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What an Editor Really Does — and Why You Need One

I first met Anita when she worked with my literary agent, Kristin Nelson. Anita is a freelance editor who helps writers bring out the very best in their novels. She was kind enough to share her editing insights, including why you should never let a rejection letter get you down, and why joining a critique group can not only improve your writing, but also save you money – and help you get published. Here’s Anita with all the insider info about editors. –L.


Anita, can you tell us what a developmental editor does, exactly?

Anita Mumm, founder of Mumm’s the Word Editing & Critique Services
Anita Mumm, founder of Mumm’s the Word Editing & Critique Services

The easiest way to describe a developmental editor’s work is that it focuses on the big picture: Does the plot work? Are the characters the kind of people readers want to spend an entire book with? Is the dialogue smooth or stilted? Is the voice appropriate to the genre and audience?

Developmental editing means making sure the foundation of the novel is sound, and that all of its parts come together in a meaningful whole.

Most developmental editors also offer line editing–smoothing out the prose on the paragraph and sentence level. Line editing involves things like word choice (would a different word here give a richer image?), syntax (is a particular sentence awkward or hard to follow?), and coherence (if you rearranged the order of the sentences in a paragraph, would the ideas be clearer?).

Line editing is not the same as copy editing, which focuses on mechanics and correcting errors in language usage. Though there is some overlap, copy editing is usually done in a separate step, just before final proofing.

What interests you most about story development?

I love the way every element of good fiction is intimately connected. In other words, characters, world-building, plot, voice, etc. are not pieces that you can tinker with separately–they’re all part of an indivisible whole.

For example, good world building is not only about the geography, politics, and culture of a fictional place. It’s also about how a focus character’s personality and biases shape what we see of that world, and how the world itself makes her who she is.

Character and setting are inseparable in a tightly written novel. I enjoy helping writers find ways to weave together each element of fiction into a cohesive tapestry.

What aspect of the editing process do writers often misunderstand?

It’s not necessarily a misunderstanding, but a lot of writers are surprised at how many steps are needed to take a manuscript from its initial form to a polished final draft.

Often, this involves one or more rounds of developmental editing, followed by line editing to smooth the prose, then copyediting, and finally, proofreading.

You can sometimes pare that process down a bit if you plan to traditionally publish; the story has to be solid and the writing superb, but a missing comma or two won’t make or break your submission to an agent.

However, if you intend to self-publish, you really need to go through all of the same steps publishing houses use. It’s expensive, but there’s just no way around it if you want a professional result.

Do you believe that good writers are born or made?

Both. I think a fair amount of innate talent is essential, but it’s also about hard work and purposeful study of writing craft.

There are very few careers where you can just walk in and be an expert; that’s why I find it disturbing when aspiring writers mention they don’t have time to read or take classes. No one expects to join the NBA without practicing basketball for years and years, right? :)

It’s also the reason I tell beginning writers not to give up–I have seen amazing levels of improvement over the course of as little as a year when there is hard work involved. My advice: never let a rejection letter make you feel you’re not a writer. You may not have a publishable novel yet–but there’s no telling where you’ll be in the future.

What one thing would you suggest unpublished writers do to improve their writing?

Join a critique group. Whether you intend to hire an editor or head directly into submissions, having fresh eyes on your manuscript is a must.

A critique group or set of beta readers can help you catch inconsistencies, confusing sentences, and embarrassing typos before an agent sees them.

It’s also helpful if you plan to hire an editor; the more polished the manuscript is going in, the fewer rounds of editing you’ll need, and that saves you money.

What kinds of novels are you interested in editing?

I work with all types of fiction except mysteries. (Don’t get me wrong, I love to read them for pleasure, but so far have not chosen to focus on them professionally.) I love novels with unforgettable characters that feel like real people–whether they inhabit Planet Earth or a distant galaxy!

I’m particularly interested in working with stories featuring diverse characters and cultures. I love that the publishing industry is now seeking out stories that reflect the multiculturalism of our country and world. Shout-out to the We Need Diverse Books Campaign!

About Anita

Anita Mumm is a freelance novel editor based in Denver, Colorado. Before starting Mumm’s the Word Editing & Critique Services, she worked in submissions and foreign rights at Nelson Literary Agency.

Her editing clients include traditionally published and indie authors at all levels of experience, from international bestsellers to first time novelists. In addition to her editing projects, Anita frequently teaches classes and workshops about writing and publishing, both online and in person.

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  1. Daniel Donche Jr.

    Great article, I think it’s important to be upfront about the amount of work required to write anything. I edit my own stories at least 5 or 6 times before submitting them anywhere. I would say that a developmental editor is the one I could get the most out of.

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