Developmental Editing

February 24, 1999
Notes By Kathy Paparchontis

A developmental editor is a writing coach and a teacher, someone who extracts what is special about an author that is not yet on paper, John Bergez told a standing room only crowd of Bay Area editors. Bergez, a teacher and longtime developmental editor is a founder of the Bay Area Editors' Forum.

Bergez was joined in the panel discussion by Alan Venable, an independent editor and writer of trade books and multimedia, and Heather Dutton, senior developmental editor for Earth Science and Astronomy at Brooks/Cole Publishing in Pacific Grove.

All three are veteran editors of Wadsworth Publishing in Belmont. They fielded questions about what it means to work on staff and as freelance developmental editors. They discussed tasks currently before them and spoke of where developmental editing jobs are—often in college textbooks and computer book publishing because the profits are higher than in trade books. The panel touched on the intricacies of working independently with authors.

Of the latter, Bergez said he hesitates to work with authors who lack a book contract. Most authors are published not because they are accomplished writers, but because they have knowledge worth sharing. Someone can be an author but a clumsy writer. Language is the medium of developmental editing, but it is not the same as copy editing in that the developmental editor spends more time thinking about the effect on an intended audience.

Developmental editing begins with what is going on that's right with an author, said Bergez. "It is the constructive nature of this work more than being preoccupied with words on a page."

College professors are a source of developmental editing work since they often require help in shaping their ideas.  Other work comes when trade houses kick back a manuscript to an author and the author hires a developmental editor. Unless a writer is willing to re-organize and rework, Venable said it does not serve the writer's interest to hire a developmental editor.

While a background in publishing, copyediting and production is valuable in adding to the skills needed by a developmental editor, Heather Dutton took another route that led to insights. When Dutton began selling books for a publisher in Austin, Texas, the act of selling impressed upon her the importance of pulling readers into a book "because if the photos or colors are wrong, or if it is too long or beyond a certain size, no one will buy it."

With a background in art and art history, Dutton brings a special visual element to the scientific books she develops at Brooks/Cole. She edits college texts inhouse and is currently handling a table of contents for a book on physical geology.

Venable emphasized building trust between editor and writer, not rewriting, but teaching the writer more efficient processes and the rules of structure. On average, Venable  said he spends three to four months on a 300-page trade book, beginning with a ragged draft and staying with it until it is ready for production.

A developmental editor is sometimes a "fix-it book doctor," Bergez said, and that could mean cutting a book by one third and shaping the final product. He often works with authors to organize their books at the start of a project.



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