Your Guide to the Guide: Part 5 Developmental Editing
Another major service I offer to writers is Developmental Editing.
Sometimes — in fact, quite often — I am approached to tackle a work which has already been finished and which may have been circulated around some potential publishers. The writer tells me that ‘There’s something wrong with it’ but doesn’t know what. I am charged with the task of taking the whole thing apart and rebuilding it.
Ideally, Developmental Editing should come into play before or during the production of a publishable manuscript as it normally involves significant structuring or restructuring of a complete work.
The task of a developmental editor is to guide a writer in conceiving a topic, planning an overall structure, and developing an outline. This may also involve coaching authors in their writing, chapter by chapter. That would be ideal —but, as I say, it is not the most common way of working.
Writers retain control over the document and are responsible for providing the content, even though a developmental editor may end up transforming the original work beyond recognition. But there is usually a line between editing and becoming a contributing author or a ghostwriter. When doing developmental editing, the writer is always at the centre— the editor can only pose suggestions and it is up to the writer to accept or reject them.
The real trick of developmental editing, at least at Clarendon House, is to engage the writer first in a conversation about the true nature of the work and what he or she is trying to say with it. This has to do with the Theme of the piece. A rejected manuscript, for example, can be utterly rejuvenated and its effects magnified once the writer realises that it was ‘about’ something.
Often this is a case of encouraging the writer to not only try to encapsulate the ‘message’ or intention of the piece — it’s also a question of finding a central metaphor which then can act as a unifying image or motif, pulling the whole thing together. One novel I examined a couple of years ago was well-written and clever, and probably publishable in the form in which I received it — but once its theme had been clarified, and a central metaphor discovered, the entire work was elevated to a new level. It wasn’t as though this metaphor had to be ‘written into’ the work once it was established — the image had been there all along, recurring in scene after scene, cropping up at key moments in the plot, but had not yet been recognised consciously by the author as a perfect metaphor for what she was trying to say. Spotting that enabled the author to magnify the power of the whole novel.
It’s unlikely, then, that you will contact me while you are still pondering a story or working through some notes. More likely, you will wait until you have ‘completed’ something, and may even delay until you have been rejected by a number of publishers before you decide to employ me. You have to reach a point at which you recognise both that ‘something is wrong’ and that you don’t know what that something is before you engage the services of a stranger like myself. When you do though, fear not: it is not my job to rip apart your existing work and tell you how wrong you are as a writer: quite the reverse. You will normally find that you are substantively on the right track, but that what you have inserted into the story unconsciously needs to be brought to a conscious level and magnified. It will make your story more effective — as of course whatever the images and motifs are will still operate at a more-or-less unconscious level for your readers, creating emotional and even spiritual effects ‘below the surface’, which is what you want.
But contact me at some point if you feel the need, won’t you?