Summing Up

While most writers know good copy editing improves a manuscript, authorial pride sometimes keeps them from seeing flaws in the bigger picture. Whether their work is a commercial novel, literary fiction or narrative nonfiction—even a book proposal—common problems include too much exposition, telling not showing, plot threads that go nowhere, confusing storylines, weak characters, unconvincing dialog, and too many or too few details—and that can be just the beginning. Some authors claim these mannerisms and bad habits are merely part of their writerís style or authorís voice and refuse to admit that their ideas may be undercooked, over- or under-seasoned, or built on a faulty structure. While these problems donít always occur in the same manuscript, it takes only a few to send an otherwise promising book to the rejection pile or disappoint readers gambling on a new, self-published author.

Finding chinks in a good bookís shining armor and fortifying it against the slings and arrows of demanding readers isnít magic, but it does take an objective, thoughtful proposal/manuscript analysis, tactful proposal/manuscript critique from a sympathetic freelance developmental editor (sometimes called a book doctor) with enough experience to spot both problems and opportunities, big or small, and help authors express themselves more effectively. Above all, a good content editor or substantive editor makes your bookís critical and financial success the projectís top priority. Isnít that why you became a writer in the first place?

Jay Wurts Writer and Editor
About Jay Wurts Writer and Editor

Professional Services: Developmental Editing

If you need help with a book-length manuscript and want to revise it yourself, you're in the market for a developmental (also known as substantive, or content) editor. (For assistance with short stories and feature articles, please select “Short-Form Publications” from the “Professional Services” menu.)

You probably know there are all kinds of editors. Copy (or line) editors check a finished manuscript for grammatical, punctuation, spelling, usage, and continuity errors, as well as conformity to a publisher’s “house style.” They also keymark manuscripts for typesetting to the book’s design. Production editors see the copy-edited manuscript through page makeup and the manufacturing process, often when schedules are tight. These are important jobs, but they have more to do with a book’s final appearance than its content.

Acquisition editors are primarily responsible for turning promising manuscripts into books. They find new authors, evaluate manuscripts and book proposals, negotiate contracts, and help position the book in its market. When possible, they give authors advice on improving their work, but when they reject a book, they seldom give detailed reasons. Even books delivered under a publisher’s contract rarely receive more than general suggestions about what to cut and what to expand. The reason for this is simple. Most big publishing houses reward acquisition editors for thinking like business people, not writers. They expect a manuscript to arrive from an author the way Athena sprang from the head of Zeus: perfect in every detail. Of course, that seldom happens.

Where does this leave an author whose work isn’t ready for prime time?

Usually, they go back to the drawing board and try valiantly to guess where they went wrong, re-expressing their ideas and even starting with a clean sheet of paper—though they’re no closer now to breaking the publishing code than they were in the beginning. After all, writing is really thinking so rewriting means rethinking your concepts and your methods; one reason most of us find it so difficult. That’s when a fresh, informed perspective is invaluable.

How Developmental Editing Works
I begin by reading your manuscript closely and asking about your goals as an author. Is this a one-shot project, the first book in a series, the beginning of a literary career? I help you identify similar books and authors (even works in other media, like film) that can serve as models for the affect you want to achieve, though we’ll go well beyond them to develop your own, unique author’s voice. The point is: It’s much easier to plot a course once you know your destination.

Next, I prepare what I call a Diagnostic and Prescriptive (D&P) memo that summarizes the relevant traits of your models, details the strengths and weaknesses of your manuscript and compares it to the expectations of agents and publishers. When necessary, I provide brief digressions on the technique and rhetoric of good books in your field—not canned lessons from a writing text, but specific advice based on your own material. While this “medicine” isn’t always pleasant, it’s always useful and often essential.

The D&P memo typically runs a dozen or more single-spaced pages, depending on your project’s complexity and your goals as an author. For most clients, the D&P memo becomes a Rosetta Stone for deciphering publishers’ requirements and reinterpreting their own ideas. Usually, the D&P memo (plus a few low-key phone conversation about their project) is enough to guide most authors through a revision of their work, but good developmental editing doesn’t stop there.

Ongoing Coaching and Mentoring
When revisions are minor, some authors connect quickly with an agent or publisher. However, when major manuscript surgery is needed, those same authors can feel overwhelmed. Even when the D&P analysis shows them where and how to begin, they conclude that the road to publication is just too steep to go it alone. They want support—not mere hand-holding, but a true helping hand.

Developmental editing at this stage means monitoring your progress and, if requested, providing mid-course corrections. This help takes a variety of forms and often includes:

  • Checking revised manuscript.
  • Troubleshooting problems and brainstorming solutions by e-mail or phone.
  • Matching you and your project to the right agent or publisher.
  • If self-publishing is an option, guiding you through the sometimes treacherous shoals of vendor services, book marketing, and author platform-building.

As a result, I offer two stages of developmental editing.

Two-Steps to Publication
The first is the D&P Phase, in which I diagnose your existing work, measure it against your goals and competing/complementary literature, and prescribe an editorial regimen to take you where you want to go. The second Support Phase lasts until you place your work with a publisher, no matter how long it takes. Just as important, I charge a single, fixed fee that includes them both. There are no add-ons, extras, or additional charges of any kind.

I divide this total fee into thirds. You pay the first third when we agree to work together, the second when I deliver the D&P memo to you, the last when and if you sign a publisher’s contract. If during the support phase you don’t find a publisher or decide that the writing life just isn’t for you, you owe me nothing further.

My fee to prepare a D&P memo for a book-length fiction or non-fiction manuscript, or book proposal of any length on any subject, is $2,600. My fee for ongoing support is $1,300—payable only when you receive a publisher’s contract and waived if and when you tell me you have withdrawn the project from the market.

See the FAQ and Contact pages of this web site for more information about the D&P process and how this deferred payment plan can offer you a great way to successfully complete your project.

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