What Does an Academic Developmental Editor Do?

Learn how an academic developmental editor can help you improve the argument, structure, and organization of your book or article.
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Academics are used to receiving feedback on their writing from professors, fellow students, and other colleagues. But, as many of us have experienced, this feedback is often marred by jealousies, competitiveness, and politics, which, alongside the author’s own insecurities about their own writing, present real obstacles to both graduate students and scholars hoping to get published. 

Where can you turn if you don’t have a supportive mentor or trusted colleague who can provide you with constructive feedback?

There are many ways you can improve your writing on your own, including joining a writing group. But did you know that you can also hire a professional freelance developmental editor to help you revise your content before submitting your manuscript to an academic journal or university press?

In this post, I’ll explain what developmental editing is, when you should consider working with a developmental editor, what to expect during the process, and how to choose the right editor for your project.

What is developmental editing?

Developmental editing is the first level of editing and comes before line editing, copyediting, and proofreading. A developmental editor focuses on the shape of your content and the story of your manuscript. 

Academic authors often hire freelance developmental editors to help them with a manuscript that’s going to be published, like a journal article or book manuscript, when they want to get higher-level feedback on how the manuscript is written before a peer reviewer will scrutinize the factual content and fit for the publication.

At this level, your editor will address the very foundation of your manuscript and the ideas it presents. Your developmental editor is here to give you the brutal constructive feedback you’ve been yearning for as you revise.

A developmental editor will help you with the following:

  • Address big-picture issues to improve your manuscript and writing as a whole 
  • Define your argument and ensure that it flows throughout the manuscript
  • Make sure that the evidence used to support the thesis is strong and appropriately used
  • Organize your sections so that they provide sufficient context and evidence to support your argument
  • Aid in the incorporation of or response to peer reviewer / reader feedback
  • Ensure that you’re using the right tone and voice for the type of publication you’re aiming for
  • Suggest ways that you can cut down or boost word count
  • Improve one specific aspect you’re struggling with or suggest how you can rebuild from scratch

Unlike (some) advisors, they will not feed you an argument, but rather they’ll help you draw it out of the content you already have. Nor will they ghostwrite content for you or completely rewrite what you’ve already drafted.

Rather, developmental editors will help you shape the manuscript that you already have. Their feedback will help you as you make revisions to your content so that it’s sufficiently supported and well organized.

When to get developmental help

Ideally, developmental editing should be done well before you plan to submit your manuscript to the journal or publisher of your choice, while you still have time to make edits and undergo other rounds of editing (i.e., copyediting), if you want to. 

However, there are several junctures where you might consider working with a developmental editor:

  • When you’re still working out your ideas in draft form, prior to submission
  • When your manuscript has been rejected or your editor advises that you work on it further before resubmission
  • When you’re changing the format of your manuscript (e.g., dissertation to book manuscript)
  • When you need assistance implementing reader reports during the submission process

If you don’t have a draft yet or you’re struggling to pull your research together into a coherent argument, you might benefit more from book coaching. Check out this post by Laura Portwood-Stacer to find out more about the difference between editors, coaches, and consultants.

How a developmental editor works

All editors work differently and have various methods of approaching a manuscript, but there are certain things you can expect when working with a good development editor.

Once you’ve chosen an editor, you should discuss your expectations for the work before they begin assessing or making any changes to your manuscript. This includes not only the schedule of the project and terms, but also what kind of issues you’d like the editor to address and the outcome or deliverables you’d like to get when they’ve finished the project.

All editors will read the entire manuscript and give you feedback on how to improve it. However, there are two basic levels of feedback you might receive:

A manuscript assessment, also known as a manuscript review, evaluation, or critique, consists of an editorial report or letter that outlines the editor’s findings. They might address issues such as the manuscript’s key strengths and weaknesses; big-picture revision advice for the manuscript’s narrative arc, argument, structure, and scholarly engagement; and chapter-by-chapter or section-by-section revision advice. They might also provide you with a plan of action for how to make those changes yourself before you submit.

A full developmental edit is an assessment that includes manual edits on the manuscript itself. With this kind of service, your editor will not only provide you with notes and comments on the draft, but they will also help you massage the text using MS Word’s Track Changes function. While these edits are generally only related to big-picture issues (e.g., moving paragraphs or sections, renaming sections or chapters, inserting sample transitions), some editors will do some level of line or copy editing. It’s important to clarify your expectations for the edits before you begin.

Choosing the right developmental editor for your project

When choosing a freelance developmental editor for your project, there are both practical and intuitive considerations.

Authors often ask us whether they need a specialist in their field to edit their work. The answer depends on which kind of feedback you need. While subject-matter experts will be more familiar with the conventions and trends in your field, they might not be the best fit to help you broaden your book’s audience. 

Ultimately, you should be looking for the most qualified editor with whom you “click.” Ideally this person will have some familiarity with your field—but you might be hard pressed to find one who’s an exact match. You’re probably best off waiting for the peer review to get literature suggestions and feedback on gaps in research.

More practically, you should also search for someone who has time to work on your project based on your deadlines. While articles typically take up to two weeks and books up to two months to complete, depending on length, good editors can be out booked months in advance.

You should also be aware that developmental editing is not cheap: you’re paying for an expert to not only point out the flaws in your writing but also help you improve it, which requires years of training, both academic and as an editor. Rates for academic developmental editing generally range from $50 to $125 per hour, and up to $0.10 per word.

If you’re interested in learning more about working with the developmental editors at Flatpage, check out our developmental editing service description, which includes a sample editorial report.

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.


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