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Order from Chaos: Developmental Editing

Freelance Editorial Association News, Fall 1991 Volume 7, Number 4

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Cyrisse Jaffee

So you've finally been called by an editor in the trade division of a medium-sized publisher. The editor has a manuscript for you to work on. It's called Toys for Tots, and it's a 350-page manuscript on how to choose toys for young children. You're delighted to get an opportunity to put your editing skills into action. Then the manuscript arrives. It's a mess—disorganized, incoherent in places, awkwardly written—even though the author is a well-known authority. Now what do you do?

Congratulations. You have just become a developmental editor. The definition varies from publisher to publisher and from client to client, but basically a developmental editor helps an author develop ideas—or develop a manuscript if it already exists—into a coherent, readable work. The term is used somewhat differently in educational publishing, where a developmental editor might be the researcher, the writer, or both. Developmental editors are less commonly used for fiction, although a developmental editor could certainly help a novelist organize, sharpen, and tighten a manuscript so that the characters and dialogue were believable, the plot coherent, and the setting appropriate. Clients with no publishing expertise, usually individuals looking for help with a personal memoir or a professional workbook, might assume that you will be developing the manuscript, copyediting it, and designing it all at once. You will need to define and explain your tasks.

In general nonfiction books, a developmental editor
evaluates and critiques a manuscript and also
suggests or provides additions, deletions, and revisions.

In general nonfiction books, a developmental editor evaluates and critiques a manuscript and also suggests or provides additions, deletions, and revisions. Generally, a developmental editor's goal, particularly when working in nonfiction, is to make sure the manuscript is

Developmental editing might include a variety of tasks, such as research, rewriting, and line editing, but it does not include the final copyediting. You will certainly need a basic understanding of grammar, spelling, and English usage. But line-by-line copyediting is best done by a different person. Once you have worked intensely and intimately with a manuscript, copyediting it is very difficult.


The most frequently asked question about developmental editing (aside from what fee to charge and where to find work!) is whether or not a developmental editor needs to know the topic he or she is editing. Ideally, an experienced developmental editor can edit just about anything; you do not necessarily need to be an expert in the field. Obviously, however, familiarity with the subject—jargon, background literature, competitive books—is very helpful. It's especially useful in establishing your relationship with the author, who may or may not be pleased that you are going to be commenting, sometimes critically, on the work in progress. Your sensitivity to the material will be appreciated by the author and will foster mutual respect.

A developmental editor is a supporting player, never a star. If you are looking for a high-profile, glamorous job, try professional sports or television broadcasting. You should also choose another kind of work if you are very temperamental or intensely competitive. As a developmental editor, you'll be working behind the scenes, as part of a team effort. As a crucial part of the team you will need

Before You Begin

The first question you need to answer is who is the client? Is your client the author, the agent, the publisher, or the acquiring or managing editor? Identifying the client will, in part, affect your editing because it will help define what you've been hired to do. How much can you or should you change in the manuscript? Can you challenge the author's basic assumptions or writing style, or should you accept the author's premise and go on from there?

Next you need to learn the history of the manuscript itself. Is it a first draft or the third or fifth? Has it already been edited by someone else? Was a previous editor or writer assigned to it? If so, what was the outcome? Is the publisher enthusiastic about the project or merely lukewarm? Is it an "orphaned" project (that is, acquired by an editor who has since left) or a project that has languished, gotten "stuck," or gone astray? Again, you need this information to establish a good working relationship with your client and perform your task effectively.

To evaluate the manuscript, you also need to know about the author's experience, training, and personality (this last item is extremely useful). Is this a first-time author who is amenable to making changes? Is your author accustomed to the "kid glove" treatment? Has this author had a good experience so far with the publishing company and acquiring editor? In short, will the author resent or welcome your appearance as part of the team?

You then need to know about the book's audience. If it's a scholarly audience, you might not need to worry so much about eliminating jargon and technical terms. If it's a popular book, it must be lively and accessible, appealing to all reading levels. If it's a specialized group within the general public—parents, people who buy cameras, music lovers—you have to make sure the content and tone are neither too simple nor too sophisticated. If it's likely to stir up controversy, you might have to help the author "punch up" his or her message in the very first chapter.

To evaluate the manuscript, you also need
to know about the author's experience, training,
and personality (this last item is extremely useful).

Other important information you should know includes the format of the book. How long should it be? If Toys for Tots is a 350-page manuscript that needs to become a 225-page book, you'll have to wield your red pencil more fiercely to delete material; if it's supposed to be a 400-page source book, you'll have to figure out where the author can add material. Will there be footnotes, chapter notes, indexes, graphs, illustrations, photographs, a bibliography? If so, who is expected to provide these—the author or another source? Are you responsible for executing, locating, or coordinating any of these elements?

Once you've answered all these questions, you need to make sure you understand what will be expected of you. Will you be rewriting or line editing or relying on the author to follow through with your suggestions for change? Will you be meeting with the author frequently? Are you expected to travel, do research, or spot-check information for accuracy? Will there be a copyeditor? A designer? Once you have all these issues clarified, it's time to sign a contract.

Signing Up

Generally, a developmental editor signs a letter of agreement. You'll need to decide whether you will charge an hourly fee or a project fee. If you charge an hourly fee, you might want to set a "cap" on the price, to clarify the approximate number of hours and budget you and your client are agreeing to, and you'll want to add a clause that allows you to renegotiate if and when the cap is reached.

What's the going rate? It's hard to say because so much depends on who is hiring you and how difficult the job is. Some publishers offer only $15-25 per hour; others more typically pay $25-40 per hour. If you can't really estimate the number of hours the job will take, it's probably better to charge an hourly rate than a project fee.

If the agreement asks you to produce a "satisfactory" or "acceptable" manuscript, try to define what is meant by satisfactory or acceptable. You will also wish to request reimbursement for postage, photocopying, phone calls, and books used for research. Remember to keep all receipts and to keep an accurate log book of the time spent on the project. You might also wish to have a proposed schedule attached as part of the contract.


You will need a good supply of red pencils, Post-It notes of various sizes, and a convenient, organized way to keep notes as you read through the manuscript. You will also need at least a good electronic typewriter but preferably a personal computer and versatile word-processing software. Working directly on disk is considerably more efficient than scribbling on a manuscript, especially if you must rearrange sections of text.

If the company uses a particular style sheet, it's helpful to have a copy. Then whatever line editing you do can be consistent with preferred style. A client unfamiliar with publishing terms might need the common proofreaders' marks that you use explained.

You will also need a quiet place to do your work and large chunks of time—the kitchen table where the phone rings often or your kids play is not recommended. Developmental editing needs full concentration and cannot easily be done on the run without losing the continuity of the work. You will only have to double back and start again.

Getting started

The most important (albeit obvious) procedures for beginning are

These two simple rules will protect you against problems if the project flounders. It's useful to jot down notes of phone conversations and to send a letter soon after verifying that you and the client both understand what's been discussed. If you can, make a copy of the manuscript before you begin editing to keep on file as a "clean" reference copy, especially if you prefer to make comments directly on the manuscript.

Ideally, an experienced developmental editor
can edit just about anything; you do not necessarily
need to be an expert in the field.

Assuming you've already read the manuscript, perhaps quickly, in accepting the job, first introduce yourself to the author. Then follow up by letter outlining, briefly, the problems you see and the steps you anticipate in solving those problems. After that, you need to sit down with the manuscript and read it carefully, taking notes as you go. Anticipate the reaction it would receive from experts in the field, reviewers, and the general public. Don't be afraid to nitpick and ask a lot of questions—that's your job! In evaluating the manuscript, you'll be looking especially at its content, structure, and style.

Content. Does the author's premise, thesis, message, or conclusion make sense? Does it need supporting research or citations?

Structure. Is the overall structure logical? Does the table of contents make sense? Are any chapters repetitious, out of place, or unnecessary? Are the chapters about the same length? Do they need to be? What is the internal structure of each chapter? Is it consistent for each chapter? Are there devices that would help clarify the information—headings, subheadings, transitional paragraphs, case studies, quotations, anecdotes? Would the more technical information be made easier to understand by organizing it into tables, charts, or graphics rather than describing them within the text?

Style. Is the author's "voice" appropriate for the book? Is it too personal or too impersonal? Is it stilted or professorial ("Now we will look at . . .") or too passive ("In this chapter it is hoped that . . .")? Is it sexist, racist, or riddled with corny jokes? Are there run-on sentences, repetitious explanations, or passages that are muddled, meandering, or confusing? Remember, you have a vested interest in understanding this book. If you've stumbled over a sentence or a page once or twice, you can be sure the potential reader will have trouble as well.

Working with the Author

In some cases, you will find it easier to explain a change by doing it rather than by querying the author. In other instances, you will need to ask the author for more information or to rewrite something. After you have thoroughly examined the manuscript and made the appropriate changes and queries, return it for revision. You will need to add a detailed editorial letter explaining, at greater length than your introductory editorial letter, the precise strengths and weaknesses, chapter by chapter or section by section, and the remedies you propose. You might need to reassess the schedule at this time.

This process many go through several "passes" before the manuscript is ready for the copyeditor. At that point, you will probably need to write a final editorial memo about what has been done and what remains to be done. Whoever is receiving the manuscript—acquiring editor, copyeditor, production department, designer—needs information, and at this point no one knows this manuscript and author as well as you do!

Developmental editing is a vigorous, demanding kind of editing. It requires perseverance and sustained, intense involvement. If you've done your job well, the result will be a compelling, convincing, well-argued, well-written book—and the author's undying gratitude. Yet whatever the fate of the book—bestseller or not—the process of developmental editing, transforming chaos into order, is as immensely satisfying as any job could be.

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