MiddleoftheNight Editorial Services

     creating books
Masthead Image

Developmental Editing

"The Philosophy of Composition"

Before daring to suggest changes to another person's words, it is important for an editor to work out a "philosophy of composition," in Edgar Allan Poe's phrase, reflecting on the criteria for good writing. What follows is a distillation and adaptation of the successful methodology of Thomas Kaplan-Maxfield, an English professor at Boston College who (in addition to being my husband of thirty-six years) has taught Creative Nonfiction to college students for the past twenty years. Working one-on-one with students on a single piece of writing through a semester-long process, Tom describes his work as that of “teaching writers how to edit their own work.”

When you hire MiddleoftheNight Editorial Services to assist you in developing a manuscript of high quality from your initial concept, outline, or draft, you and I will begin a collaborative process that leaves you not only with detailed suggestions of what to pursue in your writing but that gives you fundamental ideas to think about. The work of writing is a long educative process in which you learn much about yourself as well as about your subject matter; likewise, my work with you contains a strong educative element.

Whereas most editors will suggest, for example, that you cut the ending on your piece, possibly giving you a reason such as "because it doesn't work" or "because it is too long," I will give you the reasons for the reason--and not because I'm invoking a rule that fits all writing, such as "endings should be short." As we proceed through the work, my aim is to model the developmental editing process with circumspection, that you might internalize it so as to intelligently understand the why of editing your own work. Whenever I suggest what I would do if I were writing your piece, my intention is always to assist you in figuring out how you yourself might improve your writing.

Insofar as good writing is a work in progress, I will be asking you to rewrite your original piece through a number of subsequent drafts. With the initial consultation I'll request you fill out an Author Questionnaire. Here it is:

    1. First, is your work fiction or creative nonfiction? For an elucidation of "creative nonfiction," go here.
    2. Please characterize your work in terms of genre. This includes such forms as novel, argumentative essay, memoir, researched article.
    3. Who is your intended audience? For example, literary, academic, popular, technical, and/or a particular demographic.
    4. Are you first aiming to attract the attention of an established publisher, or do you already have one?
    5. What sort of tone do you hope to convey? For example, lighthearted, authoritative, well-informed, polemical, ironical.
    6. Name an author and/or book that you uphold as a model for your project or that you would like, either explicitly or implicitly, to counter through your work.
    7. Who is your ideal reader? In what environment do you imagine him or her reading your work? For example, on the subway via an ebook reader, in bed under the covers, in a class as an assigned text.
    8. What is your primary purpose in writing? For example, to persuade, to inform, proselytize, clarify, entertain, challenge, to get something off your chest.
    9. Please convey the point or theme of your work. For example, is its primary purpose to teach a moral lesson, to educate, have a therapeutic effect, serve as social satire, argue for a certain stance?
    10. Please come up with a working title or two (even if fanciful).
    11. What are the “big picture” edits you require assistance with? For example, creating suspense, organizing material, establishing a distinctive authorial voice, interweaving theme and plot, addressing tone, imagining an ending, developing a distinctive style.
    12. Are there any aspects of your writing that you would like to see changed? What do you see as weaknesses or loose ends in your work? Strengths? Elements that you wouldn’t want to see altered?
    13. How big is your project (estimated length)?
    14. What are your budgetary parameters?
    15. Would you say your developmental editor should primarily (multiple choice):
      a. have only nice things to say
      b. offer constructive criticism
      c. rewrite as a ghostwriter
      d. be an expert in your field
      e. read your mind
      f. double as a line editor/copyeditor
      g. be respectfully directive
      h. be all of the above

It is possible you can’t answer at the beginning of the developmental editing process the question of what your writing is primarily about. In "The Philosophy of Composition," Edgar Allan Poe says that a writer in attempting to appeal both to popular and critical tastes should ask himself the following question: "Of the innumerable effects, or impressions, of which the heart, the intellect, or (more generally) the soul is susceptible, what one shall I, on the present occasion, select?" In other words, good writing is about producing an effect. “We commence with the consideration of an effect,” emphasizes Poe. Are you producing the effect you want to in a sensitive reader?

In order that you consider this question, I will begin the process by conveying the effects your writing produces in me after reading it closely and two times in full. For example, have you intended your writing to be funny? It is possible that it doesn’t strike me as funny. Please note that this is not a personal judgment as to whether your writing is good or bad but simply conveys the effect it produces in me. So I will be walking you through my responses as a reader. That is, I see that you are talking about X… Is conveying that angle on this subject what you are interested in developing? In order to intelligently respond to your writing, I will be tracking my own responses as I read.

First, I will be noting your word choice, specifically which words are significant and whether there are clusters of words that repeat. Whether there are any arresting phrases. I will notice what stands out for me, such as climactic moments, confusing plot, repeated themes, particularly any places in which you raised reader expectations that were not satisfied. I will spend time reflecting on what I have read, what I have learned, and places where there is thoughtfulness, consideration, perhaps something analytical. I am looking for any leitmotifs that are inchoate, anything that is nascent in the writing, anything that surprises or that provokes a strong reaction in me (e.g., “this aspect is what I find myself interested in . . .”).

red roseI also will be noting cultural references in your writing, such as to books, movies, historical figures. Why? Because these are what make a connection between the reader and a piece of writing. Cultural references such as given in a personal essay enable me as reader to meet you as writer by going to a third place that we have in common.

In the same way, if you are writing autobiographical material, your task is to convey how something that happened to you is in some way universal. Your job as writer is to make the reader care, say, that your grandmother died, rather than presuming that your own concerns, no matter how heartfelt, are naturally shared by your readers. The paradox of writing that connects a reader to something universal is that it must go further into detail rather than abstracting from whatever particulars present themselves. As long as you the writer remain distant from the details, you are talking in clichés. “A cliché is a profound truth taken at a distance” (TKM).

Strive for the vivid imagery of William Carlos Williams, whose “1923 poem exemplifies the Imagist-influenced philosophy of ‘no ideas but in things”:



so much depends


a red wheel


glazed with rain


beside the white




Your first writing or rewrite should uncover as many details as possible. You might think you know what happens in your telling but assume you only know it in the vaguest terms. There is always an unconsciousness present. You might be unaware of something you’ve mentioned three times. Unexpected material comes up that is important to notice. The process of (re)writing will furnish detail. The more detail, the better. Feel free to write ten times as much as what you’re going to finally use. And follow my lead in noticing aspects of your own writing, i.e., not only what is striking but, say, what you’re trying to avoid saying, perhaps something you don’t want to mention but that’s staring right at you.

Now return to your writing and discover in what way you like writing about your subject, such as by exploring mythology parallels, uncovering a medical history, taking an historical view. Become aware of your native perspective, such as sociological, behavioral, gustatory, philosophical. If you are working in certain genres, such as argumentative essay, it would be honest to make this approach explicit to your reader. After rereading what you’ve written, come up with options for approaching your subject. There might be five aspects but you have to pick one. You can always go back and approach the subject in a different way. But you have to pick one angle or pull out a significant aspect of your subject or a central character.

Once you lay out an approach to your subject, you can begin to tease out an image: Note all the details. How is a character dressed? How does he speak? In what situations does he find himself? Amplify what is presented. For example, what are your associations? How do you feel in thinking about this scene? What are your cultural references? What type of person is this? Where have you seen examples of this before? Contrast/compare. Position the character in the world of other characters. Discover major elements in that character. What is he or she like? What qualities do you find in the character?

Describe without saying what something or someone “stands for” or “represents,” which would be an insult to the subject or person. Characters express such an insult by closing themselves off from you. Better to respect characters and get to know them.

Write an exhaustive description of some aspect of your subject or character. Something in your writing that you’re intrigued by or know nothing about, that puzzles you, surprises you. Something that you have a strong emotional response to (even if you’re sickened by something). Where does the tension lie? What have you left out? What do you repeat?

Next step: After developing your focus, assume that your having “picked” this significant aspect of a subject is itself significant, says something about you. That it picked you. That whatever you’re writing about, you’re writing about yourself, something that affects you. It’s important to be aware of this so you in turn can move the reader. And because what affects you inevitably affects your writing, to the extent you are not aware of this influence, you are not in command of your art.

Think about stories around your subject. Research it. Analyze and explicate it. Investigate where it leads. In order to encourage vivid writing, I will dramatize what I pick up on, perhaps personify the world I find myself in or express what your writing sounds like in order to get at its guiding metaphor. This is not to reduce your writing to “what it symbolizes” but rather will be our trying to understand its central point in terms of something similar or more familiar, something analogous or echoing. A speaking and writing tic—it’s like; I was like; she said, like—can be seen as a strong need to express the prevailing metaphor in your thought. To evoke something by understanding what it is like.

Now revisit your subject armed with a new perspective, a new analysis. Look at your experience again. How does it look different? Return to your writing and retell. The story should reveal new layers. Some things will now be highlighted, which will help you in figuring out what to include and what to exclude. Delete any characters not necessary. Now that you understand what is essential to say, does a different organization of the material suggest itself?

Discern: Is the wheelbarrow in fact red, are the chickens white? Gain some sort of insight. This doesn’t have to be profound, perhaps just noticing a connection between two things, a fresh observation. This can be an aesthetic observation rather than a moral judgment. You don’t have to turn your writing into a lesson. Watch out for a preachy tone. Moralizing will distance you from your subject. Examine what something looks like or how it feels rather than judging whether it is good or bad. Above all, develop a rich vocabulary around your subject.

Finally, draw a conclusion. Put all your pieces together. What is their application for life? Why is this angle useful? Is it helpful? By means of this perspective, what might readers now be able to understand or be able to see that they couldn’t before? Why is this subject matter a good thing to know? What experience have you given your readers? Have you moved their hearts, given them vision, expanded their outlook, awakened their soul, reminded them of something long forgotten, introduced a wrinkle, provoked them with a new twist? Connected them to humanity? Sophisticated their consciousness? Held a mirror up to them? To yourself? Can you come up with more pointed objectives?

You will receive my initial reader responses and trained analysis of your writing in the form of an editorial letter. Offering a comprehensive and nuanced critique (conveyed with friendly and respectful tact), it will serve as a professional elucidation of your work's strengths and weaknesses, including comments such as the following:

Dear Author: This assessment is based on the effect your writing produces in me and how I think different readers might react to it.

  • I’m left confused by the ____________ (meaning you intend) (vague characterization) (contradictory arguments).
  • A strong point is your (command of language) (well-argued position) (imaginative vision).
  • Reading your work, I found myself (wishing you would develop the main idea further) (distracted by the grammatical mistakes) (reminded of Mark Twain).
  • Your first-person narration is (very hard to do well) (a wry voice) (too godlike to be believable) (very common these days).

A word about developmental editing as "coaching": Developmental editors (DEs), observes Scott Norton, "thrive on exercising their particular knack for putting themselves simultaneously in the author's and reader's places" (Developmental Editing, p. xii). Such editors are sometimes referred to as "writing coaches" these days, but as someone highly attuned to language, I find the categorization grating. Every word is guided by an inner image, whether conscious or unconscious, that shapes our thought and behavior like a magnetic field: This is the first principle of MiddleoftheNight Editorial Services, why it matters how we use words. To imagine the editing work in terms, say, of a coach urging on an athlete, alternately berating and cheerleading (demanding more muscular verbs?), distorts the special relationship between editor and author, I believe. Rather, my aim as DE is to develop a close creative involvement with you as writer, inspiring your dedication to the art of writing, shaping the exercise of your craft, and helping to realize your work's publication.

Recommended Reading

What If? (Bernays/Painter)

Writing Without Teachers (Elbow)

Bird by Bird (Lamott)

On Moral Fiction (Gardner)

Developmental Editing (Norton)

Self-Editing for Fiction Writers (Browne/King)

Writing Fiction (Gotham Writers' Workshop)