Eva van Emden (she/her), freelance editor

Certified copy editor and proofreader


February 15, 2014

Developmental Editing: A Handbook for Freelancers, Authors, and Publishers by Scott Norton

Developmental Editing by Scott Norton

In developmental editing, an editor works with an author to shape the structure and content of a manuscript. This can start early in the writing process, or it might begin once a draft of the manuscript is finished. Developmental editing is done more often with non-fiction books, where the emphasis is on the author’s subject matter expertise rather than writing expertise, and it is generally done to improve the book’s quality and effectiveness at reaching its target readership.

I think developmental editing is the most difficult, although potentially the most rewarding, form of editing. It takes insight and creativity to find a theme or a narrative thread that will make the facts come alive. And it takes the greatest tact and communication with the author.


  1. Concept: Shaping the proposal
  2. Content: Assessing potential
  3. Thesis: Finding the hook
  4. Narrative: Tailoring the timeline
  5. Exposition: Deploying the argument
  6. Plan: Drafting a blueprint
  7. Rhythm: Setting the pace
  8. Transitions: Filling in the blanks
  9. Style: Training the voice
  10. Display: Dressing up the text

Scott Norton takes a lot of the guesswork out of this process by breaking it into separate tasks (see the contents listed in the sidebar). Each chapter has a case history to demonstrate the techniques being discussed. Structure is a constant theme, and the case studies typically use the initial and revised table of contents as a starting point for the editing. There’s valuable discussion on deciding how to approach the material, how to present it, what aspects to emphasize, and whether to order material according to a timeline or by following an argument.

The detailed case histories make the book come alive. Each case history is developed as the chapter progresses, and it shows the table of contents of a manuscript before and after editing, which neatly summarizes the changes. Although the author-editor relationship doesn’t get a chapter of its own, the case histories illustrate a variety of ways this can go.

At a little over 200 pages, the book isn’t unmanageably long, and it’s an attractively published small paperback that you can keep as a reference book without breaking your bookshelf. The further reading section at the end is a thoughtful collection of other good books on related topics with a short description of what each book offers.

Related reading

This article by John McPhee on structure discusses the choice between chronology and theme and describes how stuck a writer can get without a framework.

Reviewed from my own copy of the book.