Editing Levels: 2. Developmental Editing Checklist

Editing Levels 2. Developmental Editing Checklist
By Norma J Hill (aka Pen and Paper Mama) © 2021

In our previous series for writers, we discussed and provided worksheets for “Self Exploration For Writers,” “Your Writing Life,” and “Author Considerations Beyond Just Writing,” and “Planning Your Writing.”    In this new series, “Editing Levels,” we will explore:

  1. Editing Levels Overview
  2. Developmental Editing Checklist
  3. Substantive/Structural Editing Checklist
  4. Stylistic Editing Checklist
  5. Copyediting Checklist
  6. Proofreading Checklist

At the end of each post in the series, there is a link to a downloadable and printable PDF copy on which you can write your responses. Put them in a binder or Duotang-type report folder (you can continue to add to your binder from the previous series). Then, periodically along your writing journey, return to your answers, read what you noted previously, and add new thoughts and experiences. Through this process, you’ll end up with a wonderful record of your writer’s journey.

2. Developmental Editing Checklist

In this post we will focus on freelance developmental editing and developmental self-editing (for information on developmental editing at a publishing house, see the previous post in this series, “Editing Levels Overview.”)

A freelance developmental editor may be hired by a would-be writer to help them with a writing project from start to finish. The writer will most likely have an overall idea of what he or she wants to write about but has no idea how to start such a big project and carry it through from planning stages, through writing and editing, to marketing and publishing. The developmental editor (or a writing coach) can guide the writer through the process.

Alternatively, a freelance developmental editor can work with an author who needs major help with “big picture issues” of their manuscript, whether it is fiction or nonfiction. The writer may have already written a full manuscript but realizes it has comprehensive problems that affect the entire document. The writer doesn’t know where to begin to sort things out. This kind of developmental editing may include going back to the foundations of a book project and sorting out the overall structure, style, and even the purpose and target audience if those aren’t clear.

If, as a writer, you find yourself in need of a developmental editor, or if you’d like to do some developmental self-editing of your work on your own and/or with your team, the following checklist will help. In fact, every writer should start self-editing by doing an overall read-through and evaluation, watching out for overall developmental issues.

As you go through the following points, be sure to jot down relevant answers to the questions, regarding your own manuscript. You’ll want to download and print out the attached document, as it spaces out the points more, and helps you work through, step-by-step.

Overall perspectives: The developmental edit may include some of the same issues which substantive (structural) editors and stylistic editors deal with, but it will view them from a broader perspective. Developmental editing performs an overall evaluation, reading through the manuscript and identifying major issues. New approaches and ideas for major problems like structure and purpose are worked out, as are issues like character and plot development. Sometimes this level is referred to as a “macro level edit” or a “manuscript critique.” If you hire a developmental editor, that person will often write a 10-15 page evaluative report, which may:

– include suggestions, and even examples, of how to solve identified issues.
– suggest ways to reorganize the document (perhaps helping the writer create a detailed outline from which to do a rewritten overall draft).
– give advice on making the manuscript more readable and interesting for the intended audience.
– help the writer develop personal clarity around foundations such as target audience, purpose, or theme before carrying on with the project.
– show the writer how to develop main ideas and related details.
Foundational items a developmental edit may include:

Target audience:Who are they? Have they even been defined? If the audience has been defined, has the manuscript actually turned out to be relevant for them? If the audience has not been defined, it needs to be done now. Who is the audience? What do they need? What are their interests and expectations? What do they already know?

Purpose: Is the purpose of the book to:
– Entertain (narrative/ story-telling), or
– Prove a point (persuasive writing), or
– Explain an issue (expository writing), or
– Describe (descriptive writing)?
Is there a clear purpose for this manuscript? Has it been kept in mind throughout? Why is the author even writing this? What are the author’s hopes, vision, and intentions in writing it? Will the book’s message be interpreted by readers in the way the writer has intended? If not, how can the message and purpose be made clearer?

Theme(s): What is the overall theme? Are there related sub-themes? What are they? Does the main theme drive most of the story? Is the theme:
– related to actions, thoughts, speech?
– related to setting (era/time period, real or created world, mood/atmosphere)?
– related to the philosophy of the narrator and protagonist?

Title: Is it meaningful and catchy?  
Types of revision a developmental edit may recommend:

Overall revision: Rethink foundational issues to make overall improvements. Fit each piece together like a jigsaw puzzle. Delete off-topic, repetitive, unnecessary chapters, fillers, details, and fluff.

Revise for form: Does the chosen form (nonfiction, fiction, drama, poetry, graphic novel, etc.) work with the purpose?Does the work fit the expectations and patterns of the intended genre?

Revise for content: Is the content clear and logical? Does it make sense? Does the author know the topic or is more research needed? Is it interesting? Does it hook the reader and then keep them reading? Has there been a good balance of showing and telling? Are there any gaps in the story or lack of information about a sub-topic—or is there too much repetition or too much information on a particular sub-topic? Does the content conform to the expectations of the genre or format?

Revise by chapter or scene:

For each scene: Is there a clear setting? Is there a beginning and middle, and a suitable end or transition? Is there some level of conflict? Is the scene plausible? Is it necessary to the storyline? Does it begin and end at appropriate points?

For each chapter: Has it started and ended with something that impels the reader to continue? Is the central theme evident in each chapter? Are the following scene and/or chapter elements included?
– Action—defined by what the main character does
– Background/back-story—adds texture and layers; “shows” but is not overdone
– Characters—actions, reactions, traits
– Details, motifs, sub-themes that add depth
– Is there a good blend of narration, dialogue, description?

Revise for structure: If fiction/story, is there a strong narrative arc? This may include:            


– Does it grab/hook the reader? How? Intrigue? Action? Is the reader engaged, compelled to keep reading? Does it start off strong? Does it reveal the situation?
– What’s the problem? Does it hint at the theme(s)? Does it begin character development, focusing on the protagonist (main character), and possibly introducing the antagonist?
– Does it set the stage: setting (time period, place), mood, tone?

Storyline/ Plot:
– Does it have a clear story arc? (exposition, rising action, climax, resolution)?
– Is it credible, believable? Are there any plot glitches or holes? Are issues/problems in the plot resolved?
– Is there too much or too little back story? Is back story added when it’s needed in the plot line, or has it been dumped at the beginning?
– Is there enough conflict to carry the story and keep the reader interested?
– Have details been checked for accuracy?
– Does the story flow smoothly?
– Is there a problem with dependency (Does the reader find him/herself having to flip back to find details that affect a much later part of the story)? Is it difficult for the reader to remember what happened before? Why?
– Are there through lines—threads that weave through the story, provide momentum, hold the story together? Are there 3 to 5 through lines in the novel (or 1 to 2 in a short story)?
– Does each part of the story contribute to ongoing character development?

– Do chapter, section, and scene endings keep the reader intrigued (by using cliff hangers, unanswered questions, reversals, resolutions?)
– Do the endings contribute to the pacing and tension of the story?
– Is the climax of the story sufficient? Is the reader left satisfied at the end of the story? Does the ending tie up any loose ends? Is it believable? Does it fit with the story?
– In a series, does the ending of one book motivate the reader to want to read the next one?
– Has the author taken this advice: Don’t give away the ending until the end … and then end it?

In nonfiction: Has the book been a good learning experience? Do the scenes have a natural flow, with good transitions? Are there any issues with pacing? Are there thematic details that occur throughout the story?  
Revise for character development:

– Is each main character unique, well developed, three-dimensional, and easily pictured? Do the main characters have both external characteristics (physical appearance, how they speak and behave, etc.) and internal strengths and weaknesses?
– What will the characters do to reach their goals; what decisions will they make? How will that affect the story?
– Are there well-developed relationships between the main characters?
Protagonist (the main character):Are the protagonist’s goals clearly defined – both the main goal and smaller goals that support it? Is the protagonist sufficiently challenged? Are there strong enough problems, both the main large one and smaller related ones? Do readers begin to feel empathy for the protagonist right from the start? What character traits (strength/weakness) create the protagonist’s inciting incident (the incident that creates the main problem/conflict in the story) and later affect the resolution (the event that resolves that main problem)? Does the protagonist develop and change adequately due to challenges and conflicts?
Antagonist (the character or situation that most strongly opposes the protagonist): What is the antagonist’s main goal? How does that goal prevent the protagonist from attaining his goal/solving his problem, and how does that create conflict?  
Supports a developmental editor may suggest to improve the manuscript:

– Suggestions on how to bring the topic to life: better wording, accuracy, freshness, anecdotes
– Ideas on how the writer can prove his or her point: elaboration, details, facts, definitions, examples, statistics, questions
– Methods to engage readers: Use of particular editing methods such as “Reverse Outlining” that help the writer identify issues and solve them  

Putting these notes into practice:

When you have completed the first draft of your manuscript, set it aside for a week or two or clear your mind. Review the checklist above, and then read through the manuscript, making notes on aspects you need to improve before carrying on with further self-editing. This is also a good time to reach out to your alpha reader to read your manuscript and provide input (provide a copy of the checklist).

Or, if you haven’t written the manuscript because you need guidance on how to put your planning notes into manuscript form; or if you are part way through your first draft and feel stuck, you can hire a Developmental Editor to help you through this process. Or you can ask for help from members of your self-editing team (alpha/beta readers, writers’ group members, Feedback group, writing partner). Be sure to explain what you already realize you are having difficulty with, and for the non-professional members of your team, provide a copy of the checklist above so they can help you well.


PDF LINK: Editing Levels: 2. Developmental Editing Checklist

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