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Top 5 Developmental Editing Issues by Christine Amsden

Even after eight years of developmental (story) editing, I never know quite what to expect when I read a new client’s work for the first time. Every project is unique, with strengths and weaknesses that need to be weighed and measured. That’s why developmental editing is, in its own way, as creative as writing itself – at least if you’re doing it right. Yes, there are “rules,” but there are also clever ways to break those rules to good effect, and there are a hundred ways to write around anything that isn’t working. Which way will serve the author’s intention the best? That’s the question.

Having said that, after eight years I do notice that a lot of the issues I see fall into a handful of routine categories. The first of these issues is more common from new authors, but the others can happen to anyone at any time (including pros). So, without further ado, the five most common issues I see as a developmental editor:

1. Point of View

Now, before you get defensive and start contemplating all the fun, experimental things you can do with POV if only you’re clever and creative enough to look past the third person, let me just say:

You have to understand the rules before you can break them.

And a lot of novice authors fail to understand POV on a fundamental level. Head-hopping is very common, as is quasi-cinematic-or-maybe-you’ve-only-ever-watched-movies-never-read-a-book. Failure to understand POV is also the most challenging issue to deal with during edits. Why? Because if I’m being totally honest with the authors who send me books that, in the worst cases, don’t seem to have a point of view at all, they need a total rewrite. From the ground up. A well-written POV might be invisible, or it might be in your face, or somewhere in between, but regardless, POV underlies every other choice you make. It’s in every paragraph. Every sentence.

Experienced authors often have POV errors too, but they are usually minor and can be dealt with during a copy edit.

2. Starting in the Wrong Spot

This is one of the most common issues I see, not just from novices, but also from established authors. Sometimes hitting just the right note in the beginning is hard, especially when you’re too close to the story. Some authors will sort of “clear their throats” at the top of a manuscript; this particular error makes me chuckle because I get it. I do it myself. And it’s not hard to fix – I find the spot a few pages down where the story should have started and make a note. Other stories start too late – this usually results in a flashback early in the narrative. Or an overload of backstory (info dump). You can find a lot of good advice regarding exactly when and how to begin your story, but on a case by case basis, applying the advice can be tricky. A good editor – or even a critique partner – can sometimes see what you’re missing.

3. “As you know, Bob…”

Information dumping, both in and out of dialog, is also very common. The most blatant perpetrators tend to be novices, but I’ve seen pros try to sneak one past me. “As you know, Bob…” isn’t just literal. It refers to any conversation that serves no purpose other than to relay information to the reader, and that probably wouldn’t take place if these characters were real. Which makes it a plausibility error, at its core.

4. Huh?

Confusion is a tricky emotion to feel when you’re editing something. I’m not going to lie – I have as many insecurities as the next person, so when I don’t get what just happened, I question myself first. “Oh shoot, I must have missed something.” Scrabbling with the material, I try to figure out what it was…did the author mention this character before and I forgot? Has this been in the room the whole time? Sometimes, I did miss something. I’m human.

But more often than not, if I’m feeling confused on a careful, editorial read (not at all the same thing as a casual read), then there’s something confusing going on. And if I’m feeling it, your readers are going to feel it.

Confusion can stem from something as simple as careless wording (and in fact, is part of copy editing as well as developmental editing) to something as complex as story elements not being explained well. Sometimes, confusion comes from withheld information – the opposite of info-dumping. I’ve made notes to authors in the past urging them not to be afraid of revealing a little information – it isn’t truly a dump until it’s lengthy and/or irrelevant. Complex world building can also be confusing – fantasy and science fiction keep me on my toes!

Confusion is yet another issue that can take down a pro. I’d even go so far as to say that it’s the most common pro issue, and the reason developmental editing is important no matter how experienced you become.

5. GMC (Plot)

The GMC is a simple, elegant plotting tool that asks, “What is your MC’s goal, what motivates her to seek this goal, and what conflict keeps her from achieving it?” I love this tool because it’s easy to trace this force through a book’s entire narrative spine, and because it can be used to describe most plot problems. Most of the time, if I’m struggling with a plot, I’m failing to understand a main character’s goals or motivations. I’ll often ask, “What her stake in all this?” The higher the stakes, the higher the emotional commitment, the better the story. Sometimes, an author will hide character motivations, either intentionally or accidentally. This is almost always a problem as it keeps the reader at arm’s length, unable to connect to the story.

Let me conclude by saying that even though I’m a developmental editor, I get my stories edited by someone I trust to be able to spot all these issues and more. Confusion is hard to see after the fifth revision, as are inconsistencies, opening hook problems, and more.

Editing is an important part of the writing process at all ability levels; it can’t fix flat-out bad writing (though it can try), but it can take your work from good to great.


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Don’t miss Christine’s workshop starting Monday!


Frozen: a ParaNormal Mystery (Cassie Scot Book 7)

Apparently, life doesn’t end when you get married.

When a couple freezes to death on a fifty degree day, Cassie is called in to investigate. The couple ran a daycare out of their home, making preschoolers the key witnesses and even the prime suspects.

Two of those preschoolers are Cassie’s youngest siblings, suggesting conditions at home are worse than she feared. As Cassie struggles to care for her family, she must face the truth about her mother’s slide into depression, which seems to be taking the entire town with it.

Then Cassie, too, is attacked by the supernatural cold. She has to think fast to survive, and her actions cause a rift between her and her husband.

No, life doesn’t end after marriage. All hell can break loose at any time.

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Christine Amsden is a freelance editor and the author of nine award-winning books. Over the past seven years, she has worked almost exclusively with indie clients, and she has developed various strategies to help each maximize his/her potential within a given budget.

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