Friday, July 11, 2008


How do you know you’re talking to someone who can truly help you with your query letter, your synopsis, your outline, and your apostrophes?—someone who knows the difference between an outline and a synopsis, for instance. How do you know if you are dealing with a professional book doctor and not a mere butcher? How can you negotiate a good, safe deal with a developmental editor? Or a proofreader? And what’s the difference between the two? And is there wiggle room for negotiation?

First off, determine if the person you are working with will do your outline, synopsis, and first chapters or first 30 pages at a cut rate in order to SEE if he or she and you can work together on a complete project. This “introductory rate” is how I get to know the nature of the project and how the client-writer gets to know my capabilities and how much I can contribute to his/her manuscript.

Going into a “partnership” with a proofreader is one thing, a developmental editor or book doctor capable of helping you with copyediting as well is quite another. We don’t hear the term book doctor much anymore (sorry if I sound like Andy Rooney here). I suspect few people use the term book doctor nowadays because so many so-called “book doctors” turned out to be charlatans simply out to fleece the so easily charmed writer. The term developmental editor is applied to a person who is willing and able to go beyond mere proofing for grammatical, spelling, usage, errors—same as book doctor; one who takes the next major step to provide you with answers to structure, beginnings, endings, middle-ground slumps, and the larger issues of logic, sequence of events, setting, muscling up setting and character, where to turn a telling paragraph into one of dialogue and action, and so much more. Therefore, know what you are paying for up front. You should not be paying “developmental editing” prices for a “proofreading” of your work. Your sister the English teacher could proofread your work at no charge.

Ask the question of your prospective editor: “Does your fee of 1.50 per page include developmental editing, or are we talking proofreading only?” Or: “Does your 2.00 per page include legitimate doctoring of the script? Wherein the ‘good doctor’ actually point out various shortcomings in the script? And do you provide solutions to the serious problems that might be keeping the book from being published?”

A developmental going-over will clearly mark the pattern errors in your writing—the one, two, or three most serious errors (sins) you are making and making repeatedly. And if you can be shown this in the introductory package, you may then decide to do a complete rewrite on your own and so you don’t—at this time—need any editor, proofreader or developmental doctor. You can learn a great deal by having a truly good developmental editor go over those first thirty pages.

A developmental editor or doc does not rewrite your book, but he or she may suggest whole rewrites of whole scenes from a fat, unappetizing “block” of telling information to redo as a three-way conversation. He or she will indicate where you don’t want to use a passive construction (passive verb), which might require a total rewrite of a sentence. A paragraph riddled with the word WAS may not be apparent to you, but it will be to an editor, agent, or your book doctor. A developmental editor may point out that you have begun your book in the wrong place! That the true opening should be the second or even the third scene or chapter for that matter. I once urged one of my clients to start on page 70 and “fill in” what has happened before that as quick flash-thoughts from the main character. The real action began on page 70. I have advised others to cut whole chapters that added nothing of substance to the novel. At the same time, issues of format might come up along with too many commas in the wrong places, or too little use of commas.

So to be brief and to the point, to improve your dialogue get thee to a developmental editor. To get the mechanics right—commas, semi-colons, full colons, etc—get yourself a proofreader who should be charging a lot less. To get the benefit of both grammatical correctness and developmental or structural correctness, logic, sequence, dialogue, setting, characterization, voice, etc—be sure to ask if the service is for “developmental” editing and “proofreading”. Most developmental editors worth their salt do both for the price they charge.

Is it worth your dime? Absolutely if you are working with a real pro and one who works with you on a timely basis. You can learn about said doc or developmental or proof editor by negotiating a deal for the first thirty pages or your ancillary material—query letter, outline, synopsis and a chapter. You find out early on with little commitment of time or money on both sides whether or not the two of you are compatible and capable of working on a long-term project.

I do editing on the side, and I have had clients whose novels are not novels but treatises on how the author has categorically proven the existence of God. I had one novel that lacked ACTION of any sort as its main character was SO rooted in ITS setting; it was 300 pages from the point of view of a Bonsai tree, a tree that, for me, lacked character as well. These are clients some twenty years ago, so I’m not too fearful of being sued here for my comments. I have been an editor and professor of creative writing now for forty years.

I am currently editing a retired chemistry professor and engineer, whose textbook on how the universe and mankind came into being explores the relationship between the two. I just finished two wonderfully wrought mystery novels, one from a Chicago lawyer, a legal thriller, and I can definitely say that I so much more enjoy doing developmental editing on a suspense thriller or mystery novel than any other sort of project, but I also do my very best for all of my clients. All of them appreciate the “introductory” plan of sending me their first three chapters or 30 pages at the lower rate of a dollar and a half per page before THEY decide and I decide if we can work together or not at the price of two dollars per page thereafter.

The Knife Services, if you or a loved one is in need of a serious developmental editor, can be got to via my website at:

Happy Writing All,

Rob Walker

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