The map to revision: Developmental Feedback

by Jenna Kalinsky

Developmental feedback is the constructive written feedback a fellow writer or editor provides on a early draft of any kind of writing. Written with a mind toward helping the writer strengthen, tighten, and refine her work, developmental feedback- ranging from large-scale holistic issues down to the smaller details that make for good writing- serves as a road map that helps the business, academic, and creative writer see her work anew as she readies it for distribution or publication.

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In my previous blog, When it’s Time to Re-See Your Writing, I talk about how writers’ brains grow weary from seeing their work over and over due to a biological effect called “Semantic Saturation”: cellular fatigue in the brain that sets in when we read the same word, or whole manuscript, over and over again until it starts to look like gibberish.

Time is one way to heal this particular wound, which is why I always advocate to my students and clients that they sleep on their manuscripts (figuratively, though if literally helps, go for it!) before embarking on any kind of renovation of the material.

The other way to get a whole new perspective on a developing manuscript is through getting Developmental Feedback.

What Is Developmental Feedback?

Just like it sounds, Developmental Feedback is a fully realized thoroughly written identification and articulation of how an emerging piece of writing is doing: the soup-to-nuts assessment an editor or fellow writer provides to help the writer see her manuscript from another perspective (or how the writing is coming across). Atop seeing what is in the current draft, the editor or fellow writer will typically offer suggestions for how to bring the work more successfully into its next draft.

How Developmental Feedback Is Laid Out

engineered web for developmental feedback for One Lit Place at onelitplace.com

Photo by Jason Leung

When editors or fellow writers give developmental feedback, they do three key things:

  • Provide a fully-realized response to a piece of writing of their overall thoughts and impressions, namely speaking to the work’s purpose, thrust, and tone (e.g. identify what’s there)
  • Intuit from the existing material what the piece wants to be about, where it wants to go, and what it could become (e.g. recognize its potential for fulfilling its own promise)
  • Give suggestions to the writer as to how she might evolve the existing material into its next more successful iteration through practical tips and specific examples.

In essence, Developmental Feedback is an editor or fellow writer taking a step back from the a manuscript and speaking to its infrastructure, purpose and thrust, and overall viability as a document.

  • Is it designed to get an audience to want a product?
  • Is it meant to be a literary short story whose subtext and plot interweave to forge a metaphor/theme?
  • Is the business plan written so what the entrepreneur wants to achieve is purposeful and clear?

That step back to gather the overarching idea into a conscious architecture is what developmental feedback is designed to do.

How Developmental Feedback Is Constructed

The editorial team at One Lit Place takes a two-sided approach to be able to speak to the needs of the manuscript to provide both an overarching assessment and a close examination:

  1. In margin comments on the work itself
  2. In a personal letter to the writer.

typeset words for Developmental Feedback at One Lit Place for onelitplace.com

The margin comments (made in “Review” (Mac) or “Track Changes” (PC)) are a wonderful tool for noting points in the manuscript where we have questions, comments about a particular passage or line, or where we paused and then identify what could be fixed going forward to avoid that break in concentration (for when an editor or fellow writer pauses, we make a note and stay the course, whereas a true reader may pause, realize she has laundry to do, and put the work down forever).

Having our hands on the work itself allows us to to engage with the writing at a play-by-play level as it develops.

While margin comments are perfect for instant responses to line-level issues, the personal letter enables us to articulate our thoughts as to what the piece is about and striving to do on a holistic scale. We can make suggestions and ask questions to the writer about her choices and balance the options that could take the work in one direction or another. In this, it’s akin to a conversation with the writer, which respects her choices by honoring them as they are on the page and also as we see them becoming.

Speaking to the various craft elements that make up a piece of successful writing, we can move from overall theme, purpose, and plot/structure, through the story points, character development, setting, detail, pacing and language/tone. An editor or fellow writer may make suggestions the writer might not be able to step back and see as options such as cutting large swaths that may be bogging down the material, reordering sections for clarity, or adding an element to a character’s evolution to show greater motivation for his behavior, and etc.

black and white close up typewriter keys for One Lit Place at onelitplace.com

Photo by Peter Lewicki

What Developmental Feedback Is …

Developmental Feedback is holistic and attends to purpose, flow, and the power of the work. The notes we make are laid atop the work and converse with it as it is. It is a collaboration that will inevitably lead to the writer making changes and exploring new ways to communicate her story or inform her audience.

And What It is Not …

As such, there’s no need to do much or even any editing at this stage.

It’s simply too early in the process to adjust the lines’ music, grammar, syntax, missing commas, and sentence flow. The editing process comes next (first with Substantive Editing and later Copyediting and Proofreading). These steps are a vital part of a piece’s success, but for this early stage, we leave the rawness alone in order to speak to the greater whole.

There’s also no judgment. An editor will not say, “I loved this part” or “this isn’t good.” Our job is not to judge the work based on our own personal likes and dislikes. This isn’t about us and our tastes.

The purpose of this kind of constructive developmental feedback is to identify what is there and what is not. What is successful in this draft, and what could be cut. This feedback is in service, as if putting an arm around the work’s shoulders and saying, “I’m here to help you be your best self. Let’s see how we can do that (even if it means cutting off your first eighteen pages)”.

Giving constructive developmental feedback is a skill that can be learned and honed over time. In our writing workshops, we work on how to deliver developmental feedback on our fellow writers’ pieces in ways that benefit their learning and the work they’re striving to do.

map with vintage photo and camera for developmental feedback at One Lit Place onelitplace.com

Photo by Annie Spratt

Developmental Feedback Benefits All Writing

This kind of thorough insightful feedback gives the writer an outsider’s perspective. It can be humbling to find out how others experience your writing, but at the same time, if writing is designed to be read, then it is a worthwhile exercise to hear how it’s going and whether what you’d wanted it to be and do came through.

Practically speaking, an editor or fellow writer’s ideas about the work will give the writer ample insight along a number of lines as to how she might approach revising the material.

The notes serve as a physical map that helps the writer organize a plan for returning to the draft. For the fatigued writer who has up to this point endeavored to revise the work herself (and it now resembles a water color more than a document or story draft), this is gold.

Now Is a Great Time to Ask for Feedback on Your Writing

A careful reader’s insights are an invaluable gift to the writer who otherwise would not be able to have this perspective, who is plagued by semantic saturation, and who would benefit from the constructive and practical suggestions that could be applied to tighten, refine, and bring the work on home.

If you have a piece of writing that has started to sound like gibberish, it may be time to seek out either a group of smart, insightful peer writers or a skilled editor who can help you refine your process and take your manuscript to the next level. Clarity is always a step in the right direction.


One Lit Place will get your work to the next level in two ways:

 1.  Get feedback on your work in progress in a One Lit Place online course.

  • Have a look at our upcoming online writing courses HERE. Our writing courses are 100% online, which makes them perfect for busy writers.

2.  Fast track your work with one-on-one coaching, mentorship, or editing to get the individualized instruction and manuscript evaluation you need. Our team of skilled editors work with business, academic, and creative writers on their projects and customize the work to meet the writer’s needs. Please contact us to talk about your work! 

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