Self Editing Tips: Development edits

Self editing is no substitute for real editing. End of. It is not the case that you can do it yourself (I’m an editor and I can’t do my books myself), and your friend who reads a lot isn’t qualified to do it either. If you are self publishing and want to build a reputation or charge for your work, get an editor.

That said, I’m sure you don’t have hundreds of dollars stuffed down the back of the chair, and sums like $45/hour for line edits look pretty scary with no guarantee anyone will buy your book. So it’s a good idea to cover what you can yourself before it goes to the editor, instead of paying someone to do grunt work. And if you’re planning to submit to a publisher, it’s an excellent idea to make sure your MS isn’t full of obvious holes.

So here are some ways you can start to whip your MS into shape. (Again: this is not a substitute for a professional edit.) This is a pretty big topic so I’m going to do two blog posts covering the basics. Today, development edits; look out for line edits next week. Some of this is stuff I’ve blogged on already, so I’ve given links.

Beta readers and crit partners

A strong beta reader/crit partner is invaluable. Strong means someone who likes the genre, or is happy to read in it, but who will be honest with you about the book’s flaws. This is incredibly hard to do. This person may be your friend or relative, they may be about to send you their MS, they probably don’t want to hurt your feelings. It may be easier to find a partner from across the internet, to avoid the face to face difficulty.

You must make it clear that they should be honest. That requires the following from you:

  • Actively ask for what they didn’t like, not what they did. People want to give you positives. Ask for the negatives.
  • Take criticism on the chin. Don’t argue. Don’t say ‘You didn’t get it.’ Don’t say ‘You’re wrong.’ Don’t show your inevitable hurt feelings.
  • Even if they’re wrong in specifics or have blatantly misread, they’ve probably identified a problem. Don’t just reject without thinking.
  • Thank them for their honesty, and mean it. You should.

Again: No tantrums. If you can’t handle criticism from a beta reader, you’re going to die when the reviews kick in. You might as well cut out the middleman and have a huge social media meltdown right now.

Here are some of the questions to ask your reader:

  • Were you bored/did it drag? Where?
  • Does the plot make sense? Any holes?
  • Are the characters consistent?
  • Was anyone too stupid to live, or obviously serving the needs of the plot?
  • What didn’t you get?

I gave my ‘troubled’ first version of Flight of Magpies to two readers. They both – politely, lovingly, reluctantly – said, ‘It’s boring, there’s not enough plot.’ It hurt. It hurt so much I junked 30K words and started again. It would have hurt a lot more if I’d released a substandard book and heard ‘It’s boring, there’s not enough plot,’ on every review blog, and spoiled my beloved series with a crappy instalment that I could never get rid of.

Warning: There are people who take joy in slagging off other people’s work and relish finding clever ways to explain just how bad you were. That’s what Goodreads is for, not beta reads. If the response is all hilarious similes to convey how stupid/boring/confusing that bit was, close the email right there, thank them nicely for their time, and don’t ever ask them again. And when you’re taking your turn at beta reading, don’t be that person.


It’s hard to look at your own book’s structure but here are some tips.

Write a synopsis from scratch. If you have a glaring plot hole, you may well find it here. If you’re writing all about the adventure plot and nothing about the progress of the relationship, that’s a red flag for a romance. If it’s all ‘And then…’ rather than ‘But then’, if it’s a sequence of events rather than reversals and changes, that may suggest a too-simple narrative line.

Look at your romance arc. (If you’re not writing romance, there will be a similar list of questions for any genre fiction, eg your mystery or adventure arc.)

  • Is the book about internal conflict (problems between the two MCs) or external conflict (homophobic boss/evil ex/zombie incursion) or both?
  • If internal, is there enough of a plot arc and character development to show change and the overcoming of obstacles and the growth of the characters?
  • If external, are you relying entirely on those factors to create the obstacles? Are we still seeing romantic growth and tension?
  • If you use instalove, how are you maintaining satisfactory tension between the characters throughout the book?
  • Have you got a black moment? Even in a sweet relationship comedy, the relationship should rise and fall and rise. No obstacles=no plot.
  • Ensure it’s a shifting conflict – not the same point gone over and over again till one of them gives way.

Check things are going badly. It may be kind to the characters to let them off the hook, have them discuss all their issues sensibly or make everyone around them lovingly understanding, but it makes for a pretty boring book.

Are your hero/ines agents? Are they always reactive/helpless, or do they take agency? That doesn’t mean they should always be in charge: the story should flow from the characters’ flaws and weaknesses as well as their strengths, and obstacles easily overcome aren’t interesting. But we need to see how the MCs’ actions and responses change their situation, for good or ill.

Is enough stuff happening? Pages of banter that don’t advance the plot are a great deal more entertaining for the writer than the reader. Are we moving forward along some arc in every scene, whether action or emotion?

Have you woven in your backstory rather than infodumping?

Time lines

Keep track of ‘that morning’ and ‘three days later’. If you’re doing anything remotely complicated, or if this is a bugbear, I strongly recommend you invest in Aeon Timeline ($40, which is less than the editorial fee for unbuggering your dog’s breakfast of a timeline) or similar software. This allows you to track your timeline, check that it really is a Wednesday, and get character ages and ‘two months ago’ right every time.

Make sure that days have 24 hours and come one after another in chronological progression. Some real examples I have seen/perpetrated:

  • A dramatic ghost hunting scene taking place in the morning includes references to the dark and the moon because, you know, scary things happen at night.
  • All the action is happening on successive nights. The days somehow evaporate.
  • The heroine leaves work on a Saturday night and flees through a busy crowd of commuters heading to work the next morning which is, er, Sunday.
  • Our heroes cover 25 miles on foot between 7am and 10am.
  • Book set in England. Hero is jailed in February. He is released six months later and weeps at the daffodils in bloom, as well he might. (I can’t tell you how often this happens. CHECK. YOUR. FLOWERS.)

Read scenes for action

This is almost impossible to do yourself, because you know what ought to be happening. Try to play the scene as a film in your head.

  • See the hero get out of bed naked, have a screaming row with the heroine, and storm off to ride away on his motorbike without actually dressing!
  • Gasp as the heroine gets up three times without sitting down once!
  • Marvel as the villain stubs out a cigarette she never lit, then lights another one which she never smokes or stubs out before lighting the third!


Are the sex scenes serving the plot? Does each advance character development, our or their understanding, the emotional progress, or the plot action? If the sex scene doesn’t take us somewhere new, it’s porn, and it’s skippable. Yes, this applies even if you’re writing erotica. In a good book, each one should count.

Don’t place heat over character consistency. There is no point writing a shy, repressed virgin with a touch phobia and then having him bottom like a porn star first time.

Run the mental film to ensure limbs/orifices are in the right places. If his tongue is there, he’s going to require a spine made of Silly Putty to get his genitalia there. And how many hands is that?


This is only really scratching the surface of what a good development edit can do. You will almost certainly not be able to identify the bits where, eg, the story comes to a dead stop because of the brilliantly witty but pointless conversation between two beloved secondary characters, or you totally missed an obvious course of action that destroys your carefully worked out plot, or your carefully laid clues turn out to be undetectably obscure/glaringly obvious, or two scenes are simply in the wrong order for the emotional arc. This is why you need an editor. But she’ll have a chance to see the wood for the trees, and more cheaply, if you clear the undergrowth first.

Next week: some hints on clearing up for line edits.


KJ Charles is a writer and, no kidding, freelance editor. Will beat hell out of your MS for $$.

22 replies
  1. Amy Jo Cousins
    Amy Jo Cousins says:

    *print this out and hangs it on the wall* Seriously. This is a brilliant post. And these are all of my “things” that I do, and I know it. Some of them I’ve gotten better at catching, but at heart I am a lazy bugger and will make a mental note, “You should fix that”, and then forget. Checklists are key. Thank you for this one!

  2. Allison
    Allison says:

    I love the “CHECK YOUR FLOWERS”. As a beta reader I often look up things like that because I know how it can seem minor but become a glaring error for those that know better. I know the intent of this is for writers but, again, as a beta reader I often find ways I can be more helpful when I am reading for the authors I work with from these types of posts.

  3. Becky Black
    Becky Black says:

    Still chuckling at the idea of that guy roaring off on his bike – nude.

    Great post. I think it’s key to put this work in yourself before it goes to an editor, because the writer is the only one who knows exactly what they’re trying to say and achieve with any given scene and with the whole story. So they can’t rely on someone else to help them say that most effectively.

    I’ve never so far had a guy apparently grow a third arm in a sex scene, but I have had that in a fight scene. Either way it would put the guy with 50% extra in the arm department at a distinct advantage.

  4. Kira
    Kira says:

    I so,so needed that laugh today. Thank you! But more important, my story thanks you. It will be the better for your advice. 🙂 I particularly like the synopsis idea; I think it will help me see if I’ve balanced the romance arc with the action arc.

  5. Shira
    Shira says:

    I really like this! Thanks for the mention that some people just like to be critical to see how witty and Oscar Wildean they can be in their cut-downs; it’s definitely more helpful when people want to, well, HELP rather than amuse themselves. Nodding vigorously on checking your flowers (and geography, and composers….)

    >> Even if they’re wrong in specifics or have blatantly misread, they’ve probably identified a problem.

    This is SO TRUE. Every time a beta-reader misidentifies a problem, they still identified a problem — they just defined it wrong or suggested a fix that drags the narrative away from the author’s goal. So the input is still extremely valuable and probably signifies something that should be fixed, just not in the way they assumed.

    >> brilliantly witty but pointless conversation between two beloved secondary characters

    I think this is the 1% I disagree with in the whole piece, but a good chunk of my writing tends to focus on characters from marginalized groups and for some people, just getting to see people like us/them having a normal conversation or otherwise participating in daily life in a work of fiction is important (maybe not on the same level as narrative, but still important.)

    Anyway, I liked the post and I’m glad I found it 🙂

    • KJ Charles
      KJ Charles says:

      That is a very valid point about the secondary characters. I love a developed world with friends and society, and yes, representation is hugely important. It just has to be balanced by the needs of the book. If the conv is shedding indirect light on the MC/s or giving a point of contrast, for example, that works, but I personally get a bit testy about text that doesn’t *do* anything in the book. So, keep it in but make sure there’s a thematic or structural point with it, I guess.

      Thanks for commenting, glad you liked it!


Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. […] Self Editing Tips: Development edits KJ Charles with advice on the editing that gets your MS into good shape before you inflict it on betas, editors or publishers – don’t even think about doing so to readers at this stage! […]

  2. […] older article referenced by Hardy, above, with handy dandy lists of rogue words to watch out for. Self Editing Tips – Development Edits Obviously this is the week for people talking about techniques for editing your work. This is an […]

  3. […] I said last week, self editing is no substitute for real editing. If you are self publishing and intend to charge […]

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