A week in the life of a development editor

Harriet Power gives us an insight into her typical working week, with a focus on development editing.

This article covers:

  • what the job of a development editor involves
  • the typical process for a textbook
  • the typical process for a professional development book
  • marketing and professional development.

I began my editorial career in-house, and very much learned how to development edit on the job. I was never given any formal training; instead I learned through a mix of instinct and informal guidance over the course of eight years working for educational publishers like OUP and Pearson. My last in-house position was as a development editor for OUP, where I mainly developed GCSE humanities textbooks.

I went freelance in 2017. Since then most of my work has been for educational publishers, though I’ve also started to work on prescriptive non-fiction over the past year or so.

I really enjoy development editing. I love getting stuck into a manuscript to make sure it really works. I love that combination of creativity and logic needed to solve any problems. I love working closely with authors and feeling like I’ve made a real difference.

What my job involves

For non-fiction, development editing all comes down to the simple question of does this book deliver what the reader wants? In this way I think it’s actually quite objective.

I developed my first book a few months into my first job as an editorial assistant. (This was for a small publisher where editorial assistants basically did everything and you really had to hit the ground running.) I was given minimal guidance and hardly had a clue what I was doing … except instinct meant that I did. Because we all know what makes a good textbook, having relied on them over six or so years of schooling. So I started asking questions like, ‘Does this chapter give enough detail to answer an exam question on this?’, ‘Is this explanation too difficult for GCSE students to understand?’ and ‘Are these checkpoint questions unambiguous and answerable?’

It turns out these were the right sorts of questions to ask, and I still rely on them today.

When a textbook lands on my desk

When I’m asked to develop a textbook manuscript, it typically arrives with a whole host of extra documents: my brief, the author brief, the syllabus, a sample design, a sensitivity checklist, etc. So I spend a bit of time reading through all of this, trying to get the project clear in my head, and then make a list of things I need to check for each chapter (or even each double-page spread). The main purpose of this checklist is to make sure the author’s done what the author brief asks of them. (Which in turn implies the book delivers what the reader wants.)

The checklist might cover things like:

  • word count (is there too much material or not enough?)
  • spec match (does the book cover everything on the syllabus?)
  • features (has the author included the right number of features – like exam tips, discussion points, etc – and are they treated consistently?)
  • activity questions (are they answerable; have answers been provided, and do they actually answer the questions?)
  • artworks/images (are they appropriate, relevant, varied; are there the right number?).

Then I’ll work through each spread or chapter checking everything off. I might also do a fair bit of line editing, particularly where the text is unclear or unobjective. I’ll probably end up doing some fact-checking (even though it’s not an official part of the job), and I’ll keep an eye out for anything that could potentially cause offence and flag this up (even though there might also be a separate sensitivity review).

The development edits I do for publishers always include querying the author and taking in their revisions as part of the job. On some days, it feels like quite a lot of my time is spent wording diplomatic queries. Sometimes I have to ask an author to do a lot of work (without the publisher paying them any more for it), and they can’t simply say ‘no thank you I’d rather not’ in the same way an indie client can.

So even though it slows me down, I’m always careful in explaining why a major edit is important. I try to provide solutions/suggested rewrites, because I know the authors are busy (most of them are practising teachers). And the more help and direction I give, the more likely the author won’t go off-piste. That’s important when I have to take in their responses. I’ve found over the years that being really clear about what you want, and giving specific examples of what’s needed, helps to mean the revisions you get back are more likely to be on target.

One thing I really enjoy about development editing textbooks is trying to make sure controversial topics are covered in a balanced, objective way. This might mean being very careful over the wording of a spread on euthanasia, for example. So even though development editing is largely about ‘bigger picture’ stuff, I still have to focus on individual sentences or even words. For example, to make sure the wording of a list of arguments for and against euthanasia doesn’t accidentally make it look as if we’re favouring one side over the other.

When a professional development book lands on my desk

Another week, one of my publishers might hand me a professional development book where the brief is much less detailed (often amounting to little more than ‘can you edit this one please?’). This might easily turn into a combined development edit and copyedit. Basically, I’ll do a copyedit but if a manuscript has bigger issues then I’ll also point these out and help the author to fix them. So here I don’t have a prescribed checklist, as such, but I’ll ask questions like:

  • Is there enough detail to be able to take this advice away and act on it yourself? (One book I worked on almost doubled in size to make sure we’d answered that question.)
  • Does the book answer the question it sets out to solve? (One book ended up with a different title as a result.)
  • Does this book explain everything in a way that a beginner can understand?
  • Is the overall argument logical and persuasive?

I find development editing to be the most ‘thinky’ work that I do. You have to hold the whole book in your head in a way that isn’t so necessary with copyediting or proofreading. Edits can be more complex (and explaining why they’re so necessary can require careful thought). So I’m happy when I get weeks where I can switch it up with a bit of copyediting or proofreading or something else for light relief.

Marketing and professional development

Until the pandemic hit, I’m ashamed to say I put minimal effort into marketing and not much more into professional development. But that’s changed over the past six months or so. Now I try to set aside an hour a day for one or the other.

Last year I decided it might be a good idea to do some proper training in development editing (better late than never, right?). I couldn’t find much on offer but did sign up to EFA’s 8-week course on non-fiction development editing, which was really great. I also bought Scott Norton’s classic, Developmental Editing (which I still need to finish).

This year I’ve been working my way through a small pile of craft books on how to write non-fiction. I’d definitely recommend reading craft books if you want to get into development editing – they really help you to understand how good books work and what they should contain. Three I’d particularly recommend for non-fiction are:

  • Rob Fitzpatrick’s Write Useful Books. (This really changed my mindset on how to write great prescriptive non-fiction, and I’ve got quite evangelical about it.)
  • Ginny Carter’s Your Business, Your Book. (This’ll give you a really solid grounding in the elements that make up a strong professional development book.)
  • Susan Rabiner and Alfred Fortunato’s Thinking Like Your Editor. (Twenty years old but full of interesting, still relevant ‘insider’ advice on what publishers are looking for from ‘serious’ trade non-fiction.)

Summing up

This article has covered:

  • training and career paths to development editing
  • typical working processes
  • marketing and professional development for development editors.

About Harriet Power

Harriet Power is an education and non-fiction editor, a Professional Member of the CIEP, and co-author of four GCSE Religious Studies revision guides (this last one was a surprise even to her). She worked in-house for eight years before going freelance in 2017.

 

About the CIEP

The Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading (CIEP) is a non-profit body promoting excellence in English language editing. We set and demonstrate editorial standards, and we are a community, training hub and support network for editorial professionals – the people who work to make text accurate, clear and fit for purpose.

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Photo credits: handdrawn lightbulb by Mark Fletcher-Brown; Together, we create! by “My Life Through A Lens”, both on Unsplash.

Posted by Abi Saffrey, CIEP blog coordinator.

The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the CIEP.

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