Guest Bloggers

Do you need a developmental editor?

Shirin Yim Leos

Guest blogger, dev-editor, and author Shirin Yim Leos, answers the question she’s most often asked: What is developmental editing, does it really make a difference, do I need it and how much—HOW MUCH?!?!—can I do for myself?

What is Developmental Editing?

It’s the big, high level, Is the book working? edit.

Does it make a difference?

Resoundingly yes. Ask any author with a career.

Do I need it?

No writer can accurately see their own work. It’s a fact, like refraction through water or distortion through atmosphere.

How much does developmental editing cost?

It varies, but here are some recently published rates in The Write Life.

How to be your own Developmental Editor

Can I do it for myself?

Try to duplicate a dev editor’s distance. They come to your pages cold and you can replicate that:

Put your writing away in a drawer for 3-6 months. I can hear you yelling, BUT I’M IN A RUSH TO GET PUBLISHED!!!! Anyone in a rush shouldn’t be attempting to get traditionally published. That’s just the truth. It is a loooong process even with the best of luck. If the clock is ticking that badly for you, consider self-publishing.

Find a rubric, a new lens that will let you evaluate the work with some objectivity. If you’re writing commercial or genre fiction, a beat sheet might be helpful. Save the Cat Writes a Novel is often recommended. The book is backed by an entire website of beat sheets, classes, and podcasts that you can download.

If you’re writing literary fiction, Donald Maass’s The Emotional Craft of Fiction focusses on creating and manipulating the reader’s emotional journey.

Freytag’s Pyramid in its modern rendition is useful as a draper’s dummy to lay your work against; to see if what you’ve made is in the actual shape of a book. (Don’t underestimate this. Remember when you can’t see, it’s very hard to discern shape. My own work invariably has a too-long sleeve and a missing collar when it’s submitted as “perfect” to an agent or editor. I am always amazed in retrospect by how I suspected X, Y, or Z on some subliminal level but could not see it.)

Learn as much about editing, as opposed to writing, as you can. I teach dev editing in my workshops.

Another fun way to learn: I’ll be interviewing dev editor, Susan Chang, recently senior editor at Tor Books/Macmillan, on Tuesday February 22, 2022 from 6:00-7:00pm PT on Zoom. 

We’ll be talking about similarities and differences in how we approach dev editing, some of the most frequent errors we see, and how authors can best avoid them.

We’ll also talk about the latest developments in publishing, since Susan has recently had her finger on the Big Four pulse.

There’ll be plenty of time for Q&A, and you’ll have two dev editors whose brains you can pick, right there in the safety of your space.

Please scroll down for more info.

Buy as much professional help as you can afford. I used to advise writers to go to writers’ conferences (here’s the AWP list) and sign up for consultations with editors. The Writing Day Workshops, especially, focus on getting writers in front of editors and agents, and vice versa. Of course, now there is also the online equivalent of a 24/365 writers conference dedicated to helping you get your manuscript and query in shape for pitching: Manuscript Academy, with its extensive faculty of editors and agents.

In whatever conference-like setting you find us, participating editors are taking huge cuts to our fees out of good will to the organizers. Take advantage of this!

Here’s a tip: the most useful thing to have a dev editor read for a short consultation is your synopsis, or your query and synopsis, if you can squeeze it in. Save first pages for when you’re sure your story is in great shape and you have focused on polishing that powerhouse first chapter.

Of course, you can also book editorial consultations through most editors’ websites. It will cost you more than at a conference, but it will also be to your own schedule and in a less hectic environment.

If you want feedback on your entire book but can’t afford a dev edit, many editors offer manuscript analyses that are not as detailed as dev edits. I don’t offer these (I’m so anal that if I read your book, I’ll have too much feedback to fit into a brief assessment), but my dev editor friends Susan Chang and Lisa Manterfield both do.

Make the most of free opinions. Join writers’ groups. If you don’t know where to find one, reach out to genre-specific or regional organizations like SCBWI or the California Writers Club, or organize one yourself.

The chats or cafeterias of writing conferences, classes, and events are a good place to introduce yourself and your idea of forming a group. Go to writing retreats where work will be reviewed or critiqued.

Develop a list of beta readers—people you trust whom you can swap whole-manuscript critiques with. Be generous with your own time and assistance, and it might be returned to you in spades.

Of course, the aim of all this is to get your manuscript ready for an agent.

Developmental editing sharpens your arrow for your one shot. Because, you probably will only get one shot with a particular agent.

When it comes to finding your many targets, here are a few possibilities:

1.  If you know the books you’d love yours to appear next to, look at their acknowledgements. Nearly all authors thank their agents. (Sometimes, you have to plug a few names into Google to figure out who’s who.) Build a list this way. Everyone on this list will have liked a book like yours well enough to acquire it; and been competent enough to sell it. This is what I’d call a vetted and targeted list; an A list.

2. You can also build a list through good-old research. Websites such as ManuscriptWishList, querytracker, and publishersmarketplace make it easy to find agents, see what they’re wishing for, what they’re buying, what they’re selling, and for how much. So you just have to do the leg work of matching the agents who do X to the X you want doing. Then, PLEASE, visit their websites, browse through their client lists, and read their submission guidelines before querying. Be a professional! Do your homework!

3. If you can, compile a list through networking. They say the average first novel takes seven to nine years. In all that time, hopefully you’ll have become part of a writing community. Ask all the published authors you know whether they would recommend their agents. Always ask what they like best about them, and what is most challenging. Depending on your personality, some traits are deal breakers. If an agent sounds good for you and your book specifically, ask that author friend if they would mind giving you a recommendation. This is not something pushy, desperate, and despicable. This is how most agents prefer to acquire their new clients!

4. When you have your lists of agents, see if you can find them at conferences—the Writing Day Workshops are organized specifically for this purpose, and Manuscript Academy provides a very similar service. Attend classes and workshops these agents give. See if you admire them as professionals and like them as people. And see if they like you! Pay for a consultation. This may not be a pitch, depending on the conference, but it is exposure. At the very least they’ll have seen your work and given you real feedback on how to further sharpen that arrow for the next agent.

For your chance to win a FREE agent consultation through Manuscript Academy (Query – 10 minutes), fill in and submit this form (scroll down on the page for the form) before noon on Monday, February 21st, 2022. Three winners will be drawn by Susan Chang during our Zoom chat on the evening of Tuesday, February 22nd. You must be present to win. Don’t worry if you’re not quite ready to speak to an agent yet. Your prize has no expiration date. You’ll be able to submit your work when it’s been dev edited and ready.

Until then, happy writing!

SHIRIN YIM LEOS is an Ezra Jack Keats Award-winning author and a developmental editor. She has coached writers who have secured multi-book deals from Big Four publishers, and was the founder and former Head Goose of Goosebottom Books.

Shirin also leads writing retreats and teaches writing and publishing for universities and conferences internationally. You can find out more about her services and her twenty published books at

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