How to Get Feedback That's Actually Helpful

Hi Manuscript Workers,

In an ideal world, every scholarly author would be able to afford to work with a developmental editor who could read their work, identify problems, and offer revision suggestions before the work goes before acquiring editors, peer reviewers, and ultimately readers. But of course we don’t live in an ideal world, and not everyone has access to the kinds of services that I and other independent editors offer.

The reality is that most scholars—even those who do have access to professional editors and consultants—rely on colleagues for feedback. If you have colleagues who are generous enough with their time to do that for you, that’s awesome. But even those who want to help don’t always know how to frame their advice so that it’s most useful for the purpose of getting a book published.

As I note in The Book Proposal Book, even scholars who have been through the publishing process before don’t always understand the bigger picture and what publishers are looking for in, for instance, book proposals. But if you know how to frame the feedback you’re looking for, you don’t even need to worry about how much your colleague knows about the publishing process. Therefore this post is here to give you a shortcut to getting the best, most helpful feedback that can stand in for what a professional editor might provide you with.

The first thing we need to get out of the way is the difference between a developmental editor and an expert reader (such as a peer reviewer or a colleague in your field). An expert reader is often focused on the content of your ideas. They answer questions like “are you representing the literature accurately?”; “do your conclusions seem valid based on existing knowledge in the field?”; “are your methods rigorous enough?”; and “is your methodology sound and in keeping with disciplinary expectations?” These are important questions for a scholar to get answers to, but they’re not what I focus on when I work with an author as a developmental editor.

When I work with a scholar on their writing (usually book proposals but occasionally book manuscripts and chapters), I tend to assume they know the lit, their conclusions are valid, and their method/methodology is strong enough. I see my job as being to identify what the author’s thesis is—there may be multiple arguments competing to be the main thesis or there may not be an argument stated yet—and to help them rethink any aspects of the work’s structure, evidence, analysis, and sometimes voice that may be interfering with them driving that thesis home for the readers they hope to connect with.

So how do you get your colleagues to give you feedback that might replicate what a developmental editor would do for you? By leading them with a different set of questions. You can pose these questions to guide your reader before they read and give you written feedback. Or you can ask them in a more impromptu way if you meet in person or via Zoom to discuss the work. Because your reader isn’t necessarily trained as a professional developmental editor, they may not be able to tell you how to fix the problems. But asking these questions should at least alert you to what the problems are or bring you greater clarity on what you’re actually accomplishing with the work already (which can be just as useful as having problems identified).

Here are the questions:

  • What’s your main takeaway from this project as I’ve described it? What new way of thinking about my topic have you gained after reading this work?

  • Who do you think are the audiences who will most appreciate what I’m doing here?

  • Could you see yourself teaching this piece? What kinds of students would you assign it to?

  • What other recent works in my field or adjacent fields do you see this work as being in conversation with?

  • What is unique about what I’m doing here in comparison to other things you’ve read?

Your colleague might have comments to make on the actual assertions or claims your work is making or the methods you used to conduct the research. That’s fine, and that kind of feedback may help you anticipate what your peer reviewers might say. But those questions I gave you above are going to help you get clarity on what you’ll need to communicate to an acquisitions editor and other people at your target press who will actually decide whether they want to pursue publishing your book.

Did this post make you realize that you’re a colleague who reads your friends’ work like a developmental editor would? Want to explore developmental editing as a career or side gig or just sharpen your skills? Then you’ll enjoy my upcoming webinar and course on Developmental Editing for Academics.

The webinar will be held on Thursday, June 24th, at 10am PDT and will cover what developmental editing is and how it fits into the academic publishing process for both journals and books. I'll also share the nuts and bolts of what developmental editors do with academic texts and how to acquire and work with clients. While the webinar is geared toward people who want to work as developmental editors, it may also be useful for academic authors who want some tips on editing their own manuscripts. There will be ample time for Q&A following the presentation. A recording and transcript will be provided to all registrants, so you don’t have to attend live. Register here.

The course is also open for registration now, and the materials will become available July 1st. Over six modules you’ll learn the practice of developmental editing for academic texts, how to work with academic clients as a professional editor, and the nuts and bolts of setting up a successful academic editing business. You'll finish the course with sharpened skills and the confidence to charge rates commensurate with the value you provide for academic writers.

The course is completely self-paced and non-interactive, so you can complete it whenever. The curriculum is presented both as written lectures and as audio and video recordings (with slides). It’ll take about six hours total to listen to the whole course. You'll also get access to sample documents—real editorial letters and manuscript edits I've done for academic clients. Take my word for it that access to these kinds of documents is hard to come by and is super helpful for an editor who’s just starting out (I wish I’d had it when I first launched my business six years ago).

The course will be appropriate for academics with some editing experience (whether formal or informal) who are considering branching out into professional freelance editing for academic writers. Previous students (when I’ve offered the course through the Editorial Freelancers Association in years past) have included scholars with adjunct or contract positions who have been able to successfully transition to full-time editing after completing the course.

Registration for the course is open now. Registration will remain open until July 10th, but early-bird pricing will end on July 1st. Any questions? Reply to this email (or send an email directly to and ask away!