How to View Your Writing Project Like a Developmental Editor

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In a previous post, I explained why you should consider writing your book or project yourself rather than hiring a ghostwriter. This post describes how to review your writing project like a developmental editor would in order to decide how best to complete it.

As a developmental editor, I get potential clients at all stages of their writing projects. Sometimes a person has a topic and great ideas for a piece of content but hasn’t started writing. Those authors are often professionals or consultants writing about an area of practical expertise. Memoirists and other nonfiction authors often have an urgent message or tale captured in a complete manuscript that needs polishing, tightening, or cutting to publishable length.

People sometimes seek an editor after their work has been rejected by a publisher — or even returned for fixing by communications staff editing the company blog.

If there is no manuscript, I sit down with the author and attempt to craft an outline, mind map, or other kind of roadmap they can use to get started. The tools help address the following planning questions:

  • What do you hope to accomplish with this piece of writing?
  • How are you going to approach that communication?
  • What are the things you plan to say?

For a finished project, I introduce the same organizational tools as the basis for evaluation of the existing content. The questions are slightly different:

  • What was this piece of writing intended to do?
  • Has the vision changed through the writing?
  • What does it actually do?
  • What needs to be added, modified, or changed to align this manuscript with your current goal?

After those questions are answered, we move to technical matters related to the format or genre:

  • If this is an op-ed, does it include a “to be sure” paragraph?
  • If this is a piece of instructional content — a manual or how-to book — are the steps to the process in the right order? Is supplemental conceptual and reference information handled consistently?
  • If this is a personal essay, is there an epiphany?
  • If this is a memoir, is there a narrative arc or just a series of anecdotes? Does the type of narrative you used fit the kind of story you’re telling?

At this point, the responses fall into one of three categories:

Sometimes, given tools, concepts, and a little brainstorming support, the author runs with it and comes up with a structure on their own.

At other times, we brainstorm a complete map together, and the author executes it, tinkering with the organization as the evolving content demands.

Then there are the people who are stumped, usually because they did not anticipate how big a shift it is from generating ideas, telling stories, or making arguments to evaluating their written work.

If the project is at an early stage, the would-be author might just be unable to settle on a main point or a genre, so the project starts and stops over and over again with different angles.

When the author has generated a lot of content, the problem looks different. They have trouble committing to any approach to revision.

Neither one of those problems is insurmountable. Given time and desire, all of these authors could probably learn to write a project that does its job. But not every author has time and desire.

Learning how to see structure can be a long learning curve. If there’s a book contract in your hand with a deadline six months from now, you may not be able to pick up the know-how in time to finish the project. The same is true if you need to address a public relations crisis with a letter to the editor.

If you’re under time pressure, a ghostwriter can help. Working with a good ghostwriter can double as a class. Take note of the questions they ask. As you review the drafts they produce, observe the evolutionary progress as the text takes shape.

Wanting to publish isn’t the same as wanting to write. If you read advice directed at writers, a lot of it focuses on bypassing perfectionism to get the material out. That’s because experienced writers are sometimes paralyzed by impossible standards and an inner critic who jumps the gun on early drafts.

Less experienced writers can have the reverse problem. The underdeveloped (and defensive) inner critic wants to leap from drafting to polishing. In the words of journalism professor Gerald Grow, “Most people write when they should be thinking and edit when they should be revising.” Analysis is as much a part of the process as art or intuition, and if you aren’t able to review your work critically, achieving the kind of quality you want will be impossible.

If you can’t yet do that — or don’t really want to, a ghostwriter can help. My job as a developmental editor is to point you to the right questions. To produce something other people will want to read, you either have to take on a large number of creative decisions and act on them or have someone do that for you.

I’m a romantic! I’d love to see you write it yourself. But if your story or message is worth sharing, don’t let your disinterest in the more painful parts of writing keep you from making communication happen.

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