The introduction to

Developmental Editing

A Handbook for Freelancers, Authors, and Publishers

Scott Norton

Many DEs have a process that is intuitive and organic. These editors are like the best cooks, who prepare a meal by seeing what they have in the fridge and cupboard, pulling out their spice racks, and creating as they go. But I’m hopeless in the kitchen without recipes, and my approach to developmental editing is meant for others who take comfort in the clarity and predictability of a written game plan.

The process of developmental editing is inherently complex and, unlike copyediting, cannot be demonstrated with brief examples. So I’ve adopted the strategy of creating extended narrative examples, which appear in an alternate typeface. Although fictitious and intentionally exaggerated, these “case studies” reflect the range of authors, clients, and developmental assignments experienced by myself and my colleagues over the past decade. They are meant to enlighten and entertain, and any resemblance to an actual person, project, or event is coincidental. Readers may skip the case studies and, inside of an hour, they’ll have the gist of the entire process.

What Developmental Editing Is

For our purposes, developmental editing denotes significant structuring or restructuring of a manuscript’s discourse. The DE’s role can manifest in a number of ways. Some “big picture” editors provide broad direction by helping the author to form a vision for the book, then coaching the author chapter by chapter to ensure that the vision is successfully executed. Others get their hands dirty with the prose itself, suggesting rewrites at the chapter, section, paragraph, and sentence levels. This hands-on approach is sometimes called substantive editing or line editing.

From this perspective, stylistic intervention alone is not “developmental.” To be sure, there are cases in which a manuscript’s organization is sound but the tone so pervasively wrong that virtually every sentence must be recast. Severe as these problems of tone may be, they can usually be handled by a high-powered copyeditor—and those that can’t are beyond the reach of editing, requiring instead the hand of a ghostwriter or coauthor. Nevertheless, most manuscripts with structural problems have stylistic lapses as well, and DEs are often asked to fix both kinds of problems, so stylistic intervention is discussed in chapter 9.

In the industry, opinions vary as to what constitutes “significant” restructuring. At the University of California Press in Berkeley, we define developmental editing as intervention that moves content from one chapter to another, or rearranges the lion’s share of a chapter’s contents within itself, but that falls short of writing new material. It’s a tough definition to apply, because developmental editing almost always involves some writing, usually of transitional sentences at the beginnings and ends of passages. But when the freelancer finds herself interviewing the author in order to compose whole passages, she’s crossed over to the realm of ghostwriting.

Whom This Book Is For

This book has been written primarily for freelance DEs working on nonfiction trade books of substantive merit. Those already in the business will recognize the principles and techniques I demonstrate. Freelancers whose mainstay is project management or copyediting and who are somewhat intimidated by the prospect of doing developmental work will find, I hope, the process demystified and approachable.

This handbook also aims to assist in-house publishing professionals with their forays into developmental work. Acquisitions editors with aptitude and interest in development should benefit particularly, but production editors and marketing and sales staff may also find the book useful to the extent that it provides a vocabulary for describing how a manuscript falls short of its market’s expectations and what can be done about the problem.

DEs in textbook, professional, and reference houses should be able to transpose my straightforward process onto their more detailed in-house flowcharts. Although no chapters in this book explicitly focus on technical editing, the process of conceptual development outlined here should also be useful to DEs of documentation projects ranging from grant proposals to corporate brochures, from primary-source legal publishing to complex financial statements, and from computer manuals to Web content.

Fiction editing is a specialty that has been written about well and widely by others (see “Further Reading”). Less attention has been paid to how editors of nonfiction may prompt their authors’ use of fiction-writing techniques without undermining factual integrity. This handbook augments its discussions of key developmental stages with sidebars on creating suspense, balancing scenes with plot summary, and evoking character and setting.

Finally, this book is for authors who wish to improve their writing skills. Composing this book has heightened my awareness of the difficulties that an author must surmount when facing the blank page. Authors who read this book should find sympathetic and practical advice to help them overcome the obstacles in their own writing processes as well as to maximize the appeal of their manuscripts to prospective publishers.

What This Book Covers

Although developmental guidance is most effective when a manuscript is first being drafted, DEs are only sometimes lucky enough to get invited into the process at that early stage. For this reason, this handbook emphasizes techniques for excavating valuable material—concepts, content, thesis statements, and structural and stylistic coherence—from completed drafts. Only the first chapter concerns a book proposal for a manuscript not yet written, and its methods for evaluating the goals of a book are crucial for any project, whether completed or not.

In concept (chapter 1), the sky is the limit: readers learn to brainstorm for the concept that will most compellingly animate a book proposal, taking into account the needs of audience and market and bringing the author’s vision into focus. content (chapter 2) drags readers back down to earth to do a feasibility study. This chapter follows two lines of inquiry. First, are the author, publisher, and DE really up to the developmental task ahead? And second, does the completed draft have the “right stuff” to bring the desired concept to life?

In thesis (chapter 3), readers learn to whittle the manuscript’s concept down to a sharp thesis. They practice distinguishing theses from topics and culling the rehashed theses of other authors. Next, they learn to choose a main thesis from a handful of promising candidates and to create a working title that reflects the winning choice.

narrative (chapter 4) focuses on techniques for locating, and braiding into a coherent structure, narrative threads drawn from materials that are not necessarily obviously narrative in nature. It brings the DE and author to a crossroads at which they must choose between telling a story or making an argument (most manuscripts have both). It helps them to brainstorm various kinds of timelines, choose the most appropriate timeline, and finetune that timeline into a revised table of contents. In exposition (chapter 5), readers face the inverse challenge: finding a line of argument in material that has strong narrative tendencies. They learn how to use the tools of expository structure while brainstorming arguments, choosing from a variety of kinds of argument, and finetuning the main argument.

By this time, readers are ready to create a full developmental blueprint for the project. plan (chapter 6) provides a sample format for the document that will serve as the touchstone for DE, author, and publisher throughout the editing process. It prompts readers to flesh out the draft table of contents with draft chapter theses; it also provides strategies for planning limited interventions when a project’s schedule or budget does not allow a full developmental edit.

Next begins the hard work of executing the plan. In rhythm (chapter 7), DEs learn how to establish an interesting rhythm in a discourse by rearranging passages, prompting authors for new passages, adding subheads, weighting chapters equally, and editing for pace. Yet when the rough carpentry of restructuring is done, there is still much sanding, trimming, and polishing to do. In transitions (chapter 8), readers see how opening and closing transitions can be used to shift the tenor of a text’s discourse. In particular, this chapter distinguishes between drawing conclusions and placing them; it demonstrates how moving a conclusion from one place to another can lead to entirely different effects.

With the structure in place, readers consider the color and texture of the prose. In style (chapter 9), DEs learn ways to help authors achieve a pleasing integration of the elements that comprise their unique voice in prose. A subcategory of style, display (chapter 10) is the manner in which a book presents its face to the prospective reader. Particular attention is paid to the perils of epigraph use, but readers also learn how to look for opportunities to illustrate concepts and express data visually. Extra touches that can add luster to a project—sidebars, text boxes, and Web pages—are discussed under the Cajun idiom of lagniappe.

The sequence of discrete stages presented as chapters above is somewhat artificial. In practice, readers will find that some stages occur simultaneously, others recur frequently, and still others are inapplicable to specific projects. Even the order of the stages may change: for instance, experienced DEs may find that they prepare their developmental plans earlier than is advised here. There is no one way to perform a developmental edit: readers should adapt the techniques presented here to their own personal styles and discard advice that does not resonate. In editing, as in many endeavors, rules are made to be broken; but to break them well, we must first learn to master them.

Some Ground Rules

The rules that follow could be applied, with obvious adjustments, to any partnership that relies on open communication and creative interchange. DEs, authors, and the publishers who chaperone their collaboration could all do worse than to review this list of principles regularly, the way twelve-steppers do their programs.

rule 1: be realistic. Don’t shoot for the moon if your author is not astronaut material. Set yourselves the most ambitious goal that you can realistically expect to reach, then evaluate whether that goal warrants the investment of time and money.

rule 2: make a plan. Don’t say, “Let’s get into it and see how it goes.” An initial plan, however provisional, forces the involved parties to state their goals up front and describe how they imagine the process of collaboration will unfold. The initial plan flushes out a host of assumptions that can otherwise plague the project. It goes without saying that the plan will change—repeatedly—during the book’s development.

rule 3: address logistics upfront. In that initial plan, make explicit decisions about who will do what, by when, and in what order. Many times I have assumed a project was going smoothly only to discover, by impromptu phone calls, that author and DE were each waiting for the other to make the next move.

rule 4: proceed with enthusiasm. DEs, if the project doesn’t truly engage your interest, don’t accept the assignment. Authors, if the publisher’s insistence that your manuscript needs development doesn’t ring true, don’t agree to the plan. Publishers, if you don’t sense that both DE and author have bought into the developmental plan con gusto, don’t bother—you’ll end up sinking a lot of money into the job and reap marginal benefits.

rule 5: leave well enough alone. Focus on resolving problems that stand in the way of a manuscript’s success. DEs, don’t take out your frustrations as an underpublished novelist, scholar, or poet by attempting to contribute substantively to the book’s content. Authors, don’t keep rewriting passages that have been deemed successful; this constant revisionism will undermine the DE’s efforts to bring the problematic passages into alignment.

rule 6: remember the reader. The silent partner in the developmental process is the audience, and the author, DE, and publisher may all have different ideas about who that reader is. The initial plan should include a readership profile, and collaborators should return to that profile regularly to ask themselves, “Are we still on target? Is the book shaping up to appeal to the intended audience?”

rule 7: set milestones. The developmental plan should include concrete goals at regular intervals that will give both DE and author a sense of accomplishment. The first milestone should be an easy one that can be reached in two to four weeks—say, revising the table of contents, or writing a new passage to open the first chapter dramatically. Success in reaching the first few milestones will spur both parties onward; milestones at the halfway and three-quarters marks will keep both marathoners’ chins lifted toward the finish.

rule 8: be tactful. DEs, know that a book is the closest thing to a child that a human being can produce; don’t say anything about the author’s prose that you wouldn’t say about her toddler. Authors, don’t be so territorial about your discourse that you react in a knee-jerk fashion to ideas that hadn’t occurred to you. Give all suggestions an honest and respectful hearing, whether or not you ultimately accept them.

rule 9: be candid. That said, don’t allow tact to turn obsequious. If your collaborator doesn’t understand a suggestion that you are making, restate your case more clearly and firmly. Sweeping issues under the rug will only accrue a lump of resentment that will ultimately impede communication.

rule 10: listen actively. Get in the habit of repeating what your collaborator has just said back to her, paraphrasing her point to see whether you’ve heard it correctly. Verbatim parroting is no use; you must put her message into your own words to demonstrate that you’ve truly understood what she means.

rule 11: brainstorm together. Make all key decisions with a brief, fervent brainstorming session conducted via phone or email or face to face. This habit ensures that all parties—DE, author, and publisher—are kept “in the loop” and have a sense of active participation. It also allows the collaborators to identify blind alleys at the outset rather than wasting days or weeks on an approach that will ultimately come to naught.

rule 12: keep the plan current. As brainstorming sessions give rise to alterations of the initial plan, update the written document and circulate it among author, DE, and publisher. This ongoing “secretarial” task can be tedious, but abandoning it halfway through the project, I’ve learned, can result in the project quickly veering off course. Either the publisher or the DE should perform this chore; most authors will find it too unnerving.

Copyright notice: Excerpt from pages 1–7 of Developmental Editing: A Handbook for Freelancers, Authors, and Publishers by Scott Norton, published by the University of Chicago Press. ©2009 by The University of Chicago. All rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that this entire notice, including copyright information, is carried and provided that the University of Chicago Press is notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the consent of the University of Chicago Press. (Footnotes and other references included in the book may have been removed from this online version of the text.)

Scott Norton
Developmental Editing: A Handbook for Freelancers, Authors, and Publishers
©2009, 252 pages, 4 tables
Cloth $35.00 ISBN: 9780226595146

For information on purchasing the book—from bookstores or here online—please go to the webpage for Developmental Editing.

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