The Core of Developmental Editing

I have been trying to figure out how to write this post for months. See, editing–by which I speak of developmental editing–isn’t “clean up this passive voice crap” or “fix my typos” or even “rewrite this so that it makes sense,” even though in editing you do all those things.

Editing for texts meant to instruct and entertain, like roleplaying games, is entirely about strengthening that text. That’s all. Nothing less, nothing more.

But that’s a super abstract concept. To drill down, here’s a drawing I made on my train:

(Yeah, expect more of this. And maybe some occasional Stickbat.)

The group on the top is playing on a giant Table of Confidence. The goal of editing is to great a book that generates strong confidence in play. And that confidence rests on two pillars: text flow and ease of reference.

Text Flow

Text flow is difficult to define except by its absence. A text does not have flow if the reader has to stop and process confusion. When the reader is being introduced to ideas abruptly without context, that’s a lack of flow. When the text is boring as shit to read (which could alternatively be defined as feeling like it has an emotional cost/benefit ratio to continue worse than simply putting it down) that’s a lack of flow. Text that’s difficult to read because of awkward of alien sentence constructions or grammatical elements creates that lack of flow. Text that makes you feel like shit, an asshole or a pleb is also lacking flow. Text that assumes you’re deep in a culture of play that you’re not and using that as a vast well of context lacks flow for everyone who isn’t in that group–and totally kosher if you’re only selling to that group.

Along with copyediting to fix sentence clarity, the editor’s job of making sure ideas are presented in the right order so that context is founded before discussing elements that hang off that context. One of the comments I made about Elizabeth Sampat’s game, THEY BECAME FLESH, was that she was talking about what God, Humanity & the Fallen do to define the world in play before telling me what God, Humanity & the Fallen actually were (which is the name of the two GM roles and the collective noun of the players, respectively). Now, that was a playtest document, which she’s since made more kickass and flow-worthy as she’s developing it.

The context–who those roles were–was on the next page, so what I experienced wasn’t a total lack of flow, but a weak flow, a question hanging around my mind for some time. David Allen talks about this concept in Getting Things Done, and the limit to the number of simultaneous things you can hold in your mind. A question that is brought up in the text through lack of context becomes one of those things. Thus, impedance of flow.

Incidentally, she was able to pretty easily fix that. But that’s the example that was on the top of my head.

Ease of Reference

It doesn’t matter if all the information is in the book if, during play, a question comes up that threatens confidence which cannot be answered quickly by the book. That’s where ease of reference comes in.

Now, I know there’s a number of folks who would say “if a question comes up, just wing it and find out later.” And that’s true…if you have confidence in your guess. If not, if the table collectively feels lukewarm about how to proceed, the play experience is damaged. Thus, referencability.

This is easy to add to your book, though sections, callouts, art, graphic design elements, additional materials, etc. This isn’t hard, but that doesn’t make it non-crucial.

The Third, Invisible Pillar: Information

This assumes that all the information needed to play the game is actually in the book. If it’s not, then you have a much larger problem. :)

Breaking These Intentionally

Now, with every rule, the final stage of mastering it is knowing when to break it. That’s worth acknowledging.

Also, very few people have that stage of mastering. If you think you’re one of them, you probably aren’t.[1]

The High Water Mark

One of the best texts in this regard is Dogs in the Vineyard. Why? Because Vincent is a great conversationalist writer, which makes for strong flow. Now, a conversation is the shittiest way to create referencability, because conversations aren’t referencable, but that’s what the references in each chapter in Dogs were for, as well as the references on the character sheets.


So, when I’m going over a manuscript, on every pages I’m pressing my weight down on the table of confidence, being a proxy for the various audiences I know this book will sell to, and see how it holds up. Because that’s what developmental editing is (in addition to calling out bullshit & intent).

– Ryan

[1] I’m not, but I’m pretty self-aware of that.


11 Responses to The Core of Developmental Editing

  1. Another good article, Ryan. I have a question about ease of reference. I’ve noticed that a print book can be excellent in this regard, while its electronic version is less-so. Have you experienced this? Or am I the only one that sees a difference here?

    I think maybe it’s an issue of how the PDF (or other electronic format) is done instead of true ease of reference question.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      In crappy PDFs that don’t have bookmarks, yes. And a number of other elements that are *exactly* as available in there as in print.

      But then the emphasis is on “crappy” and not misplaced on “electronic.” I have a host of print books where there’s no referencability.

      – Ryan

  2. That was my suspicion, but I wanted your opinion. Just for sake of reference, what are some products that excel in what you discussed in your article and in ease of reference both in print and electronically?

    • Ryan Macklin says:


      Pretty much any book with good references in-text and good bookmarking. I think we did decent on Dresden, though that’s also a tome. Fiasco & Technoir are both pretty good, as well.

      But you tell me. Look at those and tell me where they fall down on that end?

      – Ryan

  3. Clark Valentine says:

    Jeremy, I find print books universally better for reference than PDFs. For me, it’s a matter of “flippability”; I start to identify visual markers that I use to quickly find particular pages. PDF readers don’t render fast enough for effective flipping. Purely my own preference.

    • Ryan Macklin says:


      Yeah, there’s that. I have some thoughts regarding that, but ereaders still have limitations.

      And there’s also the fact that I can do a lot with book construction, physical and electronic, but I cannot entirely compensate for reader preferences. :)

      – Ryan

  4. Reverance Pavane says:

    The nice thing about purely electronic formats is that you can structure the text in different ways. So you can have a linear text (much like a normal book) or a branching tree structure that is ideal for looking things up. Perhaps link this to an editable character sheet. Even choose different paths through the text according to decisions that have been made previously. You can tailor the flow to what the reader wants – show or hide fiction and examples, expand sections of text or simply provide a summary of each section. And rapidly search the document for important names and elements. Not to mention that supplements, expansions, and corrections can be slotted right into the rule document. This includes customisations by the users, or course.

    In effect you can create a see-saw between reference and text flow, highlighting whichever one that you need at the time – dynamically, depending on how you access the document.

    Of course, none of the currently available commercial electronic products really can do this at the moment. After all, PDFs were really only designed as containers for printing/displaying documents (and suffer the inherent limitations of such a design). And the standard eBook formats are simply designed to give you the book experience on a screen (and miss the natural ability to manipulate the container that our perceptions of a physical object provide). The old Apple Hypercard stacks come very close (and I suspect if someone where to come out with a clone for this for eReaders they would make a mint).

    [Disclaimer: I have in fact used such a database-driven html-based dynamic document at the table for my standard campaigns. It’s a bit of a kludge and is in constant lunatic alpha as I upgrade it and change it, but it’s a very convenient and fast method of accessing a lot of data on both the rules and campaign. At the moment it allows me to play with knowledge architectures – you can only really get a feel for the possibilities inherent in it by playing with it. And I realise it will never work commercially until there is an easy to use creative suite that allows the editor/layout to create the required data structures without thinking too heavily about it. But I think the possibilities inherent in leaving the standard linear structure are interesting enough to continue playing with it.]

  5. JDCorley says:

    I’m the bald guy in this picture aren’t I.


    Good post, Revarance

    • Ryan Macklin says:


      Man, no. It’s not all about you.

      You’re the bald guy with the worm on his head.

      – Ryan

  6. I remember “flippability” being some of a concern when I went through character creation with the Dresden Files book the one and only time I’ve played. Honestly, that’s preference and unfamiliarity with the system, so I have to remove that from this discussion, as it’s not relevant.

    Now that I take a second look, I think it’s a fine job. I don’t have Fiasco (which I will correct once some extra cash grows on the money tree out back), so I can’t comment on it.

    I need to look back over Technoir, but I’m not sure when I’ll have the time, so I thought I go ahead and comment.

    Both Dresden and Technoir (if memory recalls correctly) are infinitely better than another RPG product whose PDF is absolutely beautiful but falls into what Ryan stated as a crappy PDF. It had bookmarks, but their formatting made it almost impossible to follow.

    Now I come to the part of the comment where I’m not sure whether I should state what that product is or not. Editor voice says to do it so counter-example of what not to do is there. Normal voice doesn’t want to ridicule someone else’s hard work in public.