Manuscript Critique or Developmental Editing: How Do I Decide?

Does my novel need developmental editing?

Here’s a question I get from a lot of new writers. “Need” is a word that implies your book will not sell a single copy unless it has been written to the highest literary standards (which, of course, are subjective to some degree). The simple fact is, this isn’t true. The actual question an author should ask themselves and their editor is: How much will my book be improved by developmental editing (also known as content editing)?

The truth is, every book has flaws or areas that could be stronger, more supported, better written, or even removed for the overall story’s sake. The newer to writing you are, the more of these there might be. A developmental editor will work with you to identify and improve those areas. Many authors get feedback from friends and beta readers who will tell them how much they enjoyed a novel, “except…” That “except” is what an editor will help you focus on and suggest options for improvement. Not every “except” is something that needs to change, and an editor can also help you figure these out. (Every reader will have different preferences, and not every reader will like something that is perfectly suited to the story itself. No book will be loved by all, so the first rule of Beta Club is: Don’t try to fix everything your readers don’t like. But this is a different topic.)

So again, the question isn’t should your book be developmentally edited, but how much can it be improved? The second, though no less crucial, question to ask yourself is: Are you willing and do you have the time/energy/money to implement the changes, large or small, that will improve it? A developmental edit is appropriate for authors who have a surplus of these four things: willingness, time, and energy to redraft, and the money to hire an editor.

Why not just have a manuscript critique?

A way to help you determine whether you want to go straight to developmental editing or begin with a critique would be to start out by asking a handful of beta readers their thoughts. You need to find a community of readers who are a) well-read in, and fans of, your genre, and b) familiar enough with the craft of writing to tell you how their opinions on your story are formed. In other words, an ideal beta reader should understand if something is a plot flaw and why, rather than provide vague feedback such as: “I just didn’t really like this part” (though this is useful feedback, too). You could get a general sense of how strong the novel already is with honed beta reader feedback. If the overall reaction is positive, you may be ready for developmental editing. If the overall reaction is less positive, you may benefit more from a manuscript critique, which will tell you in broad language what isn’t working and why.

Breaking Down the Difference

The big difference, generally, between developmental editing and a critique is this: A developmental edit improves on a story that is already well formed and has the necessary components: a robust plot and a premise with legs; fully realized characters with real stakes in the story; and conflicts that will intrigue and entice your audience to continue reading. A developmental edit will take the building blocks already there and help the author make them as strong, fluid, and entertaining as they can be.

For a more experienced or confident writer who may have already been through a developmental edit of a novel, a manuscript critique can serve as a final read-through to point out any last lingering areas that need a final polish.

For a newer writer, on the other hand, a critique serves the purpose of helping them refine their craft as much or more than helping them refine the novel at hand. A critique points out why a story is or isn’t well told and what it needs to get better. If a vital component of plot and premise, character, or conflict is missing, a critique can’t fix these but will point out where the narrative may have gone awry and why. A developmental edit is appropriate for writers with an in-depth understanding of and experience with the craft of writing, whereas a critique is better suited for writers who are still learning and need to know exactly what element or elements of the craft they need to improve on in order to redraft and improve their novel.

Lastly, a critique also serves writers, both new and more experienced, who haven’t solicited any beta reader feedback for their novel and want to get a professional opinion of the story first.

This Is My First Novel

If this is your first novel, I usually recommend a critique first over developmental editing. There is a difference between improving a story and improving the craft of storytelling, and for many, the first novel or two are “starter” books. Spending money on editing may not be able to improve the story if it’s actually the author’s craft that is still developing.

How Do I Decide?

Here are some questions to help you decide what type of editing is best for you.

Is this your first novel?

What kind of feedback have you received and from whom for this novel?

What is your writing background? (Do you write for a living, if so, is the type of writing you do the same as your novel? If not, how different is it? For instance, do you write technical manuscripts for a research organization by day, but have written a paranormal romance novel?)

How many drafts have you already completed?

Have you taken any writing craft classes or workshops or read books on writing? If so, how many?

Are you part of a critique group? If so, what is their range of experience and publishing history?

Have you won any writing awards?

Do you feel that your writing is strong and that you have a thorough understanding of story craft?

Are you a self-directed and self-motivated author and feel you have the skills and experience to improve your novel with minimal guidance, or do you prefer more hands-on, back-and-forth feedback?

How much time, energy, money, and focus do you wish to put into improving the novel? Are you prepared to do a full rewrite, or is your intent more limited?

What are your expectations for this first novel? Do you hope to break into best-seller lists as an independent publisher or traditionally published author, hope to acquire an agent and/or publisher, or simply wish to have the satisfaction and experience of having created a polished novel-length work of art?

If your experience and writing history are minimal, and any feedback you’ve received has come from folks who are not experienced authors, it’s very likely developmental editing will help you improve your novel, but depending on your goals and budget, a critique may be suitable. It’s very much your decision.

Many of my clients decide to have a manuscript critique first, and from there decide their next step. Often after a critique, we delve into deeper editing, but for some who have a few fairly successful novels already out, a one-time critique is all they need. Copyediting and proofreading upon finalizing the manuscript are always a necessity, however, especially if your goal is to achieve commercial success.