Road Map to Revision: Developmental Feedback

by Jenna Kalinsky

When you’re ready to get a complete and thorough read on your developing manuscript, Developmental Feedback- a comprehensive editorial letter and manuscript margin notes- is the best road map to help the business, academic, and creative writer see your writing anew to help you prepare for distribution or publication.

In my article on why getting developmental feedback is critical for an emerging manuscript, “When Fresh Eyes Help You Re-See Your Writing,” I talk about how writers’ brains grow weary from seeing their work over and over due to a biological effect called “Semantic Satiation”: the cellular fatigue in the brain that sets in when we read the same word, or whole manuscript, over and over again until it starts to look like gibberish. Biggerbish. Hishiggigiber. Oh, nuts …

Time is one way to heal this particular wound, which is why I always advocate you sleep on your manuscript (figuratively, though if literally helps, go for it!) before embarking on any kind of renovation of the material.

*In our 4-month book programs, for example, I specifically and clearly advise our writers to set the work down after doing Lesson 19 and under no circumstances touch it until they reach Lesson 20.

This distance gives the brain a chance to recover and the ability to see the work fresh, as if written by someone else (the handsomer, cleverer version of the harried you who just wrote an entire book draft).

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fiction editing sheet

The second option for getting those fresh eyes on the work, and even fresher perspective, is to get a writer friend or seasoned editor to get into the weeds with the writing and help it— and you— along with their insights and suggestions. We want this because after spending months or longer on a work, we’re too close to it to be able to see its overall shape and progression and can miss things that to us seem obvious but to the reader need to be explained. This process then becomes one of the most valuable investments of time and money a writer can make.


What Precisely Is Developmental Feedback?

Developmental Feedback is a thoroughly written identification and articulation of how an emerging piece of writing is doing: the soup-to-nuts assessment that helps you see your manuscript from an outsider’s perspective. Atop seeing what is in the current draft, the editor or fellow writer will offer suggestions and solutions for how to tighten, sharpen, and refine the work as you bring it into its next iteration.

What it does:

Developmental Feedback is holistic and attends to purpose, flow, and the power of the work. The notes we make are laid atop the work and converse with it as it is. It is a collaboration that will inevitably lead to the writer making changes and exploring new ways to communicate the story or inform the audience. The purpose of this kind of constructive developmental feedback is to identify what is there and what is not; what is successful, and what could be cut.

This feedback is in service, as if putting an arm around the work’s shoulders and saying, “I’m here to help you be your best self. Let’s see how we can do that (even if it means cutting off your first eighteen pages. Sorry about that.)”.

engineered web

Photo by Jason Leung

What it doesn’t do:

Editing. It’s too early in the process to adjust the music of the lines (grammar, syntax, punctuation). Much may change at the line level based on the feedback and editing would be premature even superfluous.

Judgment. A good editor will not say, “I loved this part” or “This isn’t good.” Our job is not to judge the work based on our own personal likes and dislikes; instead, we are in service, remain objective, constructive, and supportive, and help it and you identify what your work is meant to become.

How Developmental Feedback Is Laid Out

When editors or fellow writers give developmental feedback, they do three key things:

  • Provide a fully realized response to a piece of writing of their overall thoughts and impressions, namely speaking to the work’s purpose, thrust, and tone (e.g. identify what’s there) along with writing craft items such as plot, character development, story elements, pacing, and finer details that bring the narrative world to life.
  • Intuit from the existing material what the piece wants to be about, where it wants to go, and what it could become (e.g. recognize its potential for fulfilling its own promise)
  • Give concrete suggestions as to how the writer can adapt the existing material through practical tips and specific examples.

In essence, Developmental Feedback is a careful assessment of the infrastructure, purpose and thrust, writing craft, and overall viability of a piece of writing. That step back helps bring the mass of story or text into sharp relief, which is indeed a relief for the writer.

black and white close up typewriter keys for One Lit Place at

Photo by Peter Lewicki

1. Margin Comments

The margin comments (made in “Review” (Mac) or “Track Changes” (PC)) are a wonderful tool for noting points in the manuscript where we have questions, comments about a particular passage or line, or where we paused and then identify what could be fixed going forward to avoid jarring the reader (for when an editor pauses, we make a note and stay the course, whereas a true reader may pause, realize they have laundry to do, and put the work down forever).

Having our hands on the work itself allows us to to engage with the writing at a play-by-play level as it develops. *I find I get an embodied response to the work by doing this, which makes my experience more grounded and intuitive.

2. Comprehensive Editorial Letter

While margin comments are perfect for instant responses to line-level issues, the editorial letter enables us to articulate our thoughts as to what the piece is about and striving to do on a holistic scale. We can make suggestions and ask questions to the writer about their choices and balance the options that could take the work in one direction or another. In this, it’s akin to a conversation with the writer, which respects their choices by honoring them as they are on the page and also as we see them becoming.

Speaking to the various craft elements that make up a piece of successful writing, we move from overall theme, purpose, and plot/structure, through the story points, character development, setting, detail, pacing and language/tone. An editor may suggest cutting sections that bog down the material, reordering sections for clarity, or adding an element to a character’s evolution to show greater motivation for their behavior, and etc.

film writers plot movie on whiteboard


This letter is a labor of love and skill; our editors evaluate not only the work but the writer’s background as we craft our feedback to make sure it is applicable and digestible. We use analogies, images, and graphs as needed. We also often do a chapter-by-chapter breakdown to help the author see the construction of the developing manuscript (similar to how many writers pin index cards with chapter summaries to their walls).

These letters can top 25 pages. When we consider how these notes serve as a road map, we want them to be as clear and specific as possible, so the writer can easily and smoothly arrive at their destination.

Manuscript Evaluation or Developmental Feedback?

As the venerable Jane Friedman points out, Developmental Feedback is not a manuscript evaluation.

A manuscript evaluation is much less detailed than a developmental edit and therefore will almost always be less expensive. Developmental editing is a deep-dive edit that takes significantly more hours than a manuscript evaluation. For example, during a developmental edit, I do multiple deep reads (and then look away and come back). I often make hundreds of comments. I might rewrite lines or paragraphs to show the author what X technique looks like. And I pose lots of questions, asking the author to be more specific, go deeper, or show how they might develop a given idea in an earlier chapter. (One editorial letter I wrote was 30+ pages—one client called it a personalized writing handbook.) So, it’s far more comprehensive than a manuscript evaluation; however, it’s also proportionately more expensive.


How Do I Know Which I Need?

We offer both methods for providing this feedback, so it’s good to identify at the start which you need:

typeset words for Developmental Feedback at One Lit Place for

Manuscript Evaluation is best for early-stage manuscripts:  This slightly lighter option is great if you have a rough manuscript you want to get a first-thoughts read on, simply so you can see how it’s landing and what steps you can take with the larger writing craft elements for going forward. The book will likely be changed up either somewhat or significantly, so you can derive a lot of benefit from the broader strokes of the feedback to guide the next iteration.

Developmental Feedback is best for later-stage manuscripts:  This more comprehensive process is for a manuscript that has already been revised and is firmer in its inception and/or is closer to its final form. The margin comments will help you tweak those individual moments at the line level, which is useful if you won’t be doing large-scale revision but more minor structural or copy editing.

Not sure? We will always suggest in this case you begin with a 30-40 page sample evaluation, so your editor can assess your manuscript and suggest carrying on with either a Manuscript Evaluation or Developmental Feedback.

map with vintage photo and camera for developmental feedback at One Lit Place

Photo by Annie Spratt

The Benefits of Feedback 

Thorough insightful skilled feedback gives the writer an outsider’s perspective. It can be humbling to find out how others experience your writing, but at the same time, if writing is designed to be read, then it is a worthwhile exercise to hear how it’s going and whether what you’d wanted it to be and do came through.

The notes serve as a very practical physical “road map” that help you strategically return to the draft as you begin to revise.

For the fatigued writer who has up to this point endeavoured to revise the work on your own (such that it now more resembles a water color painting as opposed to a clearly-defined document or story draft), this is gold.

Now Is a Great Time to Ask for Feedback on Your Writing

A careful reader’s insights are an invaluable gift to the writer who otherwise would not be able to have this perspective, who is plagued by semantic satiation, and who would benefit from the constructive and practical suggestions that could be applied to tighten, refine, and bring the work on home.

If you have a piece of writing you simply can’t see clearly anymore, or you’re ready to get a sense of how to take it into its next best form, it may be time to seek out either a smart, insightful peer writer or a skilled editor. Clarity is always a step in the right direction.

When you’re ready to prepare your work for publication, have a look at how we support our writers, and feel free to reach out for a FREE consultation about your writing any time ~

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