Developmental Checklist

One of the most difficult questions my writers seem to face is whether or not they need to pay an editor for a developmental edit. Obviously, my answer is YES–to every writer, every time. (See “Why Developmental?” for an explanation on this.) But I understand that when you’re starting out–and sometimes even when you’re established–you’re not ready to make that kind of investment, or you’re afraid that the editor will tell you to completely take it apart and put it together again, and you just don’t feel like you have it in you. So I thought I’d try to come up with a checklist so you can attempt your own developmental edit–or maybe give it to your best beta reader ever so they can know what to look for.

Here are some questions to ask yourself before you send your manuscript baby off for its first big day at line-editing school. I’m including links to articles I’ve written about some of the elements to give you more direction if you need it.

  1. Characterization:
  • Is your protagonist motivated by noble intentions? Is it clear what they love and what they want? (See “Humans First, Please.”)
  • Are all of your protagonist’s actions–even the dumb choices–justified in some way, at least in their mind? (See “What are They Thinking?”)
  • Does your protagonist grow or change in some way as a result of his or her conflict and journey?
  • Do all of your characters have believable flaws and weaknesses?
  • Is your antagonist human? Even if they’re evil, they need a backstory and some sort of rationale for their choices. (Again, for these last two, see “Humans First, Please.”)

2. Conflict:

  • Is your conflict strong enough to carry the whole book? (Beware of misunderstandings or lies being the whole conflict, because those can’t last long without reader frustration unless they have a very good reason behind them.)
  • Do you have both an inner/emotional conflict woven throughout the book and an outer/physical conflict? A textured story has both. (See “What’s My Motivation {for Reading your Book}?” and “Emotional Threads, Plot Threads.”)
  • Is there a climax for both the outer and the inner conflict? They might occur at the same time, or they might be separate. (For example, in the movie Moana, her emotional climax is the part where Maui leaves her and all hope seems lost until her Grandmother comes to her and she makes her big decision. The physical climax is the battle with Te Ka.)
  • Does the climax include a moment of hopelessness or a feeling of impossibility to sweeten the triumph of the final victory?
  • Does your protagonist help him/herself in the climax rather than letting someone else do all the work?
  • Does your protagonist make (or is he/she willing to make) some sort of sacrifice in the climax? This might be physical or emotional, and if it’s a romance, it might be the love interest who makes the sacrifice.

3. Structure and Pacing:

  • Does the first scene jump in at a moment of change or build toward/set the scene for the inciting incident?
  • Does each scene serve a purpose in moving the plot forward? Is there some sort of change or tension or building in each scene? Have you avoided “happy people” scenes whose only purpose is to show people being cute or happy together, with no tension? (See “Emotional Threads, Plot Threads.”)
  • Are your strong chapters evenly distributed so you don’t have a slow beginning or a sagging middle? (For this and other structural edits, see Darcy Pattison’s “Shrunken Manuscript” for a fantastic and unique suggestion on looking at your manuscript as a whole.)
  • Is there a reversal somewhere near the middle that changes the direction or the tone of the novel? Alternately, is it split into three distinct “acts” so you have plot pillars distributed throughout?

4. Themes

  • Do you know what the themes of your story are? Have you taken the time to identify and use them to deepen and enrich your story? Themes often come in pairs, so if your book is about grief, it should also be about healing. If it’s about lies, it should also be about trust.
  • Is there a message readers can take from your story or a satisfying lesson they feel the protagonist learns?
  • Have you developed your themes enough and used them to move the story forward? (See “Emotional Threads, Plot Threads.”)

5. Backstory

  • Do you know the backstory for each of your characters? Do these backstories clearly motivate them?
  • Have you woven your backstory gradually into the action rather than dumping it all into one place? Have you used it to its emotional potential, perhaps enriching conversations with pieces of a character’s past? (See “Weaving Your Backstory.”)

6. Genre-Specific Items

  • Romance: Have you created a realistic relationship with believable pacing? Have you avoided cliches and shortcuts? Have you built the relationship on actual personality and character rather than on attraction only? (See “Romance 101” and “Romance 202.”)
  • Fantasy: Have you created a clear magic system or world that makes sense in its own way and enriches the story without slowing down the action with too many details?
  • Mystery: Do your clues and revelations come gradually, without being too obvious too soon? Does the big reveal at the end tie everything together without completely blindsiding the reader? Do you have a twist? Are there enough clues for readers to develop their own theories?

7. Dialogue

8. Editing

  • Again, have you read it out loud to yourself? You may be surprised at just how much you catch and how differently you see your writing when you do this.
  • Does your timeline make sense?
  • Have you identified self-indulgent sections where you just love the words too much to get rid of them–and then gotten rid of them anyway? (See “On the Murder of Darlings.”)
  • Have you made sure the characters’ name spellings and descriptions are consistent?
  • Are all characters in a scene consistently accounted for? Have you made sure they don’t suddenly and inexplicably appear, disappear, or teleport to the other side of the room?
  • Have you avoided using your favorite words too often?

I know it’s a long list, and I could probably go on, but I don’t want to make it seem TOO intimidating. As you can probably tell, a lot of these elements will be difficult to objectively evaluate on your own, so you’ll definitely need some honest, critical, and thorough beta readers to give you a fresh perspective on it.

I know I didn’t mention setting, descriptions, or a number of other important topics, but many of those are small enough that they can be addressed in a line edit. If you can confidently go through this checklist–either answering “Yes” or “That doesn’t apply to my manuscript” or “No, but I have a brilliant stylistic reason for ignoring that suggestion,” you’re most likely ready to move on to to the line edit!

Happy developing!

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