There’s a heated debate that appears in writer’s groups and forums on a regular basis:

Why hire a development editor when a beta reader can do the same thing for free?

In short, they have two different roles in the revision and publishing process. And both are useful in their own ways.

A beta reader is a great tool for understanding whether the intended audience will enjoy a book. Expectations for beta reading have evolved to include whether a reader thinks your story works. While it’s not really their purpose, there are some really great beta readers out there that can help with that.

Most of the time, though, the feedback they give is generalized and not much help in how to address issues. That feedback usually looks something like, “X character came off as a jerk in this scene,” or “I didn’t really like the ending because not all the characters were there,” which isn’t useless, but isn’t very specific, either.

And that’s perfectly fine.

A developmental editor (DE) can not only tell whether a story is working, but where it’s falling short, and more importantly, how to fix it. Each and every in-text query should consist of three parts: what the issue is, why it’s an issue, and how to address it. Developmental editors understand how an audience is going to react to certain scenes and events from a more analytical standpoint. They can also help you address concerns, either without changing the intent of the scene or story or telling you why a change is necessary.

For example, I had a client who enjoyed stories where the protagonist makes a decision that’s the opposite of what readers expect in the end. He had two main characters, and as the story unfolded, the characters picked the unlikeliest path for each of them. The wrong characters made the wrong decisions. A beta reader may not have cared for the ending because of this, giving the author general advice to change it. Understanding what he was going for, and seeing the potential for it to fit the genre he enjoyed, I suggested that he flip the decisions the characters made. It resulted in the right character making a so-called wrong decision in a likely and meaningful way. It made sense within the context of the story’s development. Because the character’s decision was right for the story, the ending was satisfying and powerful, without changing the author’s intent.

A DE looks at a book in layers, considering the overall story, whether genre conventions are being met, and the big details. Then come the little details, including sentence structure and word choice if necessary. (That’s not to say that an editor can do a line edit while also doing a developmental edit.) A good DE can see if a manuscript has larger issues than sentence structure, such as head-hopping, perspective, stage directions, etc. (Articles on these to come!)  These issues can then be addressed correctly.

A beta reader’s job is to read the story and provide a quick overall impression. That may take as long as 10 to 12 hours, depending on how fast they read and how much they type. A full developmental edit with in-text queries and a review letter, standard for any full-service edit, takes many, many hours. I’ve worked on projects lasting 100 plus hours. With that amount of time spent with a story and characters, DEs end up loving them almost as much as you do. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve almost called an author by a protagonist’s name!

There’s a certain amount of professionalism you get with a DE as well. There are plenty of beta readers that are reliable and provide excellent feedback, but you’re never sure of getting that unless you’ve worked with them before. Many times I’ve experienced beta readers not following through on promises or giving lackluster feedback. While it’s always great to hear that someone loved your story, the point in having others critique it before it’s published is to have all the issues squared away. If the reader tells you there are no issues, then you’re either the only writer to ever get it right on the first try, or the beta reader’s feedback is not complex enough.

Having both a beta reader and a DE is ideal, but of the two, you most need the DE. Again, it comes down to professionalism, this time yours as the author. As soon as you want to sell your product, you need to shift your thinking to that of a business owner or an authorpreneur. A developmental edit is another way of saying product development; if you were creating an object, that thing would go through many stages of creation and improvement before being released into the world. The same goes for your book.

Your story deserves it, as do you and your audience.

Do you have any experience with great (or not-so-great) beta readers? Let me know in the comments below!

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