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What is Developmental Editing?

Updated: Jun 5

What is developmental editing? What do developmental editors do? How can I developmentally self-edit my novel?

Have these questions? Read on!

Navigating the editing process can be confusing. There are different terms for the various levels of editing and each editor may have a different definition of what their service includes.

It’s not a conspiracy. When I first started my journey, I was baffled. And don’t get me started on job titles in the publishing industry.

What is developmental editing—AKA substantive or content editing?

A developmental edit is a thorough and comprehensive review with suggestions for the manuscript’s overall structure, content, and storytelling elements. It focuses on the big-picture aspects of a book rather than on fine-tuning grammar and punctuation.

The goal is to ensure your story is engaging, coherent, and well-crafted, and that your vision is effectively communicated to the reader. This level of editing assesses the various elements of storytelling, such as plot, characters, pacing, point of view, dialogue, worldbuilding, and messages.

I may include suggestions on restructuring the narrative, refining character arcs, strengthening plot points, enhancing the pacing and tension, improving dialogue or description, and addressing inconsistencies and plot holes. This feedback helps you shape and refine the manuscript, which often requires substantial revisions and rewrites. Because of the potential for major revisions, a developmental edit should be done on an early draft.

During a developmental edit, there are specific aspects of storytelling I consider and questions I ask.

Plot and Structure

I examine the overall narrative structure, pacing, and plot development.

I ask, is the plot engaging and well-structured? Are there any inconsistencies or plot holes?

I analyze the flow of events, the rising and falling action, and the balance between exposition, conflict, and resolution.


I evaluate the characters' development, consistency, and believability.

Are the characters well-rounded and relatable? Do their motivation, actions, dialogue, and habits align with their traits?

I assess their arcs and relationships, ensuring they are compelling and contribute to the story's progression.

Point of View and Voice

I consider the narrative point of view and voice used by the author.

Is the chosen perspective suitable for the story? Does the narrative voice align with the characters and the overall tone?

I ensure consistency in the narrative voice and work to enhance the uniqueness of the storytelling.


I pay attention to the dialogue, evaluating its authenticity, effectiveness, and relevance.

Are the conversations natural and engaging? Do they reveal information about the characters or advance the plot?

I suggest improvements to make the dialogue more dynamic, purposeful, and realistic. Realistic dialogue when writing fiction is not the same as in real life. A bit confusing as well, but in novels, the characters should get to the point faster than we do when having a conversation. For example, eliminating the ‘how’s the weather’ type discussions or limiting the use of ‘um,’ ‘well,’ ‘er,’ and ellipses for pauses.

Setting and Worldbuilding

I assess how the author establishes the story's setting and world.

Is the worldbuilding immersive and consistent? Are the descriptions vivid and evocative, without being too detailed?

I provide feedback on how to enhance the setting, ensure that it is easy to picture and supports the story.


I consider the underlying messages.

Do they resonate with the target audience? Are they effectively conveyed throughout the novel?

I provide suggestions to amplify or clarify the messages, ensuring they are integrated seamlessly and not too obvious or repetitive.

Emotional Impact

I analyze the emotional impact of the story on readers.

Does the narrative evoke the intended emotions? Are there opportunities to heighten emotional moments or create stronger connections between readers and the characters?

I offer suggestions to strengthen the emotions evoked in the reader.

Writing Style

I evaluate the author's writing style, paying attention to flow and pacing.

I suggest improvements to enhance clarity, eliminate redundancies, and create more engaging prose.

I also offer guidance on sentence structure and length and overall readability for the target audience.

Overall, my goal as a developmental editor is to provide constructive feedback that helps you refine and polish your storytelling elements, ensuring a compelling, well-structured, and engaging fiction novel.

For a more in-depth look at what I assess during a developmental edit, I’ve created a list. You can find that below to understand what I do. It's available as a downloadable document for you to perform a developmental edit on your novel.

I answer each question and fill in the blanks with examples. It's a lot, so be prepared!


— Are there any plot holes? ___________

— Do the subplots relate to the main plot? ________

— Are plot events clear and understandable? _______

— Is there a logical sequence to the events and plot points? _______

— Is the plot plausible/believable? _________

— Are rising conflicts in the appropriate for place this novel? ________


— Are the characters believable and relatable? _____

— Do the characters have clear motivations? _______

— Are the characters well-rounded, with habits, flaws, goals, and needs? _______

— Do characters have arcs and are they believable? _______

— Are characters consistent in their descriptions, actions, and dialogue? _____

— Does each character have a distinct way of speaking? If multiple POVs, do they think differently? _______

— If the story is historical, do they use at least some vocabulary of that time period? _______

— Do they have appropriate emotions, emotional responses, and actions for the age of the characters? ___________

— Is the number of characters appropriate? __________


— Is the POV the best one for this novel? _________

— Is the POV consistent and without head hopping? _________

— Is the number of POV characters too many or too few? ________

— Are the POV characters the best ones? _______


— Can the setting be pictured clearly without over description? _______

— Is the setting consistent? ___________

— If real places are used, is it accurate? ________


— Is the worldbuilding believable for this novel? __________

— Are the worldbuilding rules consistent? ________

— Do the characters’ surroundings influence/affect them appropriately? ______

— Is the layout of the world consistent and believable—something anchored to reality? _______

— Do societies have sound belief systems? __________


— Are the events believable within the time span of the novel? ________

— Are the events believable within chapters and scenes? _______


— Are the action scenes followed by inaction scenes—reflection, planning, emotional responses? __________

— Are there enough short breaks within action scenes? _______

— Are shorter sentences used in action scenes and longer sentences in inaction scenes? ____

— Does the overall pacing and tension feel right? ________


— Is the dialogue realistic? ________

— Is the dialogue appropriate for the characters’ ages? ______

— Is the dialogue appropriate for the intended audience? _______

— Does the dialogue add to character depth or move the plot? _________

Audience/Writing Style

— Is the content appropriate for the intended audience? __________

— Is the sentence structure and length appropriate for the intended audience? ______

— Does the content meet the audience’s expectations? _________

Genre specific

— Sci-fi — believable technology? _______

— Speculative fiction – believable societal path? ________

— Crime/mystery – believable police and detective actions/procedures and crime? ______

— Romance – believable romantic tension, appropriate length of build-up, and scenes appropriate for this novel? ___________

— Paranormal – correctly based on mythology, believable new mythology? _____

— Magic — believable powers, spells, abilities, and consequences? ______

— Apocalyptic — believable outcome and consequences of apocalyptic event? ______

— Dystopian — believable belief and societal structure? ___________

That's it for now. Can you think of something that needs added to this list? Email me and let me know.

I hope you enjoyed this article.

Happy writing and revising!

Kristin Noland - Speculative Fiction and Crime Fiction Editor and Ghostwriter

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