What is developmental editing, anyway? How is it different from substantive editing?

Do I need to get my article copyedited if I know it'll be proofread later?

Do I even really need an editor?

This page explains the different levels of editing, when in a manuscript's life each is called for, and how to find a reputable editor that's a good fit for you.

Below, you'll find:
  • the differences between a book/writing coach and a developmental editor
  • who to turn to for help when your writing doesn't sound like you
  • what you and your editors should talk about so you get the most out of the process
  • where to find a professional editor (other than me, of course)
  • how to pick an editor that's the best fit for you, taking into consideration skills, logistics, and vibe
  • and more


what editors really do, when you need one, and how to find (the right) one

All About Editing

You’re writing a book or article and you think you’ll need an editor. But…what exactly do editors do? And when in your process do you need one? How do you find a reputable one, much less one you click with?

First consult this flow chart, then read on.


Introduction

You’re writing a book or article. The words are…not happening. No shame. You’re not alone. Who can help you get the draft done? 

Coaching and editing to help you finish your manuscript

You could work with a ghostwriter, someone who will choose the words for you.

But if you want the words to be your own, writing coaches, book coaches, and some developmental editors are all professionals who can help you get those words on the page. 

The job of a book coach or developmental editor is to question, jiggle, explore, celebrate, bring forth, and crack open in service of you getting clear on your ideas and creating really good bones for your book.

They will ask so many questions. They will poke holes. They may send you back to the beginning. They should also explicitly appreciate what’s already working and what’s unique about you.

Lots of people call themselves coaches. Before beginning work with someone, please make sure you’re clear on what services they’re offering and how it aligns with what you actually need. Some writing coaches give feedback on your actual writing, while others focus more on process. Some book coaches concern themselves primarily with outlines and ideas, while others offer more micro-level guidance. Some offer one-off services, while others do only durational programs. What will work best for you?

An editor who works with authors from the ground up as they are creating a book is usually called a developmental editor. Editors crack their knuckles and get right on in the writing with you, offering feedback on and marking up what you have and suggesting revisions. (Just to be confusing, the term “developmental editor” also refers to editors—like me—who address whole-book concerns on a finished manuscript...see below.)

Who you choose to work with should be a matter of their experience, expertise, and credibility, as well as the fit between you, your field/genre, your process, and what they’re offering. See later sections for much more on this.

If you’re not ready or able to work with a pro right now, free options to help you bring your manuscript to life include:
  • a writing group
  • critique partners
  • accountability buddies

As with working with a professional, you’ll get the most out of these if you can discern—up front or over time—what kind of feedback or process support will help you the most, and then be straightforward in communicating those needs. A good coach or editor will always be responsive and invested in giving you what you need to succeed.

[back to top]
My early training as an editor happened around the kitchen table and had nothing to do with books.
 
My parents are both intelligent and loving people, but their brains could not be more different. My dad’s mind is a steady river; he thinks things through step by step and presents information in a logical order. My mom’s mind races from idea to idea along personal pathways, finding unique, interesting connections. We joke that her sheer electrical energy could power a small city.
 
My family’s big on open communication and relational tending, and as you might imagine, that can sometimes be tricky between minds as different as theirs. As a young adult I found that I—whose mind has aspects of both—was often in the position of interpreting.

I listened. When word choice or opposite styles got in the way of hearing what was really being said, I distilled or synthesized, then communicated the essence of their point in a way the other could better understand.
 
Turns out I was in training. 
 
This listening-synthesizing-distilling lies at the heart of my editing work now. (And was only strengthened by a decade of collaborative dance making.)
 
To me, editing means listening/reading deeply for what you, the writer, are saying, and why, and how.

It means living inside your head and words for a while.

It means helping you discover and share the essence of what you’re trying to say so that other minds can really get it.

It means asking you to listen closely, too.
 
This is in service of both you and your intended audience. As Scott Norton puts it in Developmental Editing, editing is a “sustained [act] of two-way empathy toward these authors and their prospective readers.”
 
I’m here for that. For being a dynamic, empathetic bridge between you and your readers.



The beating heart of editing lies in the ear

You wrote a thing! The draft is finished. Who can help you make it better?

First—congratulations on getting that first draft done. Please celebrate! 

Put it away and don’t look at it for a little while. Your revisions will benefit from a break and the perspective it gives you.

After you’ve revised at least once (ideally more), maybe sent it to alpha and beta readers and revised again in response, you’re ready for an editor to work with the complete draft from the big picture perspective. 

Who do you turn to for these first edits on a finished draft?

Developmental / structural / substantive / content editors. Editors might label themselves and their services with any of these terms (I know that’s confusing), but they all refer to editing at the macro, structural level. I’ll use “developmental editing” going forward, because that’s what I call my own service in this category.

Developmental editors make suggestions inside the context of the whole manuscript, knowing how each part works (or could work) together. We’re making the foundation solid so you can build compelling writing on top of it. Or you could say we’re helping you carve the best legs for your tabletop and attach them with the most appropriate kind of joinery, shaping the basic form for a strong, well-balanced table.

What will you get back from your developmental editor? Expect some edits in the manuscript itself plus an editorial memo (aka “revision letter”), a multi-page document that contextualizes and explains in detail the edits in the manuscript; discusses overall themes, broad questions and concerns, and celebration-worthy aspects of your work; and offers suggestions for how to move the manuscript forward.

Handing the manuscript off to your editor gives you another break, permission not to think about your work for a while. When they return it to you, you can review, incorporate, and revise in response to the edits on your own time. 

This is especially powerful as an iterative process, with the editing and revising focusing on increasingly detailed aspects of the work each time.

Incorporating editorial feedback at this level will probably entail major revisions. Your book will be stronger for it! 


Developmental / structural editors help when the draft is done and revised

If this service is more than your or your budget can take on right now, consider a manuscript critique, which is a one-pass global critique of your book. You’ll likely get an editorial memo responding to the book as a whole but not any editorial work in the manuscript itself. This service usually costs less than a full developmental/structural edit.

[back to top]

To get the most out of a structural edit, you and your editor should talk about:
  • Who is your intended audience, and how much do they know about your subject? 
  • Do you already have a publisher? If not, are you aiming it toward a particular kind of publisher, or do you plan to self publish?
  • What do you want people to take away from your book?
  • Why are you writing it?
  • Are you writing to the conventions of a particular genre or field, or deliberately trying to stretch some boundaries or conventions?

I use all that information while I edit. As I work, I’m also asking:
  • Is the book in the best order and arrangement to get your ideas across clearly?
  • Does the book say what you want it to say? Will the reader take away what you want them to?
  • What’s special and working well about your book, and how can I bring more of that forward?
  • Do the structure and level of the writing match what your intended audience understands and is interested in?
  • Where are you giving the reader everything they need, and where are you assuming too much?
  • Are the sections of your manuscript weighted well in relation to each other, or is one bloated with extra examples and one lacking necessary argumentary heft?
  • Are there holes in your argument or sections of less energy that could lose your reader?

Feel free to use these as a checklist during your own revision process, before and after working with an editor!



How to get the most of out a developmental edit

You’ve written and revised a book and the big picture work with an editor is done. Your arguments are solid. Your text is in a logical order. It’s speaking at the right level to your intended audience.

Language editing: line editing / stylistic editing / copy editing

Now…does it sound like you? Does each sentence and paragraph flow well into the next? Does it march, pop off the page, shine or shimmer, glide, or flow in the way you want? Are the tone and quality of writing consistent? Have you kept your reader engaged and ensured they won’t trip anywhere along the path? 

Call a line editor (sometimes called stylistic editor)—friend of fluidity, rhythm, readability, and concision! They will go line by line, word by word, helping you make all these dreams come true. 

After working with a line editor, you'll revise revise revise! Then...

Are all your details consistent (like, really, ALL your details)? Are your grammar and punctuation in order?

Call a copy editor—friend of cleanliness and correctness! May we all bow down to the good copy editors of the world, sensitive and knowledgeable folks who whip your manuscript into shape on usage, internal consistency of facts and details, grammar, spelling, etc. This is really essential cleanup, folks. (Though I carry some habits and skills of copy editing into my line editing work, I no longer offer this as a distinct service. But I can refer you to some top-notch copy editors.)

You will accept/reject a copy editor's changes, but this is usually a final touch up. If you revise after a copy edit you may be introducing new errors, and everyone will go crazy.

Other important kinds of editing at this level include sensitivity editing (for bias, inclusivity, etc.), technical editing (for technical correctness of instruction manuals and the like), fact checking (often lumped in with copy editing, but actually a separate, critical task). Some editors combine sensitivity editing and copy editing; ask your editor about it.

[back to top]

Line edits are all about polishing a manuscript for fluidity, rhythm, and personal sound. How do you get the most out of one? Talk in detail with your editor about style, voice, and goals before you begin.
 
You cultivate a particular style as a writer-reviser. A line editor’s job is to submerge ourselves halfway in that style so our edits sound and feel like you, not us. 
 
To do it well, we need to know what’s important to you about your own writing.
 
(We keep the other half of ourselves free to be a more objective reader, a stand-in for the audience to come, so we can make sure the text meets their needs, because we also want your readers to be engrossed in your work from start to finish.)
 
Earlier this year I worked with journalist L on a manuscript they were about to send back to their publisher. L asked me to line edit just the first chapter, which needed to be a strong opening for the book but hadn’t yet been polished in the way L wanted.
 
This series of emails from L was a dream to receive because of how clearly they laid out their preferences, goals, and needs: 


How to get the most out of a line edit

"One of the main features of this book that I hope will distinguish it from mainstream immigration narratives is the specificity of the characters and the highly detailed level of reporting. So it's important to me to strip it of any cliche while making the characters and descriptions as vivid as possible.... That also means - as I'm sure you well know - that nothing can be invented to make a 'better' story. 
 
"I'm also aware that the number of times I've reorganized this chapter…has probably led to some awkward transitions. So please keep an eye out for the movement between paragraphs to see whether I need to put in transitions. 

"I would also say regarding voice and style, I want the writing, especially in this chapter, to move. This is my moment to wrap the reader into the story and convince them to stick around…. While I'm trying to make the writing vivid, I'm allergic to anything that verges on purple. Less is more."

If you’re not used to thinking about your own writing’s needs in this detail and depth, working with a line editor is the perfect chance to begin building that muscle.

Note that just because you love, say, long sentences doesn’t mean they’re the right choice for the reader; if the reader can’t follow you, the style is dragging down the book. Your editor should be able to work flexibly within your preference as much as possible, while pushing back against what isn’t serving your writing, your ideas, or your reader.

So you and your line editor should talk about (there's some overlap with developmental editing topics here):
  • your detailed preferences on style
  • the feelings or visceral responses you're trying to evoke, if any
  • your desired rhythms (L wanted to the text to "move")
  • your intended audience
  • whether you're aiming to write within certain conventions of genre or field, or want to purposefully break them (e.g., you want to write in a straightforward and approachable way even though most texts in your field are really dense)
  • where you fall on the spectrum of wanting everything queried so you can make changes yourself versus the editor making changes themselves you can reject/accept (most editors won't—and shouldn't—do all the work for you)

What else has helped you get the most out of an editorial experience in the past? Use it again for this book.

[back to top]

My recent newsletter arrived in inboxes missing a whole word in line two. ::sigh:: We’re all too close to our own work to catch the mistakes every time, even the professionals. 

When you already have a good relationship with your audience, it’s easier to let go of moments like my missing-word goof. But what about when this is your first—or only—chance to impress a reader? What if you believe, as I do, that to give your work its best chance in the world, the presentation should live up to the prose?

Hire a proofreader.




Proofreading, or what you don't know is missing until it's too late

Proofreaders are the last person standing between your audience and that sentence that says “can” where it should say “can’t.” Get fresh eyeballs on your work at the last stage to avoid potentially embarrassing errors and typos that distract or hamper your reader. 

A proofreader can:
  • Scrub your grant application, website copy, journal article, or marketing materials squeaky clean so you look maximally professional and the reader’s attention stays on your ideas, not your slip-ups.
  • Make sure all the copy edits were successfully transferred to the final layouts of your book—the traditional use of the term proofreading.
  • Do a “cold read” on final page proofs to minimize the chances of any stray errors making it into print (including formatting errors, like headers appearing on the last line of a page or an image being misaligned).

In developmental and line editing, I’m listening deeply, reading closely, and imagining in your voice and vision. But when I’m proofreading, I cut myself off from you and your words. Through most of the process I’m not even reading for understanding. 

Instead I’m breaking down words, reading syllable by syllable out loud, looking at the shapes of lines on the page, maybe even reading backward through a text. The exception comes when I think I’ve found a mistake and I zoom out and really read the sentence or paragraph to double check the intended meaning.

[back to top]
Short answer: Yes.

Why?

Pride and reputation 
You want to be proud of your book. You want it to reflect you in all the most flattering ways.

Your editors want that, too, and we have the professional training, expertise, and experience to help make it happen. Your book will be better written and more engaging after working with a good editor.

And as a nonfiction writer, you may be writing to solidify your reputation in your field or to directly advance your career (hello, tenure file). The book shouldering this burden should be published at its very best, and an editor—along with your diligent, curious revising—can get it there.

You’ll become a better writer
If you pay attention to the process, working with an editor will also make you a better writer. As editor Chantel Hamilton puts it, “There’s no other arrangement that gives you direct access to someone who is as dedicated to your book as you are, and who is trained to spot the things you need to do to make that book even better. 

“A great edit doesn’t stop at spotting those things, either; it begins at showing you where they are, and extends into walking you through exactly how to fix them—both in this book and in anything you write in the future. You’ll come out of the process a more confident and competent author, ready to tackle the next book.”

Audience expectation
Frankly, readers are used to certain standards of readability and correctness, and often like to be vocal in online reviews about any deviation from those standards. The bar is high. An editor helps you Fosbury Flop right on over it. 

Your reader deserves an early advocate
You’re an expert. Expert writers often don’t realize what their readers don’t know, so an editor serves as a check and a reader advocate. 

We make sure you’ve given your readers enough information to understand your arguments and get why they’re amazing. Line editors and copy editors ensure flow, readability, and correctness, all of which draw readers closer to your ideas and make it more likely they’ll recommend your book to others. 



Do I really need an editor?

I’ve convinced you: you need an editor. Where can you find a reputable one?

Here are some professional organizations and their searchable databases: 

Members of a professional organization are usually more active in their field, staying abreast of current trends in usage, learning from colleagues, and taking continuing education classes. I’m a member of both the EFA and ACES and am constantly grateful for the community they provide. 

Some other ways to track down editors:
  • Check the acknowledgements of books you admire in your genre. If they mention their editor, you can Google that editor and reach out to them in case they work independently (rather than exclusively for the publisher).
  • Ask fellow writers and colleagues for recommendations. Just make sure the editor they mention does the kind of work you need for your manuscript right now. If they don’t, you can always save their contact info for a later phase of this book or for a future one.
  • Follow the online platforms (including podcasts, YouTube, blogs, Twitter, LinkedIn, etc) of writers, editors, writing organizations, and publishing professionals. You’ll either directly find editors whose ideas and vibe you respect, or learn of editors through those other professionals. You’ll certainly pick up on additional ways of thinking about editing and revision, as well as on the kinds of conversations you can have to help you get the most out of your edits. [See: How to get the most of out a developmental edit | How to get the most out of a line edit]



How to find a reputable editor

Schedule a free discovery call

START a conversation via email

Ready to chat about how your writing and my editing could be a great match?