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Developmental Editing

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Developmental Editing

Freelance developmental editors address a gap in the publishing process. Even in university press publishing, authors get limited editorial guidance from publishers, who require polished manuscripts from prospective authors. The university press review process does generate invaluable reader reports from other scholars in the field, with comments and general guidelines for revisions. Much later, in-house copyeditors do edit revised manuscripts for grammar and consistency. But between these two stages, authors often face a difficult period of revision and restructuring for which presses can offer little help. Junior scholars in addition face the daunting task of transforming dissertations into books, often under job conditions of great stress. Enter the developmental editor, often recommended by a colleague or an acquisitions editor.

A developmental editor works closely with an author to shape a manuscript into a book. I help authors identify the arc and substance of their arguments, integrate theory and ethnography (or other kinds of argument), and discern when to trust their insights.

The helpful Canadians have a standard definition of developmental editing: “co-ordinating and editing a project from proposal or rough manuscript to final manuscript, incorporating input from authors, consultants, or reviewers.” This work combines other levels of attention: substantive or structural editing (“clarifying or reorganizing a manuscript for content and structure”) and stylistic editing (“clarifying meaning, eliminating jargon, polishing language, and other nonmechanical line-by-line editing”). (Thanks to Editors Canada for the quotes.)

I work with manuscripts at any stage of development: proposed, drafted, before press submission, after reader reports, or after revisions. Unvarnished dissertations are welcome.

I work on a wide range of serious non-fiction, specializing in scholarly work in the humanities and social sciences. I can be effective both as someone familiar with a variety of topics and methodologies and as an outside reader with little knowledge of a specialty who can help authors reach wider audiences.

How It Works

Upon accepting a project, I will ask an author to send me the manuscript both in Word files and in hard copy. Then I generally work on the text in two stages.

In the first, I evaluate its strengths and challenges in a long letter, offering overall insights and specific steps towards revisions. These steps might include restructuring, rephrasing or rewriting, streamlining or elaborating, grounding theory, cutting an overlong manuscript or fleshing out a thin one, translating specialized language into more ordinary terms for broader audiences, fixing consistency, foregrounding arguments—whatever it takes to make the book as clear and tightly argued and vivid as possible.

My hope here is to help an author realize the promises of the draft manuscript and of the research. We can also talk on the phone until the author has a clear sense of a way forward. I ask for a month to complete this work, and charge a flat fee.

The author might then choose to work with me in a second stage of collaboration and dialogue, working on an hourly basis in light of this plan. Usually but by no means always, this stage takes place after the author has revised some or all of the manuscript. This stage sometimes includes more than one round of revision and editing. In general at this point I like to work through the chapters in order.

In this second stage, I edit at the structural level, considering argument, structure, voice, and the arc of the book, and all the way down to the sentence level, noticing grammar, style, and agency.

While I will flag sentence-level issues, I cannot promise to be as consistent and thorough as a copy editor. That rules out both formal copyediting (“editing for grammar, usage, spelling, punctuation, and other mechanics of style; checking for consistency of mechanics and for internal consistency of facts; inserting head levels and approximate placement of art; editing tables, figures, and lists; notifying designer of any unusual production requirements”) and proofreading (“checking proofs of formatted, edited material for adherence to design and for minor, mechanical errors in copy.”) Nor do I check facts, conduct research, secure permissions, act as an agent, or guarantee publication or tenure.

In both stages, I act as outside reader and clear-eyed reviewer, intervening early enough to allow room for revision. My hope is that authors will emerge from our work together with a clear, strong, elegant manuscript that is ready for publishers.  

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