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Developmental Editing by Scott Norton: a review

What is developmental editing exactly?

Very occasionally, when I receive a text for copyediting I realise that it isn’t ready and needs much more work. Rather than waste my time and the author’s money, I suggest that they work on the text some more or consider working with a developmental editor.

Developmental editing deals with ‘big-picture’ issues in a manuscript that do not require the eye of a content specialist. Non-fiction books and academic papers may have issues with structure, contradictory argumentation, cohesion, pacing, signposting etc. that they need to resolve. If you’re an academic researcher, you will already have some developmental editing skills. Indeed, you will use them when giving advice to other researchers on how to reorganise their manuscript.

Developmental editing for fiction is a different ball game entirely. In fiction texts, issues like plot development, characterisation, points of view, and worldbuilding often need work. This blog post only covers non-fiction. If you are interested in fiction developmental editing, check out the courses offered by Sophie Playle or Jennifer Lawler.

Resources for developmental editing

Resources on developmental editing for non-fiction are few and far between. The University of Chicago has a programme. Editors with an academic research background have often learnt on the job, developing the skills they used as peer reviewers and PhD supervisors. Most developmental editors are not subject experts, although some subject knowledge is a great benefit. There is no single method of working: some developmental editors simply work their magic using intuition and comment boxes alone. For everyone else, Scott Norton’s book is an incredibly important resource, as it sets out clear procedures you can follow.

However, this book is not only for editors. It emphasises how developmental editors need to understand broader publishing contexts as well as the author’s context of writing and motivation. Publishers typically release books on a market and aim to maximise sales. But profit maximisation is not the only publisher goal, and it is rarely the writer’s core motivation. The publishing case studies in Scott Norton’s book (e.g. the university press, the packager, the regional house, the self-publisher) all offer great insight into these contexts. These details will help writers understand the publishing landscape too.

Now let’s take a look at this developmental-editing handbook in depth…

This book is split into ten chapters that each cover a different issue. The chapters are roughly chronological. They cover everything from looking at a book proposal to dealing with developmental formatting issues (e.g. how the pictures tell a story) in the nearly-complete text. Each chapter has a different case study that it uses to walk you through a particular issue. The case studies are interesting and extremely diverse. If you are interested in the marketing end of publishing, you will also find a lot of interesting material covering the writing contexts that underpin different kinds of book projects.

One wake-up call in the book is that friction can sometimes occur when developmental editors liaise with authors. In a couple of the case studies, the author outright rejected the editor’s suggestions or was even offended by them. Equally, the developmental editor did not always get everything right and the developmental process was sometimes tense. More positively, there were often Eureka moments when a ‘developmental’ insight would lead to a substantial reorganisation of the text, which is exciting.

Two kinds of developmental editing

Finally, it’s worth mentioning that there are two ‘kinds’ of developmental editing. A phase of making notes and reviewing a manuscript, so as to write a detailed editorial report on ‘what needs to be done’. Chapters one to six cover this, ending with a how to draft a ‘blueprint’ of the reorganised book.

The second kind of developmental editing involves a more ‘hands on’ approach from the editor, working closely with the author on reorganising and rewriting the text. This kind of developmental editing can overlap with line-editing, and comes after the first phase. Chapters seven to ten cover issues that may arise in this phase.

Let’s take a look at the chapter themes in turn…

1. Concept: Shaping the Proposal

This chapter covers how a developmental editor can make a book proposal shine. Authors do not always have a clear idea of their book’s central concept. The case study here analyses a proposal with too many concepts vying for the reader’s attention. It also discusses how to profile a book’s audience; this is something the author may not have considered in depth yet is key to the book’s success. The case study also considers wider publishing factors (e.g. the list position) that the author may not have considered. To finish, it deals with how to bring the book’s main vision (and thesis statement) into focus.

2. Content: Assessing Potential

This chapter delves into the book manuscript for the first time and covers how to assess its content. Authors are often caught up in the richness of the material and have many concepts strewn throughout. The developmental editor may be asked to produce a map of all the different concepts (a content summary). They may also make judgements on which concepts could – or should – take centre stage. This chapter also discusses working with first-time authors and has a section on ‘how to become a developmental editor’. The notes on the American publishing industry also provide fascinating context.

3. Thesis: Finding the Hook

There is a recurring theme in the first three chapters of this book. Simply put, many early drafts have too many concepts, ideas, or theses buried in them. Consequently, this chapter deals with finding the main thesis statement and translating it into a hook – a statement that will draw readers in and feature in the blurb. Indeed, this isn’t always an easy task, and it can reveal the tensions between writing for a market versus writing for another audience. The chapter gives tips on how to make notes on the topics and thesis statements in a manuscript, and on how to come up with a working title.

4. Narrative: Tailoring the Timeline

Many books have a linear timeline, but sometimes a different approach is called for.

This chapter covers strategies for juggling time in non-fiction manuscripts, and POV (point of view), which is a much bigger issue in fiction books. Possible options discussed include reverse timelines, alternative viewpoints, parallel timelines, rotating narratives, and alternate outcomes. I found that this was one of the more difficult chapters to follow as I have never worked on timeline issues in depth.

5. Exposition: Deploying the Argument

This chapter moves on to the stage after the main thesis or argument has been defined. It deals with how to deploy the argument in the text. In other words: how to give the text its backbone. It considers brainstorming ideas for presenting the arguments, composing and fine-tuning them. Finally, it covers dealing with any interference with timeline issues.

6. Plan: Drafting a Blueprint

A blueprint is a map of the developmental editor’s suggested reworking of the manuscript. Many developmental editors will read a proposal or an entire first draft of a manuscript. After reading, they will carry out several of the procedures covered in chapters one to five, and then write an editorial report detailing their revision plan. Next, the author will choose to accept or reject the revision plan and then work alone OR with the developmental editor on a detailed content and line-edit. This chapter includes hints on how to approach authors tactfully, demonstrating that they have ‘approached the project with an open mind and ha[ve] some kind of understanding of, if not personal experience with, the subject’.

7. Rhythm: Setting the Pace

Chapters seven to ten cover topics that a developmental editor working closely on the content and line-edit is likely to come across. Norton describes this as ‘rearranging the text’s furniture’. This chapter offers tips on drafting new passages (give the author multiple options!) and on editing for pace.

8. Transitions: Filling in the Blanks

This chapter draws on an unusual case study: the dead author. The task here is to stitch together a book from a draft, while respecting the author’s voice. I would particularly recommend this chapter to new writers who are struggling with cohesion issues.

9. Style: Training the Voice

Dropping down from ‘big-picture’ issues to grappling with the text at sentence level, this chapter was invaluable to me as much of my work is stylistic editing (otherwise known as line-editing). It includes two incredibly useful tables. The first covers lapses in tone that can be problematic (e.g. overwriting, condescension, overfamiliarity, passivity etc.). And the second covers rhetorical gestures (e.g. analogy, irony, metaphor, amplification). The chapter also gives examples of sentence-level rewrites of a text.

10. Display: Dressing Up the Text

The final chapter uses the example of a travel guidebook to look at issues with displayed matter. Indeed, this covers anything from chapter headings to sidebars, illustrations, icons, tables, and charts. Checking that these are all present and correct is the copyeditor and proofreader’s job. However, looking at the flow of displayed matter and how they tell a story is the developmental editor’s job.

And that’s it! For more details on developmental editing...

  • Check out Laura Portwood-Stacer’s book

  • Check out Scott Norton’s book


Andrew Hodges, PhD is a copyeditor and developmental editor who specializes in editing fiction for science fiction and fantasy writers. His expertise is in worldbuilding and cultural considerations when crafting setting in stories.

He is an advanced professional member of the CIEP, a member of EFA, and an ALLi partner member.

You can contact him here, or feel free to leave a comment below!

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