When to Bring in a Developmental Editor on Your Academic Book Project

There's never a bad time, but there might be a best time for your particular needs

This edition of the newsletter is a reprint of a post I put up on Medium a few months ago. But I get this question a lot, so I thought I’d share it with you here.

So you want to — or, let’s face it, have to — publish an academic book, and you’re pretty sure you could use some help. (If you’re not sure whether you could use some help, check out this post: 8 Signs You Need a Developmental Editor for Your Academic Book.) In the world of academic publishing, developmental editors (DEs) are (usually) freelancers who help authors improve their book manuscripts in terms of argument, structure, narrative, and voice. Some DEs, like me, also assist authors in clarifying and pushing the theoretical contributions of their work. Having published an academic book myself, and having worked with many scholars to improve their own book manuscripts, I firmly believe that every author can benefit from the services a developmental editor provides. But clients often approach me without knowing when it would be most beneficial to have their work looked at. Sometimes it’s so late in the game that I (and they) wish they’d come to me sooner.

There’s no one “right” stage to bring a developmental editor in on an academic book project; there’s only the right stage for a particular author and a particular project. So, when should you work with a developmental editor on your project? Chances are you are at one of the five stages below; read on to find out how a DE can help you, wherever you are on your publishing timeline.

Stage 1: Your “book” is still a dissertation (or maybe just an idea)

At this stage, you don’t actually have a book manuscript yet. You might think it’s too early to talk to a developmental editor, but it’s not. If you’ve got more than just an idea — e.g. you’re working from a dissertation — a developmental editor can be incredibly useful. I work with a lot of recent PhDs who are trying to figure out if there’s anything of value in their dissertation. (Of course there is something of value in every dissertation, but impostor syndrome gets to even the best of us!) At this stage, I’ll read the dissertation from cover to cover and write up an editorial letter with my impressions and practical advice for turning what’s there on the page into a marketable scholarly book. You might be surprised (or maybe you wouldn’t) at how many of my clients are pretty certain that their dissertation committees have not even read their entire diss. A lot of them feel that simply having a freelance editor look at the whole thing and tell them it’s not trash before they go knocking on acquiring editors’ figurative doors is worthwhile in itself.

But developmental editors do more than that at this stage:

  • A DE can help a client identify the possible theoretical frameworks they might choose to emphasize when they revise. This means figuring out who their ideal audiences are and which angles are likely to appeal to those audiences.

  • If the client is still on the job market (or going back on the market), a DE can help them match up the framing of the book with the kinds of positions they plan on applying for (a lesson I learned the hard way).

  • A DE can map out possible tables of contents for the eventual book.

  • A DE can point out which material should be trimmed before the client even thinks about showing it to an acquiring editor and which material might be put to better use as journal articles.

  • If more material needs to be added before the dissertation can become a marketable book, a DE can tell the client that too.

Basically, at this stage, a developmental editor can give you the tools you need to write a kick-ass book proposal based on your dissertation and the confidence to pitch it to acquiring editors at your target presses.

If you’re really starting from scratch — you’ve decided to scrap your dissertation or you’ve already published it as articles or you’re on your second book project — a developmental editor can listen to your book idea with an objective ear and steer you toward the parts of your concept that are most likely to appeal to an acquiring editor at a university press. If you’re not sure which presses to target, a good developmental editor who specializes in areas related to your own field of study should be able to tell you which publishers might be a good fit for your project. They may even have relationships with acquiring editors and know what kinds of lists those editors are interested in building at the moment. They can certainly read over your query letter and help you sharpen your initial pitch.

If you already have a solid idea of how you are going to turn your dissertation/idea into a viable book manuscript, and you already have interest from your target presses, proceed to Stage 2!

Stage 2: You have a book proposal draft and maybe some sample chapters

In many cases, an acquiring editor who wants a proposal to succeed with reviewers and their editorial board will work with the author to make sure the submitted materials have the best chance of success, and thus the acquiring editor serves as the developmental editor too. But if you’ve had a somewhat tepid response from presses and need to put your best foot forward in order to engage their interest, having a killer proposal can help.

At this stage, a developmental editor can help you to polish your proposal so as to communicate the book’s thesis as compellingly as possible. An experienced editor can also assist you with the parts of the proposal first-time authors might be somewhat mystified by, such as the “competing titles” section, so that you appear to be a confident and competent marketer of your work. A DE can also give you feedback on whether your sample chapters are effectively showcasing your writing abilities and offering the prospective peer reviewer a clear enough picture into how you will be building the argument and narrative across the full manuscript.

Stage 3: You have a full manuscript draft that you want to have sent out for peer review

Let’s say your topic and approach are intriguing enough to an acquiring editor that they ask to see the whole manuscript. Some presses may even offer you an advance contract based only on a review of your proposal and sample chapters. Whether you have an advance contract or not, the fact that a press is willing to send a full manuscript out for peer review is a sign that they are somewhat invested in your project already. They think the topic and approach are marketable and they want to publish it, but they just need to be sure the work meets standards of scholarship.

Under these conditions, there are a couple reasons why you might engage the help of a developmental editor before letting the manuscript go out for review:

  • You don’t have a contract yet and you desperately need one for whatever reason. Having your manuscript edited before you let the press see it may make a difference in getting an advance contract. Keep in mind that this only applies to presses that give advance contracts before full peer review. Many prestigious presses do not do this for first-time authors.

  • Due to your tenure clock or other constraints, you don’t have time to waste on a round of iffy reader reports, so you need to make sure the manuscript is as polished a product as possible before reviewers even see it. Your goal is to receive such minor criticisms in the reader reports that the press won’t require a second round of review.

  • Between writing the proposal and trying to actually finish the manuscript you realize that you have such a mess on your hands that you’d be embarrassed for peer reviewers to see it. The DE can tell you how to fix the issues and, ideally, reassure you that it’s not as much of a mess as you think it is.

Stage 4: Your full manuscript is currently under peer review

It’s pretty rare for clients to approach me at this stage, but it can actually be a good time to work with a developmental editor, because it takes advantage of the “down time” while the manuscript is in someone else’s hands. At this stage, a developmental editor can do an evaluation of your manuscript for all of the issues mentioned above, while the peer reviewers are evaluating the actual scholarly content. (Peer reviewers do sometimes make suggestions about structure and narrative, but, to be blunt, those suggestions are not always good or helpful. Consider yourself lucky if you get a peer reviewer with a strong sense for those kinds of things.) You can then use the developmental editor’s feedback in conjunction with your reader reports when you receive them. You may not want to have an editor do any hands-on work with the manuscript yet — just in case the reader reports ask for big content changes that you’ll need to address — but if you know you’ll want a DE’s perspective at some point before you submit the final manuscript, this can be a good time to get it.

Stage 5: Your full manuscript has already undergone peer review

Let’s say you’ve gotten your reader reports back and they recommend publication with substantial revision. Or the reviewers seemed pretty happy with the manuscript but you yourself have some issues with the text you want to fix before letting the book go out into the world with your name on it. At this point, you’re probably so exhausted by the process and so close to the text that it’s hard to imagine the fixes the book needs, let alone the steps it would take to execute them. Enter the developmental editor, who can inject some fresh energy and enthusiasm into the project — along with an actionable revision plan — to get you over the finish line. A DE can help you craft your response to the reviews (if you haven’t submitted it yet) or assist you in making good on all the promises you made to the press but have suddenly realized you have no idea how to fulfill.

Bonus Stage: You’re ready to promote the book

By the time you get to the point where the press is asking you to write promotional copy (e.g. a 300-word abstract) for the back of your book or for their catalog, I can almost guarantee that this task will feel like a bridge too far, like pulling teeth, or [insert your own favorite analogy of excruciation here]. Fortunately, some freelance editors offer assistance with promotional copy, so you can make it their problem instead of yours. If you’ve already worked with an editor on the development of your book, they’ll be so familiar with the book’s content and argument that it’ll be pretty straightforward (i.e. not emotionally torturous) for them to help you summarize it.

Finding the right editor for you

I work with authors at all of the above stages; some clients even enlist my help at multiple points in the process. But different DEs prefer to work with clients at different stages, so it might take a few tries to find the editor who is the right fit for your project and timeline. Go ahead and contact the editor you want to work with to find out what they prefer and when they’re available. Do it as early as possible in your publishing timeline, even if you know you won’t want help until later on, because DEs who are in high demand may fill their client schedules several months in advance. Also keep in mind that evaluating and editing a full manuscript may take several weeks, so you’ll want to plan accordingly for the down time when your work is in the editor’s hands.

Finding the right developmental editor to work with — at any stage of your publishing journey — means bringing the insight of a supportive professional to your project. There are advantages to starting early, but there is no wrong time to enlist a developmental editor on your academic book manuscript. I guarantee that working with a developmental editor will give you confidence in your project, clarity on your contribution and goals, and fresh motivation to get your book further down the road to done.

Thank you to Malini Devadas, Molly Mullin, Gina Neff, Heath Sledge, and Laura Tisdel for their feedback on earlier drafts of this post. Because even editors need editors!