Step 2: The Dev Edit

That’s it! I’ve finished my draft! Am I relieved? Yes. Exhilarated? Slightly. But having worked in the industry for so many years, I know what many beginning writers don’t: finishing your draft is only arriving at basecamp for the ascent of K2. Gearing up to step out onto the rock is the developmental or “dev” edit.


In the publishing industry, the dev edit—long before line-editing or copyediting come into play—aims to shape the book; to challenge and thus cement its structure; and ultimately to deliver a more competitive product. Everyone in publishing views it as a mandatory step. Yet today’s in-house editors lament that they have less and less time to invest in developmental editing. Even when a submission shows promise, practicalities often force them to favor work that has arrived pre-edited.

Many times I have cringed to hear a writer say that their novel has been edited—that for $100 someone caught all the typos. That’s not what the industry means, and more importantly, not what every writer needs. It is unavoidable that you will have blind spots. So, the aim of the dev edit is to identify whether your story works, whether its bones are set straight, and its muscles are taut and lean.

That someone might challenge your story to such an extent is a difficult pill to swallow. I know. I’m at that exact stage of the process right now. But 19 books into it, I am convinced that when I think the manuscript is at its best, someone out there knows what else the book needs—and that someone is not me.

So, how do you go about getting a dev edit? There are several options. I’ve listed them below in order of increasing financial commitment.

1. You can find a few writers whose work you respect and offer to swap developmental edits. This is often called the beta-read, and anyone who says yes becomes your beta-reader. I favor having a high number of beta-readers. Some writers find that too confusing or too time consuming, but I back myself to be able to tell what feedback I should respond to, and what I should let slide.

Having many readers gives me a better chance of distinguishing a common stumbling block from an idiosyncratic reaction. But time does limit the number of readers I can invite. With my teaching and editing schedule (let alone my writing!), I simply cannot commit to reading X number of manuscripts in return, so I have to settle for something reasonable. Fortunately, there have also been volunteers who are happy to read without any expectations of repayment (thank you thank you thank you). The trick here is to find writers whose work you respect, and whom you think would give good, thoughtful, TOUGH critiques. Of course, this entails knowing a fair few writers. If you don’t, let this be a flag that you should get close to your local writing community!

2. You can enroll in a facilitated critique group. I’ve added the word “facilitated” because I’ve often been told that those not lead by an experienced author or editor tend to be of less dev-editing value. That makes sense, because dev editing and critiquing are acquired skills, not innate talents. A good facilitator can teach you how to critique—skills that you will hone by critiquing others, but that will be invaluable when it comes time to evaluate your own work (which is, basically, with every sentence you write). As importantly, a good facilitator can teach you how to receive critiques, how to get over natural defenses and put that information to use, because, believe me, that’s a skill, too.

Finding critique groups also requires a connection with the writing community. You can turn to local writers’ clubs for advice. Here in California, there are the many chapters of the California Writers’ Club founded by Jack London, there are the Left Coast Writers who meet at Book Passage in Corte Madera, and there are genre-specific writers’ groups like the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, affectionately known as “scwibby,” or the Horror Writers’ Association and the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America.

You can also take courses in your genre (or occasionally in editing). Universities and community colleges offer continuing studies or community education. The Writing Salon and The Grotto also offer writing classes in the Bay Area. This is a quick way to find like-minded and like-talented individuals from which to form a group. If you want to have the group facilitated, ask your instructor. Many already lead critique groups that you might be invited to join, or are open to facilitating a new group if you have enough members to make it worth their while. Because the work of a group facilitator is less intensive than that of a dev editor, and because the relationships become personal, this is usually a very cost-effective way of accessing that particular author’s brain—and rolodex.

3. You can, of course, engage a freelance dev editor. The contraction of the publishing industry in 2008 led to the loss of many editorial positions and the subsequent out-sourcing of much developmental editing. So there are many experienced dev editors out there, myself and some friends included. If you think this is me drumming up business—always. But the proof of the pudding lies in the fact that I pay for dev editing myself. I might be selling the Kool-Aid, but I’m also drinking it.

There are several ways to find dev editors. You could go to a site like BiblioCrunch. This is a portal to everything you need to self publish. Some small publishers and even agents will give dev edits for pay. But the route I like best is through personal contacts. When you attend a writers’ conference, be aware that many of the presenters probably edit on the side. If you meet someone especially impressive, ask them if they ever take on editing. And if they say no, ask them if there’s someone else they’d recommend. I take on editing throughout the year, and refer writers on if my editing slots are full, so ask me! But beware: this is an expensive option. You’re basically taking over an author’s brain for six weeks, so I think maybe rightly so.

I’m often asked at this point in any ode to dev editing if there’s proof that it makes a difference. Well, here are a few recent success stories from your own merry band that I’m very proud to share:

“If you want to be a writer, there are six words that you need to memorize above all else. You need to tape them to your wall, tattoo them on your arm, and teach them to your parrot until it repeats them back to you a hundred times per day. You need to pay skywriters to draw them in the sky above your house and hack your cybernetic ocular display so that they hover in front of you wherever you go.

Are you ready? Here are the six words.

First drafts suck, and that’s okay.”

[And then, about me…]

“Shirin was a huge help in developing my first novel, IN THE RED, and getting it ready for submission. Her experience as a writer and publisher shows up in her detail-oriented editorial work. She has a great eye for both high-level character arcs and low-level sentence structure."

”I wanted to thank you again for your help on my manuscript…I signed a three-book deal with Macmillan for my girls entrepreneurship series and last week I officially launched The Startup Squad! We just announced the book series and a search for a girl entrepreneur to feature in the back of our first book…”

”I initially signed up for one session of classes with Shirin, and now five years later, I'm still in her class! Shirin has been invaluable to the way I think about my writing—always asking me the hard questions and making me think deeper about character motivations, plot inconsistencies, credibility gaps, etc., in ways I never used to. Before Shirin, writing was something I did just for fun, but she helped to shape my writing into a career. Her notes have not only aided my past work, but have given me the toolkit necessary to critique my future work as well. I can't recommend her enough!”

First, thanks for shepherding me through the first two revisions of this tome (I think the title change to The Mother Code happened after your edits?)! I look back at those earlier versions now and I think, ouch! Maybe I could write, but I was all over the place! Looking at the notes and markups you made, I was actually surprised by how kind you were. Although criticism always hits hard when you receive it, in retrospect I find that it's usually justified…

Using the edited version of Chapter 1, I was also able to get into the Masters Class at MCWC, as well as LitCamp. That helped immensely!

After you had clawed your way through two versions of "Gen5," I felt the need to move on to a set of fresh eyes. I did three more rounds with Heather Lazare, who then helped me find an agent. With my agent Elisabeth Weed and her able assistant Hallie Schaeffer, I went through another two rounds over the ensuing months, mostly working out the kinks on the second half. Some pretty big things happened, even then. Some characters were removed altogether. A character died, who hadn't before. Finally, there were edits with Cindy Hwang and Kristin Schwartz at Berkley, but these were minor compared to what had gone before!

…I think some real-world understanding of how even the most “stinging” of edits are all part of the process would be helpful for people to hear. So many of my friends have given up after just one or two rounds, believing that they were just "bad writers" who could never get better. But taking and making use of criticism, and learning to know where to draw the line and follow your own heart as well, are skills essential for every writer. In my case, I had a story to tell, and an itch to tell it that could not be quashed! Of course, knowing how much you have to go through to get it out there, that drive is essential.”

So, congratulations to Chris, Brian, Cameron, and Carole! Thanks for the plugs—both for me and for dev editing in general. My belief in dev editing being what it takes to climb the mountain is sincere, however you find the dev-editing input you need. Wish me luck as I buckle on my own helmet. And to all of you, happy writing!

Shirin Bridges