Developmental Editing: The Work, the Market, and You
November 19, 2002
Many of us involved in editing regard developmental editing as the top of the food chain. We wonder at those who are skilled enough to take an incoherent manuscript and turn it into a well-written, beautifully polished, organized book. And as manuscripts of varying quality cross our desks, many of us wonder why there aren't more developmental editors (DEs) out there and how we can get in on the action.
The Myriad Paths to Becoming a Developmental Editor
The four panelists who spoke at this Editors' Forum event have worked with multiple aspects of developmental editing. And each of them took a wildly different path to becoming a developmental editor.
Byron Schneider, senior development editor at Jossey-Bass for the business and management series, got into publishing after studying English and creative writing in college. His first job with Westview Press, a small publisher in Boulder, CO, was working with the acquisitions editor. His subsequent experiences included graduate school, helping UCSF faculty edit their papers for publication, and then eventually getting on at Jossey-Bass as a developmental editor.
"At Westview I got some developmental training in terms of what to look for in a manuscript," Schneider said. "In terms of honing skills on my own, at UCSF, working with shorter, journal-length pieces was a good way to increase my development training."
Sherry Symington, senior development editor at Wadsworth, took an even more circuitous route to becoming an editor, with many interesting stops along the way, such as teaching a class on sex roles from a cultural anthropology perspective. While she didn't use her Master's degree in folklore (a hybrid subject of English and anthropology) when she got into publishing—her various jobs included being a plant columnist for the Berkeley Gazette, the newsletter editor for the UC Berkeley Botanical Garden, a writer for Sunset Magazine, and a writer for the Sierra Club—her first job in developmental editing for Wadsworth was editing anthropology and psychology books.
"I pretty much did the things that interested me," Symington said. "That's a trait that works for being a developmental editor."
Jeanne Woodward, senior developmental editor for Openwave, landed in developmental editing because of her love of words. One of her first jobs was as a typist for the plant pathology division at University of Arizona. Even though her job was technically data entry, she always got into the content and eventually would ask the professors about discrepancies or problems in their material. While pursuing graduate degrees, she continued to edit for professors. Finally she found a job at Apple Computer and was editing full-time.
"No matter what I started to go into, I ended up working with words—massaging and organizing them," Woodward said. "I always got into the content; for me working with words is like the sun for plants."
John Bergez, independent developmental editor, has a graduate degree in philosophy, which he believes was useless for almost everything, but provided him a great background for substantive editing. After graduate school, he was hired as a production editor at Wadsworth, and after a few years he became restless with the quality of manuscripts crossing his desk. He ended up proposing a new job, "Creative Editor," that was essentially a developmental editing position. After initial negative reaction, about a year or so later the company president decided to give the position a go, but under another name.
"The luxury was that I got to invent the job and decide what was important," Bergez said. "The need I had identified is the need in any manuscript: if you let any writer run off without some intelligent coaching and feedback from someone sensitive to the audience, the book will not be as successful as it would be with such input."
Defining Developmental Editing: Roles and Responsibilities
"Copyediting is quality control; developmental editing—when it's not practiced well—is glorified quality control," said Bergez. "But really, developmental editing is getting the best out of the author that the author can give, for whatever audience and whatever purpose that he or she is writing for."
The common thread between in-house and freelance developmental editing is working intensely with the author and thus, the manuscript. According to Woodward, the developmental editing process works well in the high-tech world, because editors are involved in many stages of the books, including development, copyediting, and templates.
"I will have the opportunity to work with a writer on-site and get the book at an early stage," she said. "I can suggest adding a chapter or dividing the book into different parts. Sometimes we do a presales type of product where we have to take something hard to understand and make it easy to grasp."
Symington has noticed a shift in her responsibilities over the eight years that she has worked at Wadsworth. While her basic job is still to take the raw manuscript and turn it into a bestseller, she now does much more market research by looking at competing textbooks and is much more involved in the digital aspects of the book (CD-ROMs and Web). She also reviews the marketing plans for her books. One part of editing textbooks that she particularly enjoys is working with the art manuscript—the ideas for the figures and photos.
"I spend much more time looking at the market, doing comparative grids of competing books (number of chapters, types of features)," she said. "For my books, I do intensive editing on two to three chapters and provide guidelines to the author."
Schneider feels that his responsibilities are to the readers—creating the best possible product for the readers. He supervises the work of freelance developmental editors for the business & management series and characterizes the DE as a mediator between author and publisher.
"I work with DEs who are addressing issues like structure, organization, flow, tone, and voice," he said. "I am almost deputizing the DE to act on the publisher's behalf to make sure that the fundamental elements are in the manuscript."
For Bergez, as a freelancer, he normally has about four to five really active projects and about a dozen in various periods of gestation. He gets about 30 percent of his work directly from authors—which is different from working with a publisher. For one thing, when approached by an author, he works hard to qualify the client. Many authors don't know what editing entails, so the freelance DE ends up taking on the role of publisher, according to Bergez.
"A lot of people have books, and checkbooks, who will pay an editor," he said. "But I don't want to take a poor author's money if the book will not go anywhere no matter what we do to it."
Bergez normally gives an hour of consulting time free to prospective clients. If he decides to take on the project, then he writes up a step-wise letter of agreement that clarifies expectations and provides built-in escape hatches for both the client and him (tipsheet provided; not vetted by an attorney).
"I get everything in writing; the author is never into it too deeply, if for some reason she gets unhappy with the relationship," he said. "There is a lot of work out there working directly with authors."
Becoming a Developmental Editor—Freelance vs. In-house
So how do we tap into this well of hungry authors and understaffed publishing companies and land our first developmental editing project or our first developmental editing job?
For in-house positions, it's relatively straightforward. According to Symington, you can start at the bottom and work your way up: editorial assistant to assistant editor to junior developmental editor. For textbooks publishing, most of the senior development editor's time goes into intro-level books, which are the bread-and-butter of the industry. At Wadsworth, an ambitious assistant editor can take on developmental work with the upper-level texts and then springboard from there into full-time developmental editing. But the issue is that there are few in-house DE positions out there, especially on the West coast.
Becoming a freelance DE presents a different set of problems. For example, many in-house editors are reluctant to hire someone without that all-important in-house developmental editing experience. And even if you do have it, how can you slant your pitch to get that first assignment?
In a freelancer, Symington looks first for in-house DE experience. If a freelancer has worked on a bestseller for a competing company, she sits up and takes notice. One other quality she looks for (in addition to or as a replacement for in-house experience) is subject matter expertise in psychology or anthropology. But she warns that beginning freelancers shouldn't underprice in hopes of getting a job.
"I'm cynical; if the rate is too low, it worries me," she said. "Don't discount yourself. The going rate for textbook developmental editing is $40 (for a well-trained person) to $50 (for someone with a track record). But if the publishing house's traditional rate is $30 per hour, don't consider that an insult."
Schneider considers demonstrable intellectual rigor a desirable quality in a freelance DE. And, of course, he feels that meeting deadlines and keeping lines of communication open are also important qualities.
"We do 10 to 15 books a year using freelancers," he said. "I look for people who offer full-service capabilities: editors who are writers to fill in gaps that the author can't for whatever reason. I want someone who can do the heavy lifting on the conceptual structural level as well as the lighter work at the sentence level."
For beginning freelancers searching for that first project, Woodward recommends putting together an editing portfolio. Even if you don't have a specific "developmental" sample, a heavy edit can showcase your capabilities and style. Woodward's portfolio contains, for example, a sample edit of a journal article written by an Italian author, a cover memo to an author, guidelines for writing lists that she developed, a sample of rewriting, and a three-page textbook edit.
"You can't tell editing from the finished product," Woodward said. "I made my portfolio for editing by putting examples of my editing work together."
Bergez noted that even if you've only done informal editing and never gotten paid for it, what really matters is that you've done the work and that you can demonstrate the skills. He emphasized that the key to getting a developmental editing job, or really any job, as a freelancer is to address the trust issue by showing what you can do.
"The way to get work is to find out what someone's problem is and to position yourself as the solution," he said. "What people want to know is 'Can I trust you to solve my problem and how can I minimize my risk?'"
The panelists agreed that one way to demonstrate your skills is to do a sample edit. Symington will sometimes ask for a sample of line editing and a summary memo that analyzes the project.
Right now, the market for freelance developmental editing in the high-tech world is not really there, according to Woodward. But with the recent spate of layoffs and downsizing, high-tech companies may begin to outsource more of their editing, including the developmental side.
While Schneider characterizes publishing as a deadline-driven business, Bergez characterizes developmental editing as an excuse-driven business. He cautions that you should always overstate the amount of time that you think you'll need to complete a project, just to allow yourself more fudge room. Woodward recommends doubling the amount of time—a piece of advice from her own manager.