Is developmental editing cheating?

Is Hiring a Developmental Editor Cheating?

Molly McCowan Business Storytelling 8 Comments

Last year, a potential client approached me about copyediting his novel. He was going to self-publish it, and he just wanted to make sure there were no typos or small grammatical errors.

I reviewed the manuscript to assess what it needed and quickly discovered that it had problems with the point of view (POV). It was a multiperspective novel (meaning that it had multiple POV characters), and it was impossible to tell who was speaking in each separate section. Some sections used the first person (“I”), while others used the third person (“he,” “she,” or “they”). Some characters only appeared once, while other characters recurred throughout. The chapters and sections didn’t interconnect, either, and the novel as a whole felt very disjointed. It seemed like a collection of short stories in many ways, with only one thread—the setting—tying everything together.

I discussed the POV problems and other issues with the author and asked him whether this project might be best realized as a series of short stories. He said he definitely wanted it to be a novel, with the “I” characters as the narrators. This wasn’t coming through, however, and I shared my concern that readers would be confused and may not want to keep reading.

I recommended developmental editing to fix these issues and make sure the novel would compel his target audience and make them want to keep reading. He seemed open to the idea, and we scheduled a short call to discuss further.

Early in our call, however, he said that he’d changed his mind—he wasn’t interested in developmental editing because he’d decided that the book wouldn’t be his anymore. In his view, hiring a developmental editor would be cheating.

He felt very strongly that he wouldn’t be doing his job as a writer if he couldn’t figure out the plot, setting, characters, and POV on his own. To him, it was wrong to accept help on these larger issues, and he was adamant that talented writers didn’t work with editors on things like this. After giving it some thought, he believed that only very light copyediting and proofreading were acceptable for any writer worth their salt.

Of course I disagreed, but by this point, I could tell that we weren’t going to be a good writer–editor match. Did I feel like arguing my case, or did I just want to wish him good luck and send him on his way?

On a whim, I asked him who his favorite writers were. He answered, Hemingway and Fitzgerald.

Oh, boy. He couldn’t have named two writers more perfect for me to use as examples. Before I knew it, the words were spilling out of my mouth.

“So the ‘great’ writers like Hemingway and Fitzgerald never had developmental help with their books?” I asked.

“Of course they didn’t,” he said. “They were great writers, and writers of that caliber have to be able to do the basics, like plot, characters, and point of view.”

“This might seem like a completely random question, but do you know the name Gertrude Stein? Or Max Perkins?”

“Stein, yeah. She was a writer, but I don’t know much about her.”

“And you know about the Lost Generation of writers in the twenties?”

“I’ve heard of it, for sure. Hemingway was in it, right?”

“Yes, exactly—Fitzgerald was there too. They all lived in Paris at the time, and Gertrude Stein read their rough manuscripts and gave them feedback on their plot, characters, settings, point of view, and other big issues with their writing. She was their developmental editor, in a way. They also read each other’s work and had a very active critique group where they shared ideas and tried to help each other improve. Even though they did end up getting pretty competitive with each other, they were always trying to get better at their craft, along with the other writers in that group. They worked on, and changed, large developmental items in their novels because of the feedback they got from Stein and the other writers.”

“Is that true?”

“Yes, Gertrude Stein was a huge influence on all of them. Then Max Perkins came into play—he discovered both Hemingway and Fitzgerald and was their editor at Scribner’s. Max would suggest large developmental changes as well, and he helped both writers reshape their most influential and successful novels. The other editors at Scribner’s hated Fitzgerald’s first novel and rejected it, and Max helped Fitzgerald rewrite it completely and turn it into a huge success. That was This Side of Paradise, if you’ve read it. He also discovered and edited Tom Wolfe. There’s a great biography about him called Max Perkins: Editor of Genius.”


“So, knowing that your favorite writers actually had trouble selling their work before it went through developmental editing, and incorporated a lot of major feedback, do you think about hiring a developmental editor a bit differently? Does it change your perspective?”

“Well, no. I still think it’s cheating.”

“So Fitzgerald and Hemingway cheated? They weren’t just working with fellow writers and editors to become the very best at their craft?”

“No. I really can’t believe that Fitzgerald and Hemingway needed that much help.”

“That’s the heart of it right there, though—we all need help, guidance, and practice to become the best at our craft. Someone might be born with the natural spark and unique voice it takes to become a famous writer, but they still have to practice, learn, and improve for years to let that voice come out. It’s like any other craft. Take metalwork, for example. You have to learn how to wield the tools, and it takes a lot of practice under a mentor or teacher.”

Silence. I ended our call shortly after.

I’d already given up on this client, and if he would’ve named other favorite writers, I wouldn’t have launched into that monologue. But I couldn’t resist: Hemingway and Fitzgerald so famously worked with many people who helped them make large developmental changes to their work…and shape them into the world-renowned writers (both with unique voices) we know today.

Now, another editor might have decided to turn a blind eye to the developmental problems in the manuscript and just do a very light copyedit, like the author wanted. That’s not how I work. Part of my value is in being able to tell what stage a manuscript is actually at. I’ll always recommend what’s best for the manuscript and what it needs at this stage, even if it means losing a potential client or telling them that their manuscript is not ready for any kind of editing yet. (Rewrite City, here we come!)

Writing—and getting better at it—is similar to any other craft. You wouldn’t wade out into a river with a fishing pole—and no lessons or training—and assume that you instinctively have to know how to fish. You’d accept that taking some lessons, or at least watching some YouTube videos, was part of the process of learning this new skill.

Even if you’ve been fishing for a while, there’s nothing wrong with hiring a guide or mentor to get better. Similarly, there’s nothing wrong with starting your own fishing club and learning tips and tricks from the other members. Learning and practicing are the only ways to improve, and they’re a given in other crafts, so why not writing?

Perfecting a craft is something that always requires a good teacher or mentor. No one can be good right away, and writing—especially writing well—is hard. You have to first understand the “rules” to know whether, or how, you should break them.

The best writers are always learning, practicing, and improving. And the best editors are the support system to help them along the way.

* * *

Do you think developmental editing is cheating? Where do you draw the line between a writer’s natural talent and what they’ve learned and been helped with along the way? Does that line even matter? Share your thoughts with your fellow word nerds in the comments.

Molly McCowan
Molly McCowan is a professional writer and editor from Fort Collins, Colorado. As the Lead Word Nerd at Inkbot Editing, it's her job to make you look good.
  • Ramona Gault

    Molly, this is great timing for me. I have a couple of potential clients I need to have the talk with about dev editing, and I’m going to forward your post to them. But then I scroll down the page and see you’re going to teach “self-editing for writers”! Don’t you think we should avoid giving writers the impression they can edit themselves? How do you reconcile this with your excellent advice on having an editor? Perhaps you’ll address that conflict in your video class? I’m a writer and an editor, so I can see the writing process from both sides, and I wouldn’t try to fool myself that I can edit my own novel draft.

    • Hi Ramona! Thanks so much for your comment. Yes, in the email version of this post, I mentioned that I’ll be teaching a video course on self-editing for writers.

      I strongly believe that writers need to go through at least a few full revisions of their rough draft before approaching an editor—even a developmental editor. While I do offer very high-level developmental feedback that can be done on a rough draft (I call this book coaching), it’s best that writers learn how to revise to the point where professional developmental editing can give them a lot more bang for their buck.

      My course will talk about the four levels of editing (developmental editing, line editing, copyediting, and proofreading), and how to revise your work before working with an editor. I’ll talk a lot about why it’s very much worth your time to both revise your work on your own and hire a professional editor.

      Additionally, some writers simply don’t have the budget to go through both a developmental edit and a copyedit. Depending on their publishing goals, a professional copyedit (versus a developmental edit) may be more important. So, it’s always on a case-by-case basis, and the course will talk about the smartest way to spend your budget and get the most value out of it.

      The course also talks about why no one should ever do their own proofreading! (We just can’t see our own typos and tiny mistakes.) 🙂

      Great question!

      • Ramona Gault

        Thanks, Molly! I’m much clearer now about what you’ll be offering, and it makes sense. I don’t think I’ve seen any editor discuss what to do *before* getting a dev edit. I’ll check out your course, as I have a couple of WIPs. Best wishes!

  • Wow, I find your potential client’s response fascinating. As someone who wrote my first book with a community of co-creators I can’t fathom harboring such a closed mindset that developmental feedback is cheating. But I suppose it depends on how you approach your writing in the first place. My take was that I was the steward of the ideas and as steward, engaging other’s in my creative process was paramount to doing the book justice! It seems like his sense of identity (and ultimately ego) is more tied to his book being only his. That just seems like a suffocating amount of pressure and a hard road to take! I’d choose developmental feedback any day knowing it makes me batter at my craft…but we have always been very aligned in that and I did learn everything I know about developmental feedback from you in the first place 😉

    • It was an interesting response, and it really stuck with me! I think ego can definitely play a role (for any of us), and also the very dangerous game of “shoulds”: “I should be able to do this on my own,” “I shouldn’t need help with this,” and so on. There also may be some perfectionism at play (which I understand very well!) in thinking that it’s only okay to accept help on certain tasks. In any case, it’s led to some interesting discussions, and has opened me up to understanding this point of view a bit more.

  • brianbaughan

    Great post. If I ever find myself in a similar situation with a potential client, I’ll be sure to forward this on. I’ve always wondered if there are longform “deep dives” about specific literary works and the contributions that editors made in steering those works toward greatness. I imagine there’s good stuff in that regard in the Berg biography of Perkins, so it’s on my list. What would be even better for me is an article or book about the dev. edit process in regard to nonfiction (my specialty). Anything you know of?

    • Thanks, Brian! Yes, the Max Perkins biography is great. It was also made into a movie with Colin Firth and Jude Law, but I haven’t seen it yet.

      My go-to for nonfiction dev editing is Scott Norton’s book, Developmental Editing: A Handbook for Freelancers, Authors, and Publishers. If you haven’t read it yet, I would highly recommend it! My copy is heavily highlighted and dog-eared.

      • brianbaughan

        Yes, I’ve got the Norton book as well. It’s terrific. I’m sure I’m going to keep going back to it.