Let’s begin with a book that serves as an inspiring and comprehensive introduction to the art of developmental editing, my own preferred corner of the craft. If you’re curious to know the different levels of editorial intervention (copyediting, line editing, and developmental editing), then see our Services page for definitions and links to rates. To discuss developmental editing, I’d like to discuss a book on the craft.

Imagine for a moment that you’re an editor in a publishing house, perhaps one of the local presses, like Arsenal Pulp Press (Vancouver) or Wave Books (Seattle). As you sip your morning coffee, two of your colleagues (frazzled editors in their own right) collided in the hall and mix up their manuscripts. One of these manuscripts is a sly and meticulous instruction manual on the craft of developmental editing. The other is a novel about books, a story driven by conflict and (sometimes) resolution between editors, writers, and publishers. To help your colleagues, you accidentally shuffle several chapters of each book into the other, like a poker dealer with a stack of cards. Although one would expect the new hybrid manuscripts to bewilder the narrative, the shuffled whole catalyzes so harmoniously that the publisher rejoices in the happy accident. This resulting book is Scott Norton’s Developmental Editing: A Handbook for Freelancers, Authors, and Publishers (Chicago 2009).

Norton divides his guide into ten chapters, each of which involves a description of developmental editing processes and tools, on the one hand, and a fictionalized editing project, on the other. These fictional sections address several aspects of developmental editing by dramatizing a problematic writer-editor relationship, such as an uncompromising writer with a manuscript lacking a concept. To teach the interested writer or editor, Norton creates problems in the novelistic sections that he resolves in the guidance sections by introducing specific “dev editing” tools.

As with other books on editing, Norton begins here by noting the foundation of a successful editing relationship: to “engage in sustained acts of two-way empathy–toward…authors and their prospective readers.” For the writer, the craft of fiction demands a keenly developed empathetic imagination. For the editor as well, robust empathy is necessary toward both the writer and toward their potential audience. Combining his own empathy with a mania for outlining, Norton humorously and movingly delivers his lessons for improving troubled manuscripts while encouraging an amicable working relationship between writer and editor.

Because I can’t summarize the whole book in the span of a coffee break, I won’t detail here the many, many tools that Norton describes and then applies to his fictional manuscripts and dramatized working relationships. There is a wide variety of editing techniques in Developmental Editing, as well as endearing character studies, and even views on the publishing industry, so I’ll briefly focus on only one section as exemplary of the whole.

In chapter two of Developmental Editing we encounter the zombie manuscript: a shambling text that resembles a book and yet has no soul. Here Norton discusses the problem of a manuscript lacking a core concept, and he plops this text down between a first-time author, a New York trade publisher, and a freelance editor. For Norton, a subject is simply a topic that guides a particular discussion, while a concept is something larger, what we might refer to as a position or “an author’s special take on a subject,” part of their point of view.

Here is Norton’s editing process in a nutshell: interview the writer, read the manuscript deeply (twice), take notes, categorize subjects, synthesize these categories, and finally raise one subject to the level of concept.

Here’s the same editing process in fine-grained detail: When a manuscript has too many subjects and no concept, Norton recommends the editor begin by interviewing both the author (assessing desired impact) and the publisher (assessing content preferences), if there is one. The reading task then begins, and the editor jots down the location of each new subject change and includes a shorthand description. These notes form the basis of an outline, which the editor constructs by categorizing and combining the various subjects into groups. Finally, the editor selects the main subject and “transmutes” it into a concept, or the guiding and inspiring idea for the book itself. The main subject, the one that the writer returns to often enough to organize the larger narrative, may be raised to the level of concept through a meticulous recording of the transitions between subjects, a process that (with a little luck) reveals the writer’s unconscious or unspoken position, their concept. By creating a concept from a subject, the editor may, with the assistance and approval of the writer and publisher, reorganize the manuscript for clarity, impact, and appeal.

And this complex and demanding task, dear readers, is what an editor means when they say they are “in the weeds.”

If you’re interested in making a book, you won’t find a better bird’s-eye view of improving a narrative’s argument and focus while respecting the taste and sensibilities of those involved. Norton’s guide is unlike other more straightforward handbooks, such as Einsohn’s Copyeditor’s Handbook (to be discussed), in that it approaches revising larger units of meaning (the “manuscript’s discourse”) by recognizing the inherent empathetic connections between writer, editor, and publisher that are necessary to get a good book to print. Norton’s Developmental Editing is not only the best introduction to high-level editing craft, it is also the most ambitious. By embedding his advice within plots, characters, and settings, Norton offers an impressively memorable and gratifying primer for revising book-length manuscripts.

Matthew Bennett


Book Reviewed: Norton, Scott. Developmental Editing: A Handbook for Freelancers, Authors, and Publishers (Chicago 2009).


Spread the word.