Many authors have this question. Another way of framing the question, and I think what lies at the heart of it, is: What kind of editing will give me the biggest return on my investment?
Unfortunately, there is no simple answer. Assuming your goal for editing is achieving a commercially successful novel, so many things factor into the success of a book that no single service or strategy alone can be singled out as the make-or-break item—other than the quality of the story and writing, naturally. From an editor’s perspective, nearly every book can be improved by each different type of editing, from developmental to proofreading. And each different type of editing provides different benefits. (In other words, developmental editing won’t fix your grammar; that’s what copyediting achieves. But copyediting won’t be looking at ways to improve your novel’s structure, which is what a developmental edit is for. And neither will polish your paragraph and scene structure the way a line-edit will.)
Do I Really Need Developmental Editing?
I am often asked “Do you think I need developmental editing?” Of course, as mentioned, in my opinion every book can be improved by developmental editing—even Stephen King and Brandon Sanderson have editors—but how much or how little is impossible to determine without first reading the full manuscript.
To determine for yourself if your novel “needs” developmental editing, you first have to define what you mean by “need.” This can be determined by defining your goals for the novel: Is your plan to write a best-seller that will be bought by a major publisher? Is it to write a good story that entertains family and friends, primarily? Are you hoping for something in between, such as breaking into the midlist, either as an indie author or traditionally published author, and slowly building a solid fan base and gradual momentum toward eventual full-time authorhood? Or, perhaps, are you simply looking for expert advice on this novel to help you learn some skills to apply to others down the road that you’ll eventually publish?
There are other questions that you need to ask yourself as well, such as: How much time and willingness do you have to do major revisions if your editor finds structural issues that they recommend rewriting? How much do you already understand story craft? How much experience do you have as a writer already, and what kind of feedback has your writing received, and from whom, in the past? Also, if your goal is to self-publish, do you have a business plan and budget, and how much have you budgeted for editing?
As you can see, there are many factors to consider when determining if developmental editing is something you need, and only you the author can evaluate this critically and realistically. (Read this article to learn more about the differences between developmental editing and a manuscript critique to help decide which one is right for you.)
That said, you may have every available resource at your disposal and wish to get an editor’s perspective on whether or not the cost of developmental editing is, as first mentioned, going to provide a good return on your investment. Again, only by reading a manuscript can an editor determine this, but there is a compromise. A full or partial manuscript critique can give an editor enough of a sense of the novel’s strengths and weaknesses, as well as the writer’s level of expertise, to be able to provide a recommendation. To get an even better idea, providing a detailed ten-or-so-page synopsis of the story will give the editor an opportunity to suss out potential problem areas. A combination manuscript and synopsis evaluation is the best guide to enable an editor’s recommendation on where your money might best be spent.