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Perform your own Developmental Edit

Perform your own Developmental Edit: A Step-by-Step Guide

Perform your own Developmental Edit

What is a developmental edit?

A developmental edit, otherwise known as a structural edit, is when an editor or writer analyses how well a story develops within a manuscript. It’s different from a copy edit, which looks at grammar, punctuation, and sentence-level style improvements. 

Because a developmental edit looks at the large-scale way a story functions—how the scenes and chapters work together—a developmental edit should always be carried out before a copyedit.

This makes sense when you think of a story like architecture: don’t polish the floorboards until you’re sure the roof won’t collapse.

Likewise, don’t spend hours perfecting sentences that might need to be cut.

Because, if the overall scene where this glittering prose is located isn’t moving your story forward, cutting it may be inevitable in the end. Perish the painful thought.

And yes, I know! You’re a writer. Writing and re-writing wonderful sentences full of poetic undertones and verbal acrobatics is what brings you joy in life. It’s what you do—your specialist skillset.

You can go ahead and play with words as much as you like—but only once the developmental edit is done.

Developmental edits are about crafting strong stories—and strong stories are what readers want.

If all readers were looking for was rhythmic language and strong metaphors, they’d turn to poetry. A fiction novel, on the other hand, makes a promise to its reader: read this book and become immersed in the lives and quests of imaginary people.

You need your readers desperate to turn pages, to find out what your characters do next.

 

How to perform your own developmental edit

I won’t lie. Carrying out your own developmental edit is no easy task.

You’ll need to focus your most objective, critical eye over the book you’ve spent hours, weeks, months, and years, lovingly drafting. You’ll need to question whether sections of this precious manuscript should be cut, revised, amended, or rewritten.

You’ll find it easier to be objective, and the whole process less daunting, if you have a strong grasp of story structure.

My own understanding of how to carry out a developmental edit greatly improved after I trained as a Fictionary Certified Story Editor and learned how to carry out a systematic analysis of story and scene structure.

My step-by-step guide is designed to instill as much of this knowledge as possible into six steps, in order to help you find your impartial inner critic. It’s based on the 38 Story Elements Fictionary Certified StoryCoach Editors use to carry out developmental edits, providing writers with thorough, objective feedback on their story.

We always recommend you first read through your manuscript, taking extensive editing notes, and making a revision plan, before you start revising the words on the page. You won’t know how much needs changing—nor how best to make these changes — until you’ve finalized your plan.

 

Step One: Your Story’s Skeleton Blurb

First things first. You want to conceptualize your story in one sentence.

Once you’ve done this, you can examine whether all your scenes have earned their place.

At Fictionary, we call this sentence your skeleton blurb, and suggest you write it using the following form:

[Protagonist] must [story goal], otherwise [story stakes].

Let’s examine JRR Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings:

Frodo Baggins must destroy the ring of power otherwise Sauron will rule Middle Earth.

Or, Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games:

Katniss Everdeen must win the Hunger Games otherwise she will die and her family will starve without her.

If you’re struggling to figure out who your protagonist is, see Fictionary’s free e-book by Kristina Stanley: What is a Protagonist?

Without a clear story goal, readers don’t know what to root for and may grow bored. The story goal is important for all stories. This is what the protagonist either succeeds or fails at in the story’s Climax, at your story’s 85%-95% mark.

Without strong story stakes (i.e. what happens if this goal fails), readers won’t know why they should care about your story.

Once you have this sentence, you can check that every scene in your manuscript relates to this skeleton blurb. If it doesn’t, consider whether the scene should be cut or amended.

Here’s a tip: Removing all scenes that are unrelated to your skeleton blurb will vastly improve your story’s pacing.

Can you imagine if, halfway through The Lord of the Rings, Frodo destroyed the ring, and the rest of the trilogy focused on his romantic dalliances instead? That’s an example of a story goal being answered too early/ switching midway.

What if Frodo spent the first two and a half books trying to locate Gandalf, blithely unaware of how dangerous the ring was? Imagine he—and you—only discovered at the end of the third book that he’d been carrying the apocalyptic ring of power, with which an evil dictator planned to take over the world.

You’d never read far enough into the story to find this out. You’d be so bored that you wouldn’t care what happened to that blasted ring.

Knowing your protagonist, story goal and stakes is the first step of your developmental edit. This will help prevent your story from—horror of horrors—being boring.

 

Step Two: Your Protagonist’s Inner Journey

Some stories focus less on external goals; and more on internal growth and change.

In these character-led stories, an external story goal is still valuable for helping you edit structure and pacing into your story.

You may also find it helpful to be able to summarise your protagonist’s internal growth arc in one sentence. Try not to confuse this internal growth arc with your external story goal.

It can feel reductive to summarise a character’s growth into one sentence, but it’ll help you keep this learning curve on track as you edit your story’s structure.

For example, Katniss’s character arc in The Hunger Games could be:

Katniss needs to learn that not all the Games competitors are her enemies; her true enemy is the Capitol.

It doesn’t matter if you’d write this sentence differently: Katniss needs to learn trust and teamwork; Katniss needs to let others help her, etc. These are variations on a theme; there should be room for reader’s interpretation of your story’s deeper messages.

What matters is that everyone can find a clear interpretation—one that gives their reading experience coherence and meaning.

 

Step Three: Assess your Story against the Story Arc

The core structure of the story arc has been around for thousands of years and it’s the backbone of some of the world’s best stories. I think of it as a form, rather than a formula. Just as architectural style varies a great deal from building to building but relies on the same technical engineering to create a solid structure, stories vary a great deal but rely on the same story structure at its core.

As you make editing notes, consider whether your manuscript’s key plot point scenes fall at the right target points of the Story Arc.

Before we go on, let’s look quickly at these five key scenes so you can find them in your manuscript.

Inciting Incident.

In the first 15 % of your manuscript, does your protagonist meet their story goal? (This is the story goal defined in your skeleton blurb above).

Plot Point One

Within your story’s 20-30% marks, is there a scene where the protagonist commits to their story goal? This is the “there’s no turning back now” scene.

Midpoint

In your story’s middle, in the 45-55% range, is there a scene in which your protagonist takes charge of their story goal, becoming fully proactive, driving the action rather than responding to events as they arise? This is your middle or midpoint.

Plot Point 2

Within your story’s 70-80% mark, is there a scene where your protagonist reaches the low point of their journey, where it seems they’ve lost all hope of reaching their story goal? And, as a result of reaching rock bottom, do they learn whatever they need to learn in order to grow as a character? And, if they succeed in growing, will this growth lead directly towards them achieving their story goal in the Climax?

Look for a major personal change that makes all the difference. This is your plot point 2.

Climax

At your story’s 85-95% mark, does the reader see your protagonist fail or succeed in reaching their story goal? And is their success or failure linked to the lesson they learned at Plot Point Two? This is your climax and the place where your protagonist attains the goal set in the skeleton blurb above.

Here’s Tolkien’s The Hobbit meeting the Story Arc:

Now, it’s all very well for me to say this – but what if your draft manuscript doesn’t follow this pattern?

Firstly, try not to panic.

If you’re self-editing, I suggest first making extensive notes on what happens in your story at these percentage points. If you find the scenes at these points don’t meet the structure I’ve set out above, have a think about:

  • Whether you could rework these scenes so that they do fit the story arc points, or
  • Whether any other scenes in your story already meet these descriptions, and if—with some creative restructuring—you might move these scenes around.

In a surprising number of cases, you’ll find you can rework what’s written to bring your story in line with the Arc.

We’ve all been reading, watching, and listening to successful stories since we learned how to talk. Since most successful stories do meet the arc, you’ll have subconsciously imbibed this understanding of story structure from a young age.

Remember, you’re not just a creative writer. You’re also a creative storyteller.

If you can’t see how you can make your story meet these target points without a major rewrite, try not to beat yourself up about it. This happens to most writers at one time or another.

Many of us like to write our first draft without extensive planning, letting our pen (keyboard) follow the creative muse, letting our characters speak for themselves as we slowly discover what the story’s actually about. In these cases, it can help to think of this first manuscript as ‘Draft Zero’, to avoid growing overly attached to it.

When you write your editing notes, remember to highlight everything that’s great about your current manuscript – its strengths as well as its weaknesses. Clarify what story you want to tell.

Then, go away and away and re-write your skeleton blurb, ensuring it summarises your strongest story vision. You can now revise or rewrite your plot points, so that they focus on the story goal you’ve identified in this skeleton blurb.

Story Arc Essentials

As you evaluate your story, ensure that:

  • Your protagonist meets their story goal at the Inciting Incident
  • Your protagonist reactively commits to their story goal at Plot Point One
  • Your protagonist undergoes a shift in attitude which leads them to more proactively drive the action towards the story goal at the Midpoint.
  • Your protagonist’s failure to fully learn the key lesson of their inner growth arc leads to a low point in their story goal journey at Plot Point Two. At this point, they have the opportunity to learn whatever they need to learn, to be ready to take on the story’s Climax.
  • Your protagonist succeeds or fails to achieve their story goal at the Climax

All subplots should affect, in some way, your Protagonist’s journey towards the story goal. If they don’t, you risk losing the reader’s interest as subplots develop.

Creative reimagining of your subplots can be an effective way to help revise your story if your current manuscript isn’t yet on target for the story arc.

What NOT to Do

Do not pull out your favorite sentences and structure your story around them. That, my friend, is a case of the proverbial cart pulling the reluctant horse.

If you can’t surrender those beautiful sentences, but they don’t belong in your revised scenes, consider shaping a short story or a poem around them instead.

 

Quick pause here: If this all seems like a lot, I recommend coming and joining one of Fictionary’s Guided Editing Courses. Certified StoryCoach Editors like me work with small groups of writers to help them navigate this editing journey. We are there to assign tasks and answer your questions. Come join us! 

 

Step Four: Your Scene Structure

In this next step, you begin to focus on your story at the scene level. This gives you smaller, more manageable sections of the manuscript to work with as you edit.

You may have one scene per chapter, or you may have multiple scenes per chapter, or you may have scenes that carry over more than one chapter.

Scenes are your story’s building blocks.

The strength of your scenes determines if your story is a glittering palace of gold or a castle composed of straw.

Excellent scene structure will help ensure your story has strong pacing throughout; it will also help your reader connect with your protagonist.

Think of a scene as a mini-story. As your larger story is structured around one central story goal, a scene should be structured around a central scene goal. Think of every scene as its own small story within a story.

Unless you’re writing in third-person omniscient narration, your scene should be written from the point-of-view of one character, and the scene goal should belong to this point-of-view character. If it doesn’t, consider whether you’ve used the best point-of-view character or scene goal for the scene.

Goals give the reader something to root for, a question the scene will answer, and a reason to care about what the character does throughout the scene. Without them, your story and your characters will appear to drift aimlessly, without direction.

You need to make sure that every single scene has:

  • A beginning, including an entry hook—something to entice the reader to read on—and a scene goal.
  • Meaningful consequences to the protagonist depend on whether the scene goal succeeds or fails, including meaningful consequences to their overall story goal. For example, a scene goal of ‘drink a glass of water’ only carries meaningful consequences if your character is at risk of dehydration, etc. Otherwise, it’s probably too boring for anyone to care about.
  • Conflict/ obstacles: the character should face challenges in reaching their goal.
  • A Scene Middle: in which the character engages with the conflict and becomes more proactive in achieving their scene goal.

    Relevance to the character’s inner growth arc — what has the character learned from their experience in this scene?
  • An end—i.e. a Scene Climax: answering the question of whether the character succeeded or failed in their scene goal.
  • An emotional impact on the character.
  • An exit hook – a reason for the reader to turn the page.

Why is this scene structure necessary?

Yes, we know it is a lot of work to check this for every single scene, but it will make all the difference. 

Without this scene structure, your story risks falling into a common trap for writers—the absence of cause and effect. Most writers fear the dreaded criticism: “Your story reads like an unconnected sequence of events: this happened, then this happened, then this happened.”

And here’s the thing: it’s far easier to write first drafts thinking—what happens next to my protagonist? It’s a natural way of letting a first draft develop by itself.

But this can lead to you creating a passive protagonist the reader doesn’t connect with, and a sense of aimlessness in your story.

If you’ve written your first draft this way, many of us do—I speak from personal experience!—then this is when you need to:

  • take a deep breath,
  • remind yourself that this is probably your ‘Draft Zero,’ and
  • start looking more deeply at what your character wants, and
  • how you can ensure they are driving the action, not bobbing about like a loose raft in an ocean of words.

Ensuring every scene is well-structured around a scene goal can require substantial revisions to your existing text.

Once you’ve found the strongest scene goals for each scene, you’ll find your story is much better equipped to ‘show’ your reader the story, rather than merely ‘telling’ them what happened.

 

Step Five: Checking your Scene Progression

Now you’ve edited your scene structure, you need to go back and look at how these scenes inter-relate with each other.

Story Goal Tracking

Look at the Climax of each scene: is your protagonist always successful in their scene goal? Do they often end the scene with a happier emotion than they began it?

In which case (unless you’re writing for young children), is there a risk your reader will anticipate success before it happens, reducing tension, and boring them?

If so, consider whether you might want to show your protagonist failing more. After all, we usually learn more through failure than success.

Or if your protagonist regularly fails at their goal, might the reader stop rooting for such an incompetent character? Will they correctly anticipate consistent failure? Will this negatively affect their reading experience?

Ideally, your protagonist should experience a mix of failure and success as the story progresses to keep the reader guessing. And their failure/success should have a clear, direct impact on their learning experience throughout the story. This will help the reader understand what the story is ‘about’, through showing rather than telling.

You can track the successes and failures yourself or you can use software like Fictionary to track your protagonist’s ups and downs for you.

 

Step Six: Making Your Scene Immersive

Now, look at each scene and ask yourself:

  • Are the character motivations as clear as they need to be for the reader to understand them at this point in the story? Have you shown your characters react to the action, so the reader understands their thought process?
  • Is the setting immersive? Have you given enough visual details for the reader to ‘see’ what’s happening?
  • Have you anchored the reader in the location and time before the action takes place?
  • Have you made good use of all five senses throughout your story?
  • Have you always chosen the best location for the scene?

Once you’ve made editing notes for the entire manuscript, it’s time to start revising: adding what’s missing, removing scenes that haven’t earned their place, and reworking what needs changed.

Only when your revision is done, can you move on to copyediting: perfecting your prose.

 

Conclusion: Your Self-Edit Needs a Plan

Performing a developmental edit on your story is not easy. It requires a change in perspective from writer to reader. But it’s essential, even if you are planning to hire a professional editor. You are the writer and only you know how your story should be told. Assessing your story against Fictionary’s 38 Story Elements helps you be more objective and gives you a clear editing plan.

You’ll be better able to see what’s working and what could be improved to really connect with your reader.

Try your free two-week trial to see how StoryTeller could make your developmental edit easier and your story shine. Or come join Fictionary’s friendly online community, where passionate writers and editors chat about story structure.

 

About the Autor: Polly Watt

As a Fictionary Certified StoryCoach Editor, Polly Watt will carry out a detailed developmental edit of your manuscript, providing objective, actionable feedback. She seeks to inspire you with fresh perspective and ideas, so that you can make your story shine to its fullest potential. You can learn more about Polly and other StoryCoach Certified Editors at Fictionary at https://fictionary.co/editors/

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3 comments on “Perform your own Developmental Edit: A Step-by-Step Guide
  1. Most helpful article. My story needs a developmental edit. Unfortunately, this realization comes after many a copy edit. Now I have a road map for getting it done. Better late than never. Thank you.

  2. Very helpful summary, Polly, thank you.
    (After this sentence, nothing followed that related to it. I think a chunk might be missing: ‘Here’s Tolkien’s The Hobbit meeting the Story Arc:’

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