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Developmental Editing & AI: When to Call in the Humans
AI can help you developmentally edit your book, but do you know when it's time to call in the human professionals?
Unless you've been living under a rock (and if that's the case, welcome, rock dweller!), you've heard about artificial intelligence (AI) tools for writing. I mean, ChatGPT is kind of everywhere, Claude AI is being talked about in writing forums, and many writers and editors use Grammarly, ProWritingAid (me), Hemingway Editor, Sudowrite, or something else.
Using AI to help with book editing and proofreading sounds great. I mean, what's not to love about help finding grammar and spelling errors, improving sentence structure, getting plot development suggestions, or leveling up your writing quality?
It's like having a virtual writing buddy at your side 24/7.
Sign. Me. Up?
But if you're anything like me, you may be wary of AI and its limitations (not to mention potential privacy issues, but that's a different article). After all, when Microsoft Word suggests that a "dense copse of trees" should be "a dense corpse of trees," well, there's something to be desired.
Regardless of its shortcomings, though, AI for writers is here to stay. So, let's talk about one AI tool specifically for developmental editing that is actually kind of awesome, what its limitations are, and when to call in the humans to clean up after the tech is done. And I'm doing it using a piece of my own fiction writing because ethics matter.
Developmental Editing with Claude
Developmental editing of a novel or non-fiction book is time consuming and expensive. According to the Editorial Freelancers Association, developmental editors charge an average of $50-$60 per hour.
And how many pages do they get through within an hour? About 5.
Given the standard novel length of about 360 pages or 90,000 words, just the developmental edit alone is often priced between $3,600 and $4,320. And that's for one development round with no additional feedback or coaching, no grammar or syntax work, no polishing.
But story development is one area where AI tools can actually help while leaving your precious editing budget intact for when it's time to call in the humans.
What Claude Can Do
Claude can summarize and outline your work and create a detailed scene-by-scene list for a manuscript up to 75,000 words. Claude can help you keep track of your characters, tell you whether there are structural issues with your plot, and more. And you can even ask Claude to review its own work, which it will do.
So how does it work?
I pulled a character sketch published on Substack titled, A Serious Man. Then, I visited Claude, uploaded my fiction piece and wrote: "Please provide plot and character development feedback on the attached.
Here's are a few bits of feedback Claude provided:
The overall plot centers around Sam's job incinerating aliens that appeared due to his third wish from a genie.
Sam is the central character. His wry, cynical attitude comes through. But he could use more backstory and dimensionality.
Sam is somewhat static throughout. Charting a more definitive character arc could show how he changes as a result of the alien events.
All of these bits of feedback are mostly true. So I asked Claude to suggest me way to create a more definitive character arc for Sam. And Claude gave me several suggestions. Here are a few:
Build in backstory - Provide more background on why Sam is so isolated and cynical. Perhaps he has been burned in the past when trying to help others, or focused so much on his art that he lost connections. This can make his self-focus more understandable.
Create an inciting incident - Have an event that shakes up Sam's worldview. For example, a young child gets injured by the aliens while Sam is preoccupied with his commissions. This causes him to question his priorities.
Reveal his choice - At the climax, Sam has to decide between destroying the remaining aliens for a big commission or letting them return home. His choice demonstrates his arc toward altruism.
These suggested changes are helpful. Adding backstory would help to fill out Sam's character. He's isolated and a bit cynical, and he doesn't really make an active choice at the end of the piece except to continue his work while reflecting on why he's doing it. And an inciting incident? Claude correctly identified that there isn't one. And I haven't even begun to exhaust Claude's functions. Others include:
Identifying your book's main themes
Suggesting specific improvements to make and where they should go
Providing a list of major locations, characters, and events, including proper names
Creating a list of overused words or phrases
Sounds too good to be true, right? There must be a catch?
What Claude Cannot Do
The robots don't understand human intention, and Claude is no different.
My piece, A Serious Man, was intentionally written as a fantasy character sketch before I had planned the story. In fact, the piece isn't a story at all, and it isn't supposed to be. There is some kind of plot outline but it's loose and underdeveloped because the piece is, again, a character sketch. And I didn't want Sam to change—he's static for a reason. Instead, my goal was to create a snapshot-in-time piece with an unexpected reveal (the genie and the wish) while having fun writing it.
So, what are Claude's limitations? Well, Claude can describe your work and themes but only at a surface or generic level. It can suggest improvements, but it sometimes makes mistakes in characterization and locations of those improvements. And that handy character list? Claude can't tell the difference between a capitalized proper noun and capitalization at the beginning of the sentence, so there's that.
Those are just some of Claude's limitations, and some of the information Claude provides will be totally useless to you. It'll mix up where events happen, for example, or misattribute dialogue at times. And it'll make bigger mistakes the more granular you go.
Claude is Not a Professional Developmental Editor
If you've read this far, you may be wondering why any person would ever hire a human developmental editor again. And I get that. But here are some things to think about:
When performing a developmental edit, it's common to add or remove subplots, either to fill in the story or tighten it. And if you need to add to the story, Claude can provide examples for subplots. But Claude can't tell you which subplot makes the most sense based on your goals or needs.
And then there's the aspect of language. After all, developmental editing, in my humble opinion, includes line edits to enhance language for characterization, pacing, rhythm, and creating an immersive experience that allows readers to get into reading flow.
Here's what I mean:
I asked Claude to select one paragraph from the text and rewrite it for language and clarity. And I asked it to let me see the changes. Here's the comparison, and I've bolded the changes as best as possible:
There were others responsible for catching, collecting, and transporting the softball-sized flying varmints. Sam preferred handling the creatures with the end of a shovel instead of his hands, even with his trusted gloves. He made his way through the building and nodded to the maintenance person coordinating a new drop-off request. Operation: Alien Cleanup was estimated to last an additional three to five weeks, given the volume of creatures present and the rate of their reproduction. The effort to eliminate them as fast as possible was massive and included millions of people all over the globe.
A team was tasked with capturing the softball-sized, winged pests and delivering them for disposal. Wanting minimal contact, Sam opted to corral the animals using a shovel instead of his gloved hands. As he walked through the building, he briefly acknowledged the maintenance coordinator finalizing plans for more arrivals. According to projections, Operation: Alien Cleanup would continue for three to five more weeks based on the sheer amount of creatures and their rapid breeding. The exhaustive global initiative involved millions eliminating the influx as swiftly as possible.
Claude made some decent changes, right? So what's wrong?
Claude didn't rewrite the paragraph in my voice.
When I asked Claude to rewrite the paragraph in my voice, Claude offered the following (changes bolded from the original):
There were others responsible for catching, collecting, and transporting the softball-sized flying varmints. Sam preferred handling the creatures with the end of a shovel instead of his hands, even with his trusted gloves. He sauntered through the building, pausing only to nod in the direction of the janitor coordinating a new drop-off request. Operation: Alien Cleanup was estimated to last an additional three to five weeks, given the sheer volume of creatures present and the rate of their copious reproduction. The effort to eliminate them posthaste was a massive global initiative involving millions upon millions of people across the planet.
Most of what Claude did was add adjectives. And Claude incorrectly changed the "maintenance coordinator" into a "janitor." So there's that.
Calling in the Humans
While Claude is a cool tool (I'll probably play with it again just for fun) and may help you weed out plot holes, find inconsistencies in characterization, identify themes, arcs, and more, the tool has its limits.
At the end of the day, Claude will give you pretty solid high-level feedback on the basics of story development, but when it comes to the finer details, it's best to leave the task to a real person. So, use Claude or other tools like it to their fullest potential. Then, use that editing budget for when it really matters: cleaning up the issues AI tech leaves behind and enhancing your writing craft.
It's time to call in the humans when:
You value your privacy and are willing to forego the use of AI because you know humans > robots. (I♥U)
You've exhausted the helpfulness of AI development tools, made a host of changes to your work, but something in your book still feels off.
You need help sifting through suggestions from AI and/or early readers to find the changes that will benefit readers most.
You want help with sentence-level line edits that will retain your voice and style and enhance the rhythm of your language.
Want a more in-depth review of Claude? Check out this video from MetaStellar Magazine's Maria Korolov:
In Case You Missed It & Other News
Some blog articles are being spruced up with audio!
I've joined the MetaStellar Magazine team as a volunteer editor and columnist! You can find my columns here: https://www.metastellar.com/author/fallon-clark/. And keep an eye out for changes coming to the weekly advice roundup.
NaNoWriMo starts in less than a week! If you're still haggling over your story outline or need to think through a few things before you sit down to write the big 50k, contact me for a coaching sesh and set yourself up to crush those goals.
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Happy writing and editing!
P.S. Claude labeled my fiction piece "The Odorous Commissioner's Pests," which I found intriguing. Is the commissioner odorous? Or are the pests? And this, folks, is what keeps line editors up at night.