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The Book Deal

When do you need an editor?

Writers often ask me when they should consult a developmental editor.  The concerns go something like this:

I’ve heard that literary agents and commercial publishers don’t want to see a book until it’s already edited and ready for production. And if I decide to self-publish, I’m out on a limb by myself. So when during the process of writing a book do I need an editor?

Three phases of writing

There are three distinct phases of the writing process when a developmental editor can make a big difference in the outcome of your book: In the planning stage, while you’re writing, and once you’re done.

Professional feedback and developmental editing are important at each of these three stages.  However, when and how this collaboration occurs can vary, depending on the individual creative process and collaborative relationships. Most successful fiction and non-fiction writers work with developmental editors, with very few exceptions. Here’s how it works:

1. Before writing the first draft

Many authors consult me as they begin their creative process, at a point when there may be only a germ of an idea, a few pages of a preliminary draft, or perhaps a rough outline. We both take careful notes and authors are welcome to record the consultation. Lately, several authors have recorded our Skype video consultations.

We discuss core questions like:

• What’s this book about? In the case of fiction, like a mystery, thriller, romance, sci-fi, or YA, could this be the first of a series? In a memoir, on which part of your life do you want to focus? In nonfiction, what’s the premise, the main take-away, the point of the book?

• Who are the main characters? Who are the essential secondary characters?

• Is this book a work of passion or a deliberate attempt to craft something for the commercial market?  Or is this book intended to enhance a business, individual career, or academic position? How should that impact the focus and organization?

Deciding on the point of view. Should the narrative voice be an “I” first person or omniscient third person?

• Where to begin, how to incorporate the backstory? Is it essential to have some strategic flashbacks?

• How should it end?

We resolve these issues and put together a working plan, a penultimate outline that usually evolves as the work progresses, but most importantly provides a useful blueprint for launching the writing.

2. While you’re writing

Authors often want and need feedback while producing the first few chapters of their book, since these pages are frequently the hardest to write and require the most revision. It’s like clearing your throat, getting into a groove, finding the right tone, pitch, and pacing. I encourage writers to take the time to be sure they’re on the right track before going any further, since these preliminary problems don’t self-correct and shouldn’t be left unresolved.

Another big reason for consulting a developmental editor while writing the book is if the writer is getting stuck. The original impulse, or even an outline, can go off the track. You may lose interest or passion for a character or element of the plot. You may wonder if more backstory is needed and if so, how and where to bring it in. The ending may no longer make sense.

Help! Call 911! This is when rapid response and a creative partnership with an editor can be invaluable.

3. When the manuscript is finished

There are two distinct circumstances when I see a finished manuscript.

An author may send me a book that we’ve been working on together from the outset for one final read through, since it may need some additional polish to make it as good as it can be.

Or, authors submit completed manuscripts which I see for the first time, seeking assistance before sending to a literary agent or in preparation for self-publishing. If I see fundamental flaws, such as a core problem in the structure, a wrong turn in the plot, characters that require a radical makeover, or the need to change the narrative voice, I’ll usually suggest a consultation rather than a developmental edit. In such a consultation, I offer specific constructive solutions to incorporate in a new draft before the manuscript can be ready for a full edit.

The good news is that it’s never too late to make a book better.

In a full developmental edit, I go through the entire manuscript several times, offering specific page-by-page recommendations, alterations in the plot, concept, character development and visual descriptions, small and large structural shifts, fine tuning the pacing and literary style. I insert tracked changes that indicate deletions within the sentence, or entire paragraphs, sections or chapters. I suggest new language for polish and clarity. And in cases of historical fiction and non-fiction, I do my own research to become more familiar with the background and context.

When completed, I return the manuscript with its tracked changes, along with a lengthy letter that both summarizes and explains the editorial work. I include a subsequent hour consultation with the author by phone or in person to go over remaining questions and brainstorm any new options that may arise. Authors may disagree with or modify the recommendations I’ve made, which usually leads to an even more creative solution.

Finding your own editor

What happens when you first send your work to a prospective developmental editor? Keeping in mind that all editors have individual styles, here’s how I handle submissions: First I request the entire manuscript, which I read start-to-finish without charge. I evaluate the complexity and level of work required, the time it would take, and whether we’re a good fit. Only then do I provide an accurate estimate of cost.

I believe this initial assessment of the whole book, rather than reading only a chapter or two, is the best way to see how the author sustains the narrative arc — creates the premise, develops the action, resolves the problem – and brings the reader to some kind of satisfying personal experience, an emotional landing place, whether it’s inspiring, happy, tragic or just plain informative. I’m essentially previewing the experience any reader will have, and that gives me valuable information about the book’s weaknesses and strengths.

A good editor brings to the relationship both literary skills and human sensitivity. An editor watches your back and anticipates when there’s trouble ahead. But the author is the boss, in the driver’s seat. It’s not the editor’s book, so my job is always to enter the creative world of the author and help fulfill this vision.

I also advise that before investing in an editor, be sure you’re working with someone experienced with a track record of producing books that have succeeded. You should also expect the editor to be available and to complete the edit within an agreed-upon schedule. For more detail, here’s an earlier post with my advice on how to evaluate the best editor for your book.

What about you?

Have you worked with a developmental editor?  Anything you’d care to share about the process?  I’ll watch for any questions, so fire away!


  1. says

    What a fantastic post, Alan–thank you! This answers just about every question I could ever come up with regarding editors and their involvement with the author. I never even considered how much added value could be garnered from consulting an editor for the planning stage and during the writing itself–I assumed your role only applied after the MS was finished. Yes, I’m a newbie. And above anything, I wish I could afford to enlist your help with my current MS, which I’m currently editing myself. One day… one day :)

    Thanks again for sharing your knowledge so generously, Alan.

  2. says

    Alan, Thank you for such a complete and informative picture of the developmental editing process. There are self-published authors out there (like myself) who are writing mainly for the pleasure of the creative process but who want to share what they have created. They may not be able to devote the time and effort to the marketing side that is truly required to get a decent return. I published 2 books in late August, One adult fiction and one YA adventure. I have sold a total of about 14 of the adult book and 3 of the YA book and pretty much exhausted my circle of friends and family. While I have devoted a considerable amount of time to promoting both, I have no intention of quitting my day job. I have heard that such services can run $1,000 and up. When does one decide if the cost of developmental editing be advantageous enough to be considered. Will it make a difference in sales?

  3. says


    There’s no doubt whatsoever that developmental editing will make a difference in the quality of your book, and consequently your sales. Readers want the best possible book you can write, and there’s intense competition for their time and money. Books with buzz — that friend, media critic, or book blogger saying “you’ve got to read this” — are the ones that sell. Books without buzz don’t move.

    The cost of developmental editing depends on the level of work needed and time it will take. Once you have an estimate in hand, you can make your own decision regarding such an investment.

  4. An Author says

    (I’m leaving off directly identifying information since I am currently writing for the big 6)

    I’ve had the good fortune of working with some really fine editors. Those editorial relationships have been wonderful and have made me a better writer. I’ve also had an editor who simply wasn’t a good fit for me. The relationship was damaging to me and to the projects as well. I’m now diversifying my writing career and self-pubbing some original work. Since I know how important an editor is, I privately contacted a past editor of mine about working for me freelance. I am really glad to be working with him again.

    In my print editorial relationships, I’ve not been in the driver’s seat in terms of what gets done or on the level of editorial input. For those books, my editor is more or less my boss, and I can’t do much about what, how and when they decide to edit. I have had an edited MS come back to me with the 2nd half of the book essentially untouched. (I ended up rewriting the bulk of the ending on my own — that book later won a writing award.) It scares me when I get back a lightly edited MS and I’ve taken to relying on my agent for a tougher edit than I sometimes get from NY.

    What’s interesting about this new relationship is that I can freely tell my editor that I want tough love, that for the first round, a line edit isn’t necessary, but will be after I’ve revised. He does that because I’m paying for his time and expertise. What he does takes talent and knowledge and I have no problem paying for that. It’s not cheap, but I don’t want a cheap editor. I want a good editor.

    If you’re new to writing and don’t already have editorial contacts, I think it’s going to be hard to know what’s going to work for you. Such a writer should go into an editorial relationship with the expectation that part of the process will be learning and he or she may end up feeling things didn’t work well– valuable information to have. The experience should be allowed to percolate because a writer needs to learn to distinguish between the urge to protect the words and resistance to hearing where the work failed. A really good editor makes that easier to take . . .

    This article has a nice range of advice and approaches to consider. For me, for example, because of the way I write, any editorial input in the early going is just not productive for me. But I know that because I’ve been writing and publishing for several years.

  5. says


    In my experience and way of working, there’s no way the editor can ever bump you from the driver’s seat. Most author contracts do stipulate that the publisher can determine whether or not a book is “acceptable”, but this means authors can refuse editing that’s contrary to their intentions and terminate the deal. This escalation may seem risky but it ordinarily produces a resolution that depends on how much the publisher really wants the book, and in most cases, the author is able to stay in control.

    Clearly, you’re an author who understands and has made good use of smart developmental editing, whether it’s been from a publisher or at your own initiative.

    Regarding early intervention, you’re quite right: it’s not for everyone. Some authors seek it out before writing, others much prefer to wait until there’s a finished draft.

  6. says

    Thank you for this very informative blog post.

    I have worked with several editors in the past ten years of writing full time. One editor was with a traditional publishing house book deal, and the other editors I hired directly to help me along with my novel work-in-progress. Each work-in-progress was a different novel, but the experience for me with three editors was very similar, and detrimental.

    Yes, they “edited” my manuscript by telling me where the semi-colon should be replaced with a comma, etc. And, each editor piled on ideas of what I could do with the story. For instance, adding that they didn’t like the beginning of my manuscript, and giving me four different ideas that might fix what they thought might be the problem. But each of those editors left me more confused than ever, and the experience never helped me move forward with my novel.

    Contrast all of those editors with my recent experience working with an editor who was very decisive, and pinpointed exactly what needed to be done to improve the story problem on my recent work-in-progress novel. This editor gave suggestions for what to write to fill in the new post-edit story holes, and helped the story by specifically pointing out the parts that needed to be removed, and the parts that needed to be amplified, again with detailed thoughts on what the additional post-edit writing would cover. All in the spirit of the story, and considering my voice as the writer.

    I appreciate working with a confident editor, one who has years of experience in the industry with real editing. One who can give confident direction, and clarify the path forward with a manuscript. It was an excellent experience, and I look forward to the results of all of the hard work!

  7. Wannabe Self-Editor says

    When doesn’t one need an editor? When can one successfully self edit? It would be nice if I could afford to purchase editorial services but I have no funds…so how do I know if I am making a big mistake or whether I should save for a year or two to buy an editor?

  8. says

    I believe it is important to find an editor after you have developed a sample table of contents and at least the first two chapters of your book. A professional editor can help you realize your dreams. But, you have to be open to his or her suggestions and willing to revise and rewrite. A good editor, will give direct, honest opinions and advice, rather than praise. Remember we all learn from each other. Learning never stops!

  9. says

    I am just so grateful I can’t even find words to thank you for your down to earth, say it plain conversation here. I don’t need praise. I need an editor, not a tinker. I need a great eye for framing the idea and then getting it into the ear and the mind of the reader. I need an editor who will not build the bill but get right to the nub of the problem and then to the solution. What you write here tells me I’m not in nana land hoping for the miracle worker, I’m on the right path to know the skilled editor when I see him/her, without all the what’s it for mystery! Amen and thank you.

  10. says

    Wannabee self-editor,

    If your budget doesn’t permit working with a good developmental editor, you may be able to get useful feedback in an adult ed or college extension class. Some local writers groups can be helpful. Or maybe you’re lucky enough to have a professional writer among your family and friends who will be candid and objective. Whatever your situation, though, you must have that kind of outside perspective.

    If you check an earlier post on the blog here titled, Ask the editor: How to untangle a plot, you’ll find some tips there for DIY plot pruning that may be helpful.

    Best of luck!

  11. says

    On my business cards I state that “Everybody wants to be an author” but “Everybody needs an editor”
    and I practice what I preach. I have an editor who is my first reader and she’s a real nitpicker, which is good. She points out all my flaws and we go over each one with one purpose in mind: make whatever is wrong right, from the standpoint and perspective of the literary project. As a practicing editor, as well as a writer/published author, I like to talk over the project with my client to help me get the feel for the work and his/her aim or goal for the project. Then I do the line editing and structure evaluation and suggestions. After my client checks out what I’ve edited and suggested, we get into the coaching phase of the editing process. It’s then we work as a team in getting the best results possible. And there’s no set limit on the time allowed or the phone calls. I’m always available for support and encouragement in getting my client over the road bumps to smooth out the writing process and get to the goal line for the score. Translated: a quality novel or nonfiction book ready for publication that makes the author(and me) proud. As an extra for my clients, I even try to help them market their work with advice and suggestions as to who might be interested in their novels or nonfiction books (publisher, agent, etc.).

  12. Danielle Pardiac says

    Than you for your information. It is very informative.

    But I’d like to ask you how do we find the right editor for the kind of book we’re doing. For example, I’m doing a historical christian romance novel on the deportation of Acadians in 1755. I’m trying to find an editor that knows about this type of writing and can’t seem to find any so far. When I look at the books other people wrote, they don’t have editors in them that I found.

    I wrote my first draft of 100,000 words. But I need help for the editing part. This is all new to me and I’m researching to find out the next step. I’m in a writer’s group but I’m not sure that this is the avenue to go. It’s a bit like the blind leading the blind in my opinion. I’ve researched for software for novel writing but have been told it’s not worth investing into it.

    Can you help me with how to find the right editor? I cannot seem to find a list of editors or when I find one, I cannot find him. I did write a writer about his editor but didn’t get any feed back. I would truly treasure your advice. Thank you in advance.

  13. says


    A good developmental editor can, in my opinion, edit any genre of book, including an historical romance like the one you’re writing. Search online and be sure any candidate you consider has a track record of books published successfully, is easily accessible, and responds promptly to your inquiry. You can meet editors at writers conferences, MFA programs, book readings, and other public events. There are many high quality senior-level editors currently available.

    If you want me to take a look, feel free to contact me at moc.r1441328087elzni1441328087rnala1441328087@nala1441328087

    Good luck.

  14. says

    Thank you for this informative blog, Alan. I published a memoir in 2010 and thought i understood the pain of being edited but when my editor’s structural notes arrived this morning for my novel, I freaked! It was so brutal. I wanted to run from the project but through my tears (!) I found your wisdom and took heart from knowing there was nothing out of the ordinary with what I had received. You laid it out brilliantly for this chic from DownUnder.

  15. says

    I am a first time Fiction novelist. I lost my son in 2008 that’s when I decided to write a novel mainly as a way of healing from my personal pain of my loss. Than finding that I absolutely loved writing finding that creating the story and conversations of characters came very natural for me. After I finished the storyline of the novel, I formed a committee for a personal book review of 10 individuals. This demographics comittee ranged in age from 16 to 94. To my surprise it was enjoyed by the young to the very old. It was exhilarating to hear what each individual had to say about the story. The 16 year old was the only one that had actually read only two other novel series before reading mine,Harry Potter and the Twilight series. I thought to my self I probably won’t hold a candle to those stories. After she read my story,to my surprise she loved it and wanted more so I decided to write a sequel.
    Here is my question? Are thier editors out there with experience that will work with a person on a percentage fee if they see potetial in the Novel? I need an editor that will work with me. I would also need help primarily with some of my sentance structures, maybe character critqueing. Looking forward to hearing from you.
    Many Thanks

  16. says


    Thanks for sending your heartfelt and deeply moving story. You’ll be able to find professional developmental editors if you search online. Be sure to check their track record of past books edited, their quick level of response and accessibility and how compatible they are with you and your work.

    Any reputable editor who wants to work with you on your novel, moreover, would only do so if they think it has potential. But all the developmental editors I know work on a flat fee rather than a percentage of earnings.

  17. says

    I’m A 62 YR. old female that wants to write a Memoir, 2015, completely written, edited, ready for an agent. Giving up my life for this writing project. Memoir covers 40 yrs. of my life. Dealing with many social issues, 7 tragedies, and aware of the intensity of such a story. Goal is to lighten up, humor, distract readers during entire book to avoid them not able to pick it back up. First time writer. Can I write this to completion and then find an editor? My reason is this: I don’t want to be critiqued during the writing process. It’s important to just write. I’m also on a low budget since I gave up working to write all day/night. I don’t need praise, attention, or corrections of my work. I would rather fire away, do what I consider my best possible piece of work, get it done, and move on to editing. THOUGHTS? Thank you in advance.


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