and an audience takes time, patience, love, and a team effort. Good writers know that eventually you get far too close to your own work that you can no longer view it objectively. And there is rarely a need to hurry publication (well, I do like J. Richard Gott’s sentiment in Time Travel in Einstein’s universe–sometimes with groundbreaking physics, quick publication is required–quick, not rushed).

    For my writing, I am extremely lucky to have a go-to editor in my corner. Without her, my work would be a mess–it would be published too soon and certainly not developed enough nor clean enough. I like how you have outlined the three big parts: developmental editing (for me, this can be a 7-10 or even more draft process) to copyediting (I sometimes call it sentence work and sometimes this can be a 2-3 draft process) to proofing. Look at how many drafts I like to take before I publish my own work–easily 10 drafts at minimum. Though it sometimes sucks, patience is key to the writing game. It changes our work from f’in carbon to those diamonds we can be proud of. 🙂

    Note: I first wrote “coal to those diamonds,” but then did the research and discovered that coal rarely turns into diamonds. Diamond formation has to do with heated carbon.

    1. Dave,

      Thanks for the lovely, affirmative comment. You are always welcome for nods. You’ve certainly earned it with nods in my direction. We freelancers need to promote each other because none of us can afford proper advertising.


      Thanks again,

  2. Thanks for this post, April. It must be very expensive to go through all of these editing rounds. You mention that big publishing houses spend about $25,000 to bring a novel to press. What about in the self-publishing world? This really gives me pause when I think about doing it myself, as I do not have much money. I suspect most newbie writers are poor like me. Also, what is the role of beta readers and critique groups in self publishing a great book?

    1. Hey Ann,

      Thanks for stopping by & for your thoughtful questions. I’ll reply briefly here, but I think I’ll gather some source material & links & devote a couple of posts to your questions this week.

      Prices for freelance pros can vary. I charge $30-60/hour depending on the copy, and whether it’s copy edit or proofread. I charge differently for developmental edits, on a by-project basis, and the lowest I can go there is $3,000. And on the experience continuum, my level of “professional editing” experience is low-ish, clocking in at under 5 years working with a press (though about 15 years of studying the craft of writing, working as a tutor and teacher and editor) The industry standard is 6 pages per hour, 250 words per page, so if your MS has 100,000 words, it’ll come in at around 400 pages in Word, on the low end for me, that’s a $2,000 proofread. I would say the minimum a self-pubbing author should budget for developmental edit, copy edit, and proofread should be around $10,000.

      I was figuring, with the commercial press, that they’d have to pay a book designer & cover artist, too. I have no idea what prices these folks fetch in the commercial world, and I think a lot of presses still employ book designers, but I know there are self-pubbing services that offer cover art for $300.00, and lots of free tutorials online that tell you how to format your book in Word (step by step) to make it compatible with the various eBook systems. I’ll talk more about the schools of thought on DIY vs. Pro design services in the posts.

      Beta readers & critique groups can be invaluable, but generally they lack the expertise and the immersion in the contemporary market that professional editors have. And it’s also tricky to find folks who can be impartial to do beta reading. It’s important to get your book in front of as many people who aren’t related to you or your good friends as possible before you consider rogue self-publishing.

      Oh my. I can’t wait to write about critique groups. I love them.

      Thanks so much, and thanks for subscribing, too!


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