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Paul Buckingham

Non-fiction Developmental Editing

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I’ve always loved trying to understand things — investigating ideas and concepts to make sense of them, seeking clearer ways to view them. I was delighted, therefore, when I discovered that there’s a kind of editing rooted in exactly that pursuit: developmental editing.

The name describes it well: you’re helping the author develop a manuscript from scratch (at least, for non-fiction projects), or from a very early form of a manuscript. There’s so much opportunity at this point. The author has a wealth of knowledge but hasn’t yet decided how to convey it — in fact, may not even have settled on what exactly to convey. You as the developmental editor can play a part in that wonderfully creative endeavour of translating an idea into a lucid and compelling text.

How does a developmental editor work?

Not all developmental editors will have the same approach, but for me the practice centres on discussions with the author. I want to understand the author’s topic, and usually I start at the top and work down:

  • What’s the topic broadly about?
  • What are the main concepts, and how do they relate to each other?
  • What would someone need to know to understand the main concepts?
  • What sub-concepts emerge in understanding the main concepts?

And so on. These aren’t literally the questions I ask, but I guide the discussion so that the answers to these questions naturally spring up.

As I delve into the author’s knowledge, I summarize out loud what I’m hearing — saying it how I understand it. That way, the author can correct me if I’ve got something wrong.

Through this process, we gradually arrive at a distilled version of what the author wishes to communicate: the bare essentials with all the right connections between them. From this vantage point, we’re in a strong position to create an outline of a draft.

Progressing layer by layer: chapters and sections

Of course, it doesn’t end with a manuscript outline. The author still has to flesh out the parts, such as chapters and sections. Happily, the same process that got us an outline for the manuscript as a whole works for individual chapters as well — and an outline of a chapter brings the author much closer to being able to write that chapter. So, developmental editing continues down through the layers of the manuscript, for as long as the author needs the help!

Subject-matter expertise

Do you need to be a subject-matter expert to do developmental editing? That depends on the audience. It’s a good idea to be about as expert in the subject as the intended reader. If the text is meant for a general audience, you’ll be fine. But if the author is writing for academic peers, remember that you’re going to have to understand the subject at various levels, from a high level down, so consider your degree of comfort with it.

Whatever project you take on, though, be inquisitive and you’ll have a blast!


Previous post from Paul Buckingham: Stepping Into the Arena.

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10 Comments on “Non-fiction Developmental Editing”

  • Rosemary Shipton


    I agree, Paul – this investigative, creative kind of editing is a joy. To do it well, you must learn enough about the subject at hand, and then you have the opportunity to explore it from different angles with an expert. The author ultimately has charge of the content, but the editor makes a significant contribution in identifying the purpose and the audience for the text – and, therefore, in shaping the organization and presentation of the material. It’s lifelong learning at its best.

    • Paul Buckingham


      Thanks, Rosemary. I loved your response, because it filled in some of the things I wanted to include but couldn’t without the post ballooning! Yes, helping to identify purpose—and message—is an important part of developmental editing. Very true also about developmental editing as lifelong learning.

  • Hi Paul,

    Have you ever worked with an author to develop a proposal for a nonfiction book for submission to an agent or a publisher, or is your work mainly with independent authors?


    • Paul Buckingham


      Hi Ellie,

      Thanks for your question. I have worked with authors submitting to a publisher, but your question was specifically about proposals, I notice. Were you wondering whether developmental editing for proposals differs from that for manuscripts, or instead focusing on the difference between submitting to a publisher or going independent?

      In my mind, the core of developmental editing is the same whatever the case, and I couldn’t have said it better than Rosemary did (above): you’re exploring the subject from different angles with an expert—the author—and identifying purpose and message.

      Please forgive me for not quite understanding! I welcome clarification. Best wishes,


      • Hi Paul,

        I’ve done developmental editing as a freelancer as well, but I’m wondering whether I should learn more about proposals. My understanding is that agents and publishers want to see a proposal for nonfiction, not the entire manuscript. My work has been with self-publishing authors, and so I haven’t worked on proposals. That’s why I asked whether you have done so.

        • Paul Buckingham


          Thanks for the clarification, Ellie. Yes, a non-fiction publisher will usually want a proposal first, so learning more about proposals is a good idea. I wouldn’t be too daunted, though. There’s no need to think of it as something radical that your skill set is unsuited for. After all, a proposal (like a manuscript) is a piece of communication, and as an editor you’re an expert in effective communication.

          Focus on the purpose. For a proposal, the purpose is to convince the publisher that the project is worth taking on. What does the author’s proposed manuscript aim to do? What are the key messages? Why is the topic relevant? How is the project different from what other authors have attempted? The proposal should answer such questions. The editor’s role, then, is to help the author answer these questions and translate the answers into a compelling document, the proposal. The process looks a lot like developmental editing for a manuscript—only, the output is different.

  • Great post, Paul, thank you for writing it! It reminds me of the work a functional analyst performs with his clients in software development, where the various layers of the application are discovered and defined together.

    • Paul Buckingham


      Fascinating, Magalie. Yes, there could be a crossover of the two types of work. I imagine that software development is rooted in logic, especially the logic underpinning what the software needs to do.

      In a similar way, I find that logic comes into developmental editing as well: you’re trying to see clearly the web of ideas and how each part of that web connects logically with other parts.

  • Margaret Shaw


    I enjoyed your very lucid description of developmental editing. Thanks!


    • Paul Buckingham


      Very kind of you to say so, Margaret. Thank you!

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