I had some time last week to really detail my responsibilities as a developmental editor as I prepared for a training session with a new editor who recently joined our team. I thought it would be good to place the talking points of my session here as a resource, because I am asked quite regularly what a book editor does and what it takes to be a good one.
I realize I’ve mentioned elsewhere in this blog that I am also an acquisitions editor, travel to writers conferences, and attend publishing meetings of various kinds. That's #lifeinthebookbiz. But I do it all because I absolutely love it and it is helping me grow professionally and to expand my contribution to my team. My main responsibility is to the author, his/her manuscript, and enhancing his/her relationship with our company.
As I put together talking points for my training session, I didn’t feel the need replicate my job description. How do those really help anyone know what a job actually entails? I thought that perhaps more value would be added to the new editor’s first days if I expressed how I approach my job and how all of those “descriptions” play out in everyday contact with the authors and their manuscripts.
Over the last seven years, this job has become such an integral part of my professional identity that the functions of my job are more than just duties. The job description now bends and moves with the way I work, the specific and fluid ways I interact with my team, and the way my authors need me to serve them.
So here are my talking points for training a new developmental editor. This is a nonfiction process:
A developmental editor may find themselves incorporating a variety of skills to a written piece including:
- Writing a book for a contracted author based on acquisition demands. This is sometimes a derivative like a journal, study guide, or shopping guide developed from an existing project. Health books do this well. It could also be a new product based on an author’s seminars/workshops, speeches, interviews, or sermon series. I would call this ghostwriting straight up, but when I said this to the new editor she was astonished. She wondered about royalties and sharing the byline. I would have to assume that that all varies by project and publisher. Developmental editors don't usually share the byline, but they are sometimes mentioned in the acknowledgements. Most work performed by an in-house editor is covered by a work-for-hire agreement that most employees are subject to when working for a company.
- Developmental editing
- Developing a new way of presenting the interior content of a backlist book and preparing it for a relaunch
- Reorganizing and outlining a newly acquired book to meet market demands and authors’/publishers’ audience. This includes moving around large portions of text into better-suited places within the book’s content.
- This also may include making suggestions for organizational changes that the author himself would make rather than my making the changes for them in the manuscript.
- Substantive/content editing
- Making content changes every few lines; clarifying points and arguments in the author’s voice
- Writing in missing material and transitions when next step seems to be missing or logical flow is disrupted with special consideration for the author’s voice
- Quality assurance (QA) read-through (at least that’s what I call it)
- Reading through and applying a light hand to a book that is what the team deems acceptable, is well written by the author, or the author/diva (Oops! Did I say that?) has enough clout to demand very little changes be made to the manuscript. The editor is mostly adjusting for and insuring
- Publisher’s ethical standards
- Culturally relevant material
- Copyright (fair use) law is adhered to
- Libel/permissions issues are resolved
What a developmental editor must always keep at the top of mind during each edit:
- The audience
- The author’s voice and tone (not always the same and doesn’t have to be. Really depends on the topic/subject)
- The arc, purpose, goal, and promise of the book—the big picture
- The publisher
As a developmental editor approaches a substantive edit, he/she should:
- Seek to improve the manuscript by making changes in organization and/or content
- Perform initial fast read of manuscript.
- At this stage I begin to make notes of the problems I encounter as I read. I put on my reader hat for this. What questions do I have as a reader that the author should have answered? Where are the holes in the process proposed by the author? What is the reader expectation for this author, he or she being known for effectively communicating this theme? Is it being met? With a new author and if I didn’t acquire them, I research them and their platform to get a feel for their audience. I’ve been known to look up their speaking engagements on YouTube to hear how they talk, see their facial expressions and body language, as well as to see how their audience responds to each of those things. This helps me determine how the book should carry out the same themes in written form to engender similar responses. I make notes in double brackets “[[…]]” as I proceed through the manuscript. Sometimes I go ahead and make the change if I feel the flow of it right then. If my changes are substantial or I think that something needs to be restated, then I alert the author to my thoughts in double brackets saying that I have made a certain change and why. Or, I may let them know what I think will strengthen their position within the double brackets without making any changes to their material. Then I say to them “OK TO CHANGE?” or “PLEASE REWORD IN YOUR OWN WAY.” My whole address to the author will look something like this: [[AUTHOR: I SUGGEST THAT THE PREVIOUS BE DELETED AND IT BE REPLACED WITH…. THIS SEEMS TO STRENGTHEN AND SOLIDIFY YOUR POINT BY… OK TO CHANGE?]] or [[AUTHOR: DO YOU MEAN TO SAY SOMETHING LIKE “…” OR PLEASE REWORD IN YOUR OWN WORDS.]]
- In addition, I make note of stories or testimonies that may require written permission from the subject.
A side note here: I am aware of the comments feature in Word, and I choose not to use it because there are some authors who are just not that technically gifted. At the stage that I have the manuscript, my in-text comments will not affect word count. I am also aware that many editors still edit hard copy and handwrite notes in the margin. That’s not going to happen on my shift either. I will work in track changes in extreme circumstances (none that I have come across to date), but usually I don’t. I make sure that the author is aware of any context change I make, but small changes to the manuscript such as spelling, punctuation, and grammar that are not contextual should be expected.
- Perform second read to determine how to solve the issues raised in first read.
- Again, I insert queries to the author to show respect for them as the authority and expert. I don’t just change their original intent or contextual meaning without making a case for why it would enhance their argument or position. So this could literally be about querying the author on one word in a sentence if it changes the meaning.
- This is also the point where I write in transitions between chapters, section headers, or steps in a process if it feels lacking or gappy. I also preface these with a query; essentially getting permission to make the change, but mostly to help the author see why I feel that adding this transition is necessary for their readers and their case.
- Ensure proper documentation of sources used for copyrighted and quoted material.
- This includes acquiring licensing and permissions for songs, poetry, tables, charts, photographs, etc. This duty is essentially the author’s responsibility but I do perform this out of courtesy and by the time the book is on my desk, time is of the essence. Editors are usually pretty resourceful and skilled at attaining this info. But the fees associated with using these pieces in the author’s book are definitely at the author’s expense.
- Proper preparation of endnotes is also performed at this stage. I mostly use online resources to complete the endnotes, take what the author has provided and format it correctly via CMS guidelines, or consult reference books.
- Follow up on communication with the author about the manuscript and the changes made.
- This is “follow-up” because initial communication should be made at the start of the project. Communication and relationship building is key to a strong author-editor relationship. Through effective and authentic communication from me at various stages during the editorial process, the author will get the sense that their heart is my heart, that I care very deeply about their message, and that they can trust my expertise as a guide who will make sure their message reaches the largest audience possible. I want my author to be excited that their manuscript is in my hands. I also want them to know that I am their in-house advocate for anything they need regarding the editorial and production process. This is especially necessary with new authors.
- This is also the time where I prepare the editorial letter/email. In it, I discuss with the author all of the changes I made. I go into detail when I have made substantial changes. I provide an overview when there are mostly queries for clarification and sourcing awaiting them in the manuscript. I give them several weeks to read through the full manuscript so that they can make any major changes that they may have thought of since they have been away from the manuscript for some time.
- At this stage, I request all ancillary material such as dedication, acknowledgements, author bio, author business/nonprofit ad page, and the like
- Finalize the manuscript.
- Upon receiving—either by phone, email, or hard copy by regular mail—all requested materials and the author changes, I incorporate all the author changes, delete all of my queries, and prepare a list of uncommon words that the author uses, author-coined words, special reference material, and unique style treatments (such as a capitalizing things that wouldn’t normally be capitalized—small example).
- Once all of the issues are resolved (or at least in process), I pass the manuscript on for copy edit.
- Respond to copyeditor queries.
- After the copyeditor has completed their edit of the manuscript, I may get the manuscript back with queries to me or the author for clarification, additional sourcing and permissions, or to approve needed context changes.
- I respond quickly to the queries and send the manuscript back to the copyeditor, so that it can be sent to production.
- Provide direction to production team for interior layout.
- Assist marketing and sales in accessing edited manuscript for ARCs and developing compelling back cover copy.
Now this seems like a lot. It is. But then consider that I have more than one edit in process at a time. My pipeline usually has five to eight edits on the docket with staggering due dates. Yeah… And then there are meetings, phone conferences, writers conferences, and as of this year, I'm also involved in acquisitions.