Be Your Own Developmental Editor: A Step-by-Step Guide to Elevating Your Story

Developmental edits: how to make your story shine

Just finished your first draft? Congrats, that’s a huge step! But what comes next is just as important: the developmental edit. Developmental edits help ensure that the story is structurally sound, the characters are well-developed, and the plot is engaging and believable. You might be thinking about hiring a developmental editor to help, which is a great idea. But to really make your story shine, consider doing a developmental edit yourself first. Developing these skills will not only help you get more out of working with a professional editor, but they'll also boost your own writing and editing abilities. In this post, we’ll explore the art of being your own developmental editor and share some tips on how to self-edit your story effectively.

What is developmental editing?

Developmental editing—also known as structural or content editing—is editing that focuses on the overall structure and content of a piece of writing. We like to refer to this type of edit as the story-level revision. It’s at a much higher level than just proofreading for typos or doing a grammar check. Developmental edits look at the whole story and take into account the characters, plot, pacing, and more.

Many authors begin their edit on the book's first page and start tweaking from there. But that’s probably the least effective method for editing since it can quickly lead to confusion and frustration. Instead of starting to nitpick from page 1, here’s a systematic, step-by-step approach to developmental edits that will make you feel organized, efficient, and in control.

The 5 Steps for A Self Developmental Edit

Step 1: Forget your story

Give yourself some distance from your manuscript. Set it aside for a few days, weeks, or even months, depending on the length of your break and your comfort level. Try to forget everything about your story as much as possible. Engage in other creative activities, refill your well, or work on a different writing project during this time. This break allows you to gain perspective and approach your manuscript with a fresh mindset when you come back to it.

Step 2: Complete a hands-off read-through

Once you’ve forgotten your manuscript (as much as possible), it's time to do a hands-off read-through. This step involves reading the entire manuscript without making any changes, allowing you to gain a comprehensive. big picture understanding of the work. The goal is to immerse yourself in the story as a reader would, experiencing it from beginning to end without interrupting the flow. By refraining from making changes at this stage, you can focus on grasping the narrative as a cohesive entity.

As you immerse yourself in the story, make a conscious effort to identify the strengths and weaknesses of your manuscript. Take detailed notes on major and minor issues that catch your attention. These notes will serve as a valuable reference for the subsequent stages of the developmental editing process. Pay attention to elements such as plot and character inconsistencies, gaps in logic, the pacing and tension throughout the narrative, the effectiveness of dialogue, and the clarity of your prose. Also, note down any areas that resonate strongly or evoke an emotional response. These insights will help you understand what works and what needs improvement. By completing a hands-off read-through, you allow yourself to experience your manuscript as a reader would, gaining a big-picture perspective on its strengths and weaknesses.

Step 3: Create a snapshot of your current draft and organize your notes

After completing the hands-off read-through, it's time to create a snapshot of your current draft and organize the notes you've taken. Taking a snapshot of your current draft involves breaking down your draft into smaller movable pieces. These pieces are known as scene cards.

Here are some tips for converting your manuscript into scene cards:

  1. Try to condense your scenes into high-level descriptions of what happens.
  2. Try to focus on the main events of the scene, or the gist of what the character is feeling (descriptions, dialogue, direct thoughts, etc. don't need to be included).
  3. Make use of shorthand to save space.
  4. Identify scenes by setting, time, or point of view.

Once you’ve converted your manuscript into scene cards, the next step is to organize your notes. This is an important step for gaining a clear overview of the feedback and insights gathered during the reading process.

First, gather all the notes you have collected during the hands-off read-through, along with all the invisible revisions you’ve made in your manuscript as you were fast-drafting and any notes or feedback you might have received from your critique partners. Compile everything into a single, comprehensive document that will serve as your reference throughout the revision process. This document will ensure that you have all the necessary information at your fingertips, streamlining your editing efforts. You’ll also want to gather and organize all the notes and details about the story itself. You’ll use these to build or update your story bible.

Step 4: Build a revision plan

Your revision plan is a step-by-step roadmap on how to construct your next improved draft, and it’s made up of action items. Action items come in two forms: revision tasks and scene cards.

Revision tasks: are usually larger revision concepts that you want to keep track of across the entire revision, perhaps because it affects multiple scenes or applies to multiple parts of the story–such as fixing the info dump in Act One. They can also be things you know you need to fix but aren’t sure how to fix yet, such as brainstorming a new first scene to create more intrigue and suspense.

Scene cards: are actual scenes that appear in your next draft and are organized on your storyboard. Scene cards are usually created from revision tasks. For example, let’s say after doing the hands-off read-through and making notes, you realize your story starts in the wrong place. You started with the inciting incident, so now you need to go back and write a couple more scenes to set up the world and introduce the characters. But maybe you’re not sure exactly how you want to start the story, but you know you want the setting to be a coffee shop, so your main character overhears something important.

You could write on your scene card something like this: “New opening image: main character at coffee shop overhears ‘X.’” Another card can say, “Setup: introduce supporting characters and the antagonist and show the rivalry between the main character and antagonist.”

By the end of this step, you’ll have a full, complete storyboard and a clean list of revision notes. Plus, you’ll have a better sense of how much work your draft needs at the story level.

Step 5: Revise

You’re finally ready to put pen to paper–or fingers to keyboard–and begin revising. There are two ways you can do this: start a new document or revise an existing document. After looking at your revision plan, if you have over 25% of the story that needs revision, we recommend starting a new document. If you have less than 25% to revise, you can pretty easily revise your existing document.

When moving things around, make sure to cut and paste things out of your revision document rather than deleting them. You never know when you might want to use that text again somewhere else.

Remember, the story-level revisions take the longest, so don’t be discouraged if it takes you multiple drafts, and multiple trips through this process, just to get your story structurally sound and where it should be.

Ready to edit?

Developmental editing is an essential part of crafting stories that shine. By following the steps above, you can effectively complete a self developmental edit to get your story into the best shape possible. From here, you’ll be ready to bring on a professional developmental editor, or take your manuscript into the next, more detailed, levels of revision.

For more in-depth tips and strategies for revising your manuscript, check out The Complete Novel Revision Course in the Writing Mastery Academy!

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