If you’ve ever written an academic journal article or book manuscript, then you’ve probably learned how important it is to get good feedback on your drafts. And I’m not just talking about adding a comma here and fixing a typo there, but real critical feedback that helps inform the way you present your ideas and shape your evidence throughout the writing process.
A good academic developmental editor can give you just that. Think of them like the advisor you always yearned for in grad school: interested only in helping your career advance by providing the kind of critique that was necessary to improve your chances for publication. (Check out this previous post to find out exactly what an academic developmental editor does.)
Sadly, many scholars are only beginning to learn about developmental editing services and the value they can bring to an author during the drafting process. In this post, I’ll give you valuable advice on how to choose the right editor for your project.
Where to find academic developmental editors
While developmental editing has been common in fiction and general nonfiction for some time, it’s a relatively new genre in academic editing. Therefore, many authors are unsure where to look to find a good developmental editor, much less one who’s the right fit for their project.
Most freelance editors find their clients by word of mouth. Begin by asking colleagues, advisors, and other writers whom you trust. Find out about their experience with the editor by asking them questions about what the author was seeking with the editing and whether that author fulfilled the brief.
Editors of all types congregate in several trade organizations, both nationwide and local. You can begin searching the directories of groups like the Editorial Freelancer’s Association and ACES (USA), and the Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading (UK).
You can also try your luck with Google by searching for terms like “academic developmental editor” with any added keywords for the specialty you’re interested in, although it’s not always necessary to have a subject-matter expert.
What skills to look for
Developmental editing is as much an art as it is about skill. There are few training programs that currently exist for this service specialty, unlike other types of editing. Therefore, you should dig into the editor’s experience in editing and teaching, as much as their own publishing record.
Just because an editor is a great line editor or copyeditor does not mean they will be able to see the proverbial forest through the trees: developmental editing requires the editor to be able to see the “big-picutre” issues with the manuscript and, oftentimes, that means skipping the “small” details like a poorly worded sentence or misspelled words. Therefore, you should look for someone who offers developmental editing as a distinct service.
I have always found that the best developmental editors have extensive teaching experience—either as writing instructors or as a professor guiding numerous students—in addition to those who provide regular feedback on other writers’ work, for example in writing groups.
Their publication record is also a good indication that the editor knows what academic publishers are looking for in a publishable manuscript. Many good developmental editors will have seen this from both sides, as an author and as an editor who’s been the “gatekeeper” at a journal or a regular peer reviewer at a press.
When to know if you’re a fit
Developmental editors—perhaps unsurprisingly—tend to have fewer testimonials and client books on their own websites, since many authors tend to keep their work behind the scenes. Therefore, you’ll need to rely on your own intuition as much as the editor’s resume.
Perhaps most importantly, you should make sure that you “vibe” with the editor. When you click with your editor, you’ll have mutual trust and respect, and the collaboration will be much smoother.
The best way to begin your work with any editor is to arrange a brief call to discuss your project and the current issues you’re experiencing with your draft. Use this call as your “sample” edit: you’ll both get a sense of each other and whether you’ll work well together. Keep it brief—this call isn’t intended to be a coaching session but rather a chance for you to get to know each other.
No matter what, you should be up front about your needs: don’t expect the editor to diagnose the problems you want to fix without telling them what your issues are! If you know that you’re struggling to express your thesis or that you’ve dumped too much research into the manuscript, it’s best to let them know beforehand.
Whenever you’re working with an editor, it’s important to understand both the process and be on the same page with the editor about your expectations for the project.
Need a good academic developmental editor?
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About the author
Cara Jordan is chief editor and president at Flatpage. She has spent her career editing academic and artists' writings, primarily as a developmental editor and copyeditor. She received her PhD in art history from the Graduate Center, CUNY.