Working With a Developmental Editor (A Guest Post)

By Dr. Jane Jones

Jane Jones, PhD, an academic editor and writing coach, founded Up In Consulting to work with faculty at all stages of their career to improve the quality of their writing and stay on track. She believes that you do your best writing when you are organized, prepared, have enough time, and have a second pair of eyes to look over your work. Her clients include scholars in the social sciences, humanities, nursing, and public health. They have published in outlets including The American Journal of Sociology, University of Chicago Press, Routledge, and Oxford University Press. You can learn more about her services at*

I decided to become a developmental editor because of my love/hate relationship with academia. When I completed graduate school, it seemed that I had a pretty good gig. I landed a tenure-track job straight out of graduate school, at a small liberal arts college outside of a city in which I enjoyed living. The pay was good and the course load wasn’t terrible. My day-to-day work environment, on the other hand, was awful. The details of that environment are not the important part of my alt-ac journey.  The important moment was three years into this job, when I realized that I hadn’t worked so hard to get a PhD to have a career where there was more that I hated than I loved. I thought hard about the aspects of academic work that excited me –the craft of writing, the exchange of ideas, and the intellectual thrill of research – and how I could incorporate those into a new career. I thought editing would be a perfect fit and so far, it is. Every day I work with clients across disciplines on projects that are fascinating.  It often feels like an indulgence to get to spend so much time reading! I work with writers through different stages of their writing process, as I explain below.

As authors, we often realize something is “off” with our writing, and we may or may not be able to put our finger on what that is. Maybe our thesis seems weak, maybe we’re writing in circles, or maybe we can’t quite articulate a complex argument. Or, we might just recognize that our writing isn’t working –we know we can do better, yet we’re not exactly sure how.

On other occasions, your concerns may emerge during earlier stages of the writing process. You have a wealth of information and content, but are uncertain about how to organize it. Questions about thesis, audience, and organization leave you confused and overwhelmed. Wondering where to start, you don’t, procrastinating instead.

In those situations, you may need a developmental editor.

A developmental editor is a focused, objective reader whose job is to improve the structure, content, and organization of your manuscript. In the world of scholarly writing, developmental editors usually (although not always) have PhDs and work primarily with academic writers. A developmental editor is familiar with the conventions of academic publishing and may specialize in a genre of academic writing like books or articles. Developmental editing is sometimes called manuscript evaluation or substantive editing.

The benefits to working with a developmental editor are many. The most apparent benefit is that your writing improves. Yet, that is not the only advantage. You’ll also work with a reliable outside party who can work with you on your schedule. A developmental editor can also work as a project manager of sorts, helping you to meet deadlines, organize writing projects, and complete revisions in a systematic way.

In the rest of this post, I’ll explain the process of working with a developmental editor and answer commonly asked questions about developmental editing.

How do developmental editors work?

The role of the editor

The relationship you have with a developmental editor is iterative and collaborative.  A developmental editor can work with you to brainstorm ideas, structure and restructure an argument or narrative, or identify a clear and compelling thesis. A developmental editor can see you through multiple drafts of a manuscript, providing the type of exhaustive feedback you may hesitate to request of a colleague or mentor.

A developmental editor will, in some cases, also offer project management. When I work with authors completing a revise and resubmit for instance, we compile a spreadsheet of suggested revisions that serves as the basis for the letter submitted to the editor upon the completion of revisions and develop a timeline for incorporating revisions.

Should the editor be an expert?

You don’t need a subject expert editor for your work. It may feel comforting to have an editor who is familiar with the literature you engage, but it’s not necessary that the person be a specialist. In fact, working with an editor outside of your field can work to your advantage, especially if you desire a reading audience larger than the group of experts in your field.

The process of finding and working with an editor.

When should you start working with a developmental editor?

Although working with a developmental editor early on in is recommended, you can benefit from working with one at many stages of the writing process. For instance, you might want to turn your dissertation into a book. Or, you might have received a revise and resubmit, but feel unsure about how to address the comments and revise the manuscript. Even at later states, you can benefit from an in-depth, substantive critique of a complete draft so you can determine what remains to be done before it’s ready to submit for publication.

How do you find a developmental editor?

There are many developmental editors active on Twitter – if you search hashtags like #altac, #amediting, and #acwri it’s likely you’ll discover quite a few. You can also find a developmental editor through associations like the Editorial Freelancer’s Association. Contact several. During your initial conversations with potential editors, they should ask you how far along you are in your manuscript preparation, what your timeline is, what you believe to be the weaknesses in your manuscript, and where you intend to submit. The D.E should also tell you about their own process. For instance, some editors will only work with complete drafts, while some are willing to intervene at earlier stages. An editor should express interest in your project, and be clear about the timetable during which they are available to work with you.

What you can expect during the process?

A good developmental editor will take her time to prepare an extensive, rigorous critique of your work. You should not expect a marked-up text as you would from a copyeditor or proofreader. Instead, a D.E will write you a memo that outlines the strengths and weaknesses of the manuscript, addresses any concerns you expressed, and makes suggestions for improving the manuscript. The last step is incredibly important. A developmental editor should not simply tell you what’s wrong and leave you to figure out the rest on your own. They should provide clear, actionable instructions for how you should revise. This process takes time. A book-length manuscript evaluation can take over a month. Be sure to consider this when you consider working with a developmental editor.

Once this memo is complete I have a conversation with my clients (if they desire) to clarify any points that may be confusing or address any additional concerns. At that point, the client has two options: they can revise independently, or I can work with them to complete the revisions. Clients should consider timeline, budget, and personal preferences when deciding how to proceed.

Finally, developmental editing is not for “bad” writers. All writers deserve feedback throughout the writing process. The beauty of a good developmental editor is that the feedback you receive is guaranteed to be timely, organized, and rigorous. Developmental editing is a benefit for every writer.

*I invited Jane to contribute this essay both to explain developmental editing for those who might be interested (it’s not something we do at The Professor Is In) and to provide an example of one successful Ph.D.’s transition from the tenure track to a post-ac, entrepreneurial career ~ Karen K.

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Working With a Developmental Editor (A Guest Post) — 1 Comment

  1. Hi
    I have a manuscript in the humanities on science and religion. although quite different from anything produced elsewhere, which from the lack of publishing interest suggests that it needs proper editing. I would be very grateful you could please help, and of course I would be pleased to pay your charges. I could email the work, although at a little over 200 pages that might be difficult, or submit a hard copy print. I look forward to your response, and in the meantime wish you every success in staying out of harm’s way from the dreaded lurgy that is doing the rounds.
    Charles Smith.

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