How Developmental Feedback Is A Road Map to Revision

by Jenna Kalinsky

Developmental Feedback is the comprehensive editorial letter and manuscript margin notes an editor makes on your manuscript. When you’re ready to get a complete and thorough read on your work, this process provides a road map to help you see your writing anew, so you can prepare it for distribution or publication.


Ever looked at your manuscript after working on it for what feels like forever and shrieked (either aloud or on the inside), “I just can’t see it anymore!”

While you may have thought this figuratively; in fact, it was probably literally true.

Manuscript Fatigue Is Real

Writers’ brains grow weary from seeing their work over and over due to a biological effect called “Semantic Satiation.” This is 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 … )

The Fix? Time, Distance, and Another Pair of Eyes

  1. Time & Distance

Time is one way to heal this particular wound, which is why I always advocate you sleep on your manuscript (again, I mean 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, when you have completed your manuscript at Week 16 — the last week of the program— you’re advised to not  touch it again under any circumstance until you get the “all-clear” in Week 17. 

This distance from the material 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

2. An Editor

Get fresh eyes on the work, and even fresher perspective, by having either a writer friend or seasoned editor get into the weeds with the work and help it— and you— along with their insights and suggestions.

When you get a professional editor on the case to give you proper comprehensive developmental feedback, that process becomes one of the most valuable investments of time and money a writer can make.

 

What Is Developmental Feedback?

Developmental Feedback is a thorough identification of how an emerging piece of writing is doing: a soup-to-nuts assessment (or clearly marked “road map”) that speaks to the structure, purpose, and thrust, writing craft, and overall viability for its target market that helps you see your manuscript from an outsider’s perspective. Developmental Feedback is collaborative, not judgmental, designed to honor the work’s purpose and giving skilled suggestions for how to bring it into publishable shape.

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).”

This process enables the writer to take a step back, helping bring the story or text into sharp relief, which is indeed a relief for the writer.

 

engineered web

Photo by Jason Leung

 

What Does Developmental Feedback Look Like?

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

Photo by Peter Lewicki

Developmental Feedback Is Delivered in Two Ways:

1. Comprehensive Editorial Letter

The editorial letter enables the editor to articulate their thoughts as to what the piece is about and striving to do. They 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 your choices by honoring them as they are on the page and also as the editor sees them becoming.

Speaking to the various craft elements that make up a piece of successful writing, the editor moves 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.

This letter is a labor of care and skill- it often tops 25 pages; a good editor evaluates not only the work but the writer’s background as they craft their feedback to make sure it is applicable and digestible. They may use analogies, images, and graphs as needed. They may also 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).

When the editor considers how these notes serve as a road map, they want them to be as clear and specific as possible, so the writer can easily and smoothly arrive at their destination.

film writers plot movie on whiteboard

 

2. Margin Comments

The margin comments (made in “Review” (Mac) or “Track Changes” (PC)) are a wonderful tool for noting instant responses to line-level issues: questions, comments about a particular passage or line, or where the editor paused. They can also identify what could be fixed going forward to avoid jarring the reader (for when an editor pauses, they make a note and keep reading, whereas a true reader may pause, realize they have laundry to do, and put the work down forever).

Having their hands on the work itself allows the editor to to engage with the writing at a play-by-play level as it develops. I personally find I have an embodied response to the work by doing this, which makes my reading of the writing more grounded and intuitive.

What Developmental Feedback 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.

Judge. 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; in fact, you do not need your editor to like the work because that forces them to enter into it with their own preferences rather than with a service-minded view toward supporting the work become its best. A good editor will remain objective, constructive, and supportive, and help the writing and you identify what your work is meant to become.

Manuscript Evaluation or Developmental Feedback?

The difference between Manuscript Evaluation and Developmental Feedback is the margin notes and depth of feedback. Where Developmental Feedback is this two-pronged process providing both the comprehensive letter and margin comments, a Manuscript Evaluation provides only the letter, which may also be slightly lighter in its touch.

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.

Jane Friedman, “Manuscript Evaluations: What They Are and What to Expect.”

 

How Do I Know Which I Need?

typeset words for Developmental Feedback at One Lit Place for onelitplace.com

Manuscript Evaluation is best for early-stage manuscripts:  This slightly lighter option is great if you have an early-stage 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? In our case, we offer the option for starting out 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 onelitplace.com

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 valuable 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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