Do you really need developmental editing?

developmental editing

The other day I stumbled upon an article about how expensive indie publishing has now become. I was in fact aghast to note that the author had estimated her typical costs to be over $2000 (around Rs. 150,000) per book.

Since such “costs” are totally against the grain of my “Self-Publishing WITHOUT SPENDING A DIME” philosophy and series of books, I had to blink twice. But the lady had a detailed breakdown of costs which included cover designing, formatting, editing, purchase of “unavoidable” software like Scrivener, Kindle Spy and so on.

My eyes couldn’t help but fall on the editing costs simply because it appeared to be the most expensive item on that shopping list. I was surprised because as I know most established writers, including the best-selling ones, don’t bother about developmental editing. Or as some “professional editors” call it, content editing, story editing, manuscript doctoring, or even professional editing, whatever that may mean!

But before I proceed any further, let me get down first to the different kinds of editors you may stumble upon in the market.

And you guessed rightly, they are all not the same.

Developmental editor: They are also called content-editors or story editors or book doctors. Their job is to find weaknesses in your story line, plot, characters, and in all the nitty-gritty stuff of story-telling.

But they will not comment on mis-spelt words, mistakes in punctuation or grammar and so on, unless you pay them more than those $2000 they are asking for just for a story edit.

Line editor: A line editor looks for inconsistencies in your novel. For example, at some places you may have called your character Jack and in other places Zach. A line editor will flag this. On page 31, you may say Jack has blond hair and on page 133 that he has red hair. A line editor will flag that too.

Your developmental editor will skip through almost all these cases because she is only interested in pointing out the big stuff (what they call macro-editing) and not the micro-editing.

Copy editor: A copy editor will only look at mis-spellings, wrong punctuation, typos, etc. Things like train becoming tree or the confusion among words such as too, to or two. A copy editor will not comment on plot line, characters, or whatever.

Now, here comes the real issue.

Many authors believe you need a developmental editor (the most expensive kind) more than a line editor or a copy editor. This is because you think you must have some feedback on your plot or story line. The logic is that if your story be great, readers may forgive you for some minor typos or inconsistencies. Hence, you’ll find writers preferring to break their bank to pay for a developmental editor.

Fair enough. No one can stop you from breaking your bank if you have one.

But a point to keep in mind before hiring a developmental editor could be that you should select someone who is way ahead of you in story-telling, preferably in the genre you are writing in. You should want an editor who takes your manuscript from, say, 4 out of 10 to the level of 8 or 9 out of 10, won’t you?

 And that person should bring more skills to the table than that friend or family member who usually helps you out with such chores as feedback and editing.

But such skills can be developed only with practice and after writing lots and lots of books, and NOT just by understanding theory. So ideally a great developmental editor should be an author himself who would have either written over twenty novels or would have been a writer for over twenty years.

Before you start fretting over how you can locate such a gem of an editor, let me take another contrarian view.


Surprised? So read on.

Most New York Publishers DON’T work with developmental editors: Don’t believe me.  Then you should read Kristine Kathryn Rusch’s blog post on hiring editors. 

Kristine has been an author for more than 30 years and has great experience with both traditional and indie publishing routes. In her blog, she says that most of what you read (including best-selling authors) would have not gone through a developmental edit.

Developmental editors DON’T have the experience you are looking for: Kristine’s husband Dean Wesley Smith, another prolific author, believes that developmental editors are almost never worth the money they demand from you. Most of them would have never written a novel in their whole life and so are not the best person to advise you in matters of story-telling. In his opinion, you are better off asking for feedback from your next-door neighbour, who may even critique your work for FREE!

I think Dean is absolutely spot on the money. But to investigate the matter further, I looked at a list of developmental editors recommended by a well-known author on her blog.

As I dug deeper and deeper, I kept on stumbling upon facts that were intriguing, to say the least.

Some examples

For example, I came across a profile of a lady claiming to be a “professional editor.” She looked like she was in her mid-thirties with a very pleasant smile. But let’s focus on her experience.

On her website, she claims she was an author (with no books written), blogger, editor of her school’s cat (!) magazine and even a few law journals.

What? So is that the lady’s experience in editing?

She then claims she’ll make your story so good that it will grab the reader’s or the editor’s (in traditional publishing) attention from the first line.

And she charges only $2000 for this.

Okay, so here is the thing I’d ask myself if I were checking credentials:

  1. Does this editor bring in some special skills to the table that your friends and family members lack? In the example above, the woman didn’t seem to be any better than your average college friend especially when her only experience came from blogging (I mean who doesn’t blog these days?) and editing the school magazine for cats.
  2. And if she brings no special skills, is she really worth $2000?! The answer is obvious. This woman had a warm personality, I must say. But then I would rather be friends with her than pay her $2000 to improve my manuscript!
  3. Aren’t you better off seeking opinion of a dear college friend who too edited magazines? At least, she won’t charge you such an atrocious amount.

But this wasn’t the end of the story.

I looked at the profile of some other developmental editors and came across a gentleman this time. He claimed to have twenty-five years’ experience in editing and had written a children’s fantasy novel and a short story.

Okay, I had to admit that he seemed somewhat more experienced than that lady I discussed above.

I next checked his Amazon rankings, and it was nothing to write home about even though he had good reviews.

On his website, the gentleman had declared that:

“I‘m a kind-hearted editor, but I’m not going to sugar-coat the truth (as I see it). If I think your novel is ‘beyond saving,’ I’ll say so. I’ll do my best to offer direction, but I’m not going to give you false hope if I don’t think your novel has much of a chance finding success in the traditional publishing process.”

So, in other words, if this guy thinks your story is a 4/10, he’ll tell you straight on your face that your novel is “beyond saving.”

Okay. But is that exactly why you want to pay him so much? Just think.

What got my goose was that this “one novel and a short story” old guy also believes that he understands the book market completely. Hell, not even best-selling authors can claim that.

Agatha Christie, as I have profiled elsewhere, refused to critique manuscripts because she believed every author has his or her own way of telling a story (which may or may not appeal to her). And that given enough time, they will all find their own unique audience.

Coming back to this editor’s experience, I couldn’t help wondering that even I have more writing experience than this guy (with two blogs, three fiction, 18 non-fiction, 26 translated books and counting). But can I still tell anyone that they have no chance of finding success no matter how bad the book is (in my opinion)?

Just ponder on the after effects when such a “one novel and a short story” guy tells you that your novel may not find any success. And that too after busting your bank! Think how damaging this might be to your morale and your career as a writer.

This is NOT hypothetical because I’ve heard that some developmental editors have demoralised authors so much that many have quit writing altogether.

The gentleman next puts a disclaimer on his blog:

“I can’t guarantee you’ll sign with an agent or get published if you take heed of my editorial suggestions.”

Okay, then why should I pay you so much if my returns are NOT guaranteed at all?

The story doesn’t end here. It just gets worse:

“EVEN MORE IMPORTANT UPDATE THAN USUAL: I am booked through November. Next available editing opportunity is…December. And here’s some news – I’ll be taking on fewer projects this winter because I have another book to write…. But never fear – I’m enlisting the help of my equally-talented brother (Tom) to expand my editorial influence. While he’s building his own freelance business, I’ll be playing mentor/supervisor for his work.”

Huh? Now who is this Tom? And what credentials does he have in fiction writing?

From what we know about Tom from this paragraph, Tom doesn’t seem to have any experience in fiction writing. He is running his freelance business, whatever that means!

Now tell me how is this guy better than any other Tom, Dick or Harry or your next-door neighbour you come across every day? And if not, why would you pay this guy $2000 or whatever fancy amount he wishes to charge?

So here is the thing: Fiction writing is fun but could be as technical as practicing law or medicine. A medical student cannot become a cardiac surgeon overnight because you become a surgeon after years and years and years of practicing and observing others.

And you wouldn’t want a fresh medical graduate to open your chest, would you?

Similarly critiquing a manuscript may look simple at the surface but is really CRITIQUING and nothing more. There is more to story-telling than simply critiquing. Depth, character development, character voice, author voice, pacing, cliff hangers, point of view…. There is so much more to fiction writing which can only come from years of practice.

Just like cardiac surgery.

Ask yourself this question: How is this guy (with one novel and a short story) different from any writer you hang out with on Facebook groups or Kindle Boards?

Unfortunately, the whole online world is full of such developmental editors. I came across yet another gentleman who called himself a foodie and a film critic (would you hire such a person?) guaranteeing to improve your fiction writing skills.

To be fair to him, he had written two children’s books and one thriller (with a sales rank in millions). The novel’s cover was just awful, with blood flowing out from nowhere. When the first time I looked at the cover, I wasn’t even sure it was blood or red fire or, or, or…

Anyway, from my point of view, this guy really had nothing special about him. Why wouldn’t you trust someone with whom you hang out on in Facebook author groups or Kindle boards? You will find plenty of authors with a few fiction or non-fiction books on social media. Why can’t you take their help and in return help them on their projects?

What you really need?

These are some questions you must ask before hiring a developmental editor. Provided, of course, you are sure that you definitely need a developmental edit, and that you don’t mind paying through your nose for the favour. Also that after this, you only (and NOT your editor) have to re-write and do the umpteenth draft of your novel.

So what you are getting is just a “paid critique” and believe me anyone can critique a work. Even a five year old child can critique your manuscript, so what is so great about these guys?

However, you do need a trusted first reader, I agree. That first reader can be anyone: your neighbour, family member or a writer friend; anyone who promises to read your manuscript and give you honest feedback, in time. That trusted person should not critique your work in a way that demoralises you as an author. Instead as a reader she should tell you if she enjoyed your work and point out places, if any, where she got confused. And point out typos as a bonus. That’s it!

It’s even better if your trusted reader is a non-writer friend. A reader reads for pleasure, a writer doesn’t. A writer may comment on technicalities learned in workshops like too many adverbs, punctuations, head-hopping and so on whereas a reader sees the story as a whole. And your average reader is a non-writer most of the time. So, it is very important to see your manuscript from an average reader’s perspective.

And if you are planning to hire a development editor, check his or her credentials first. Evaluate like a business person. Will you be getting value for your money? Ask, ask, and ask. Don’t be a good girl or a good boy.

And finally, in Dean Wesley Smith’s own words, “Why would you need a ‘developmental’ editor, whatever the hell that is???? Why not believe in your own art, your own writing, and let the readers decide.”

What do you think? Looking forward to your comments,

Sincerely yours,




  • Jennifer says:


    it sounds like you just don’t want to pay people for their work. Would you as an author just give away your books for free? Of course not. So why is it such a terrible thing to pay an editor?

    You say: “Similarly critiquing a manuscript may look simple at the surface but is really CRITIQUING and nothing more. There is more to story-telling than simply critiquing. Depth, character development, character voice, author voice, pacing, cliff hangers, point of view…. ” This is EXACTLY what you pay a developmental editor for. To look at all of these aspects in your story and analyze each of them. You are looking for someone to not only give you constructive criticism but to work with you to improve these areas in your story.

    You say that you would only want an editor who is an experienced writer. But then you say “You will find plenty of authors with a few fiction or non-fiction books on social media. Why can’t you take their help and in return help them on their projects?” If you would respect an inexperienced author you find on social media, why does the editor need to have published dozens of books? Writing and editing are not the same. Just because one is a good writer does not mean they are a good editor and vice versa. It sounds like one is better just because it’s free.

    You put a lot of work into your books and want to be paid and respected for that. But you dismiss editing as almost entirely unnecessary even though many people put hard work and time into learning and becoming accomplished editors.

    This post is very insulting to editors everywhere. How can you expect people to respect you for your hard work when you refuse to appreciate the work they do?

    • Prasenjeet says:

      Jennifer, the simple point was: If developmental editors are charging thousands of dollars for story editing, they better have a track record. When you hire an architect, you do check his qualifications, isn’t it?

      Professional sports coaches have been professional athletes themselves. The same is true of fitness instructors, acting coaches and music teachers.

      Now tell me, why the same logic shouldn’t apply to story editors? After all, story editors are going to give feedback to make the story better. If those editors haven’t written anything or very little, and haven’t sold anything to readers, how do they know which story appeals to readers and which does not?

      But yes, I agree that all best-selling authors may not be good editors just as all professional athletes cannot be good coaches.

  • nadia says:

    I completely agree with you. Unfortunately most of the writers are scared of angry attacks of said editors (everyone is getting offended for anything these days). some would even go further and say you can starve to death but can’t afford yourself not to hire editor. I applause you for your brevity to say the truth.
    I think most western people are conditioned to pay for any sort of service if someone sags so. If tomorrow I say you need a phone app adviser they’ll competely agree and pay for it.
    Also this developmental editors should be bestsellers at least. or they are just a reaser who charges 2k for reading a free book and insults your storytelling abilities in well-mannered way.
    i don’t want my story be developed exactly in how/to write a novel books. that is same with american movies. you never get to know how a french movie will end because there isn’t a form story but in american culture there is.

  • arjun kumar says:

    Really You say that you would only want an editor who is an experienced writer. But then you say “You will find plenty of authors with a few fiction or non-fiction books on social media. Why can’t you take their help and in return help them on their projects?” If you would respect an inexperienced author you find on social media, why does the editor need to have published dozens of books? Writing and editing are not the same. Just because one is a good writer does not mean they are a good editor and vice versa. It sounds like one is better just because it’s free.

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    • Prasenjeet says:

      Hi Arjun. There are different kinds of editors. I think by editors you mean copy editors i.e. those editors who correct grammar and typos. If that’s what you mean, definitely hire them.

      This post is about development editing i.e. editors who give feedback regarding stories, characters, plot weaknesses, etc. This is where it gets tricky.

      Can a person who has never really written anything give you good feedback about your stories? And that too for two thousand dollars? Suppose you’re an architect, will you take feedback regarding your building plans from someone who has never designed a building? Will you pay that person thousands of dollars? And how will their advice differ from a random person on social media? You decide, that’s all. 🙂

  • ERIK L SMITH says:

    There are many great editors who have published little or nothing of their own. They have read thousands of books and know how to change something to improve it. The real problem, however, is how to know the prospective developmental editor’s skill before you spend $2000, regardless of what they have published or edited. I can predict what will happen if I were to receive a developmental editor’s suggested changes to my novel manuscript. I might believe the changes make sense. But I might not, and all I will have paid for is another objective opinion.

    The first objective opinion regarding my novel came from my sister, a Stanford grad who writes manuals. She read my novel and recommended deleting three chapters. I saw her point about one of the chapters and deleted it, but shortened the other two chapters and left them in. I slaved over that decision. My sister then told me to put two sections that I later deleted on my own back in the novel. I agreed with putting one of the sections back, but not the second one until she described why both sections were important. My dad, in turn, said the novel dragged somewhat in the middle but I should not delete any chapters. My sister said the story never dragged.

    How is the process going to be different with a developmental editor? I may completely see the developmental editor’s points and be glad to make the changes. But I might not see some of the editor’s points, in which case I will be making my own tough decisions again. I’m willing to pay $2000 for the former, but not for the latter.

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