[PATH TO PUBLICATION] Working with a Developmental Editor
Written by
Elizabeth Enslin
April 2014
Written by
Elizabeth Enslin
April 2014

In high school, I wanted to break out of my wallflower role and participate in the social life some had told me would be the pinnacle of my existence (not true, I would later discover, but that’s another story). Athletics seemed to be at the core, yet I feared fast-moving balls, could not balance all six feet of me in a headstand for gymnastics and did not have the aptitude for teamwork. What I knew how to do—hiking, scuba diving, finding mushrooms in the woods—didn’t count for much in high school. But years of snorkeling and scuba diving with my parents had given me a certain comfort in water. So I joined the swim team. There, I had to relearn both swimming and breathing to achieve a smooth, competitive stroke. And I discovered my strength: long-distance swimming. I could not pull ahead in the sprints, but I had a kind of dogged endurance that allowed me to place—and sometimes even win—250 and 500 meter races.

I did not pursue a swimming career or hobby, but that same stubborn persistence that helped me find an athletic niche in high school has made me love what I consider the endurance phase of writing: revision. I have no problem generating what Anne Lamott calls “the shitty first drafts” that begin any writing project. But I consider those beginnings a phase to slog through. Where I start having fun is in the hard work of revising those early drafts. I love moving words, sentences and paragraphs around. I love cutting, adding, reshaping, unpacking and polishing. The process itself often reveals new resonances and helps me enter into material more deeply. Of course, as I’ve written about before, revision can have its downside. I enjoy it so much, I can easily spend too many months or years swimming in circles rather than heading in a particular direction.

After winning a contract with Seal Press through a She Writes-sponsored contest last spring and submitted my final manuscript in August, I had one big fear: that I would not be edited enough. As a mostly self-taught writer, I worried that some parts of my manuscript were not ready for readers. Despite all those years of revision on my own, I still couldn’t see my way through some sections that lagged or confused. Thankfully, Seal Press came through for me with a smart, enthusiastic and critical developmental editor. Seal assured me that developmental editing is standard practice, not something my manuscript in particular needed. I was thrilled.

Developmental editing is different from copyediting. Scott Norton, author of a book on the topic, defines developmental editing as “significant structuring or restructuring of a manuscript’s discourse.” The Bay Area Editors’ Forum does a nice job of describing how the particular tasks of developmental editing are different from the later work of copyediting (grammar, spelling, punctuation, etc.). My manuscript didn’t require a major overhaul, but there were some places that needed more compressing, a few chapters that needed rearranging, sections that needed more clarity or excitement and some bits that simply wanted deleting. 

What I loved most about my developmental editor is how she inspired my trust from the very beginning. She made it clear that she understood and admired what I was trying to do, then suggested ways I might do it better. That made it easier for me to swallow some of the tough messages she gave about what needed to go or change. And she was wonderfully tough on me. After years of working alone, I was both ecstatic that my overall message was getting through and grateful that someone could see where it went wrong and point out some new directions that might work. Out of hundreds of changes she suggested, I quibbled on maybe three. And by spending two months revising based on her feedback, I learned a lot more about how to be a better writer and editor.

Meanwhile, I came across posts by other writers (Michelle Wildgen, Kamy Wicoff) sharing their experiences of being edited. It all makes me think I should have hired a developmental editor years ago.

I’d love to hear others’ experiences about working with developmental editors (or being a developmental editor). For those preparing manuscripts for submission or for those self-publishing, do you have any recommendations about specific editors or what to look for (or watch out for) when hiring a developmental editor?

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  • Elizabeth Enslin

    For those who are curious about the developmental editor I worked with at Seal Press: her name is Anne Horowitz. I highly recommend her.

  • Elizabeth Enslin

    Jeanne: Thanks for describing in so much detail your process of both working with an editor and editing the work of others. Your advice on considering price sounds wise.

  • Hi!  

    This is a wonderful subject to consider.  I chose a developmental editor for my project, a novel called Back Down That Road Again coming out next year.  He called me again and again to enter the scene:  What do I smell as the character?  What do I hear?  I can't recommend that kind of editing highly enough.

     In fact I myself do that kind of editing and it such a pleasure to help a writer craft the book.  A friend, Karen-Hood Caddy, had just published a young adult book called Howl and she needed help with her sequel. The first book ended with some real success for the main character.  The sequel started with the same girl, but she was miserable.  So I helped Karen better integrate the end of book one with the beginning of the second.  The writing was not pitched at the same age level consistently in the second book, so I was able to help with tone and diction.  Scene structure is always critical.  Sometimes we have the crowning event in a sequence, only to realize that this is the entire event and that getting to that point was so much scaffolding that has to be taken down. 

    One way to choose an editor is by their price.  For a first time writer somebody who charges a month salary is just not possible.  I'd suggest asking a few questions and gauging their responses as something you lean into or away from.  I could take on a couple projects this summer if anybody is so inclined.  Good luck!  Jeannie  [email protected]

  • Elizabeth Enslin

    Thanks, Rita and congratulations on your book launch in September. I'm so glad you found an editor who could understand the cultural dimensions of your story -- very important.

  • Rita Gardner

    Elizabeth: First off, congratulations on winning the Seal Press contest. That's fabulous.

    To your question about developmental editor, my book is being published by She Writes; I was put on the "track" that included working with a developmental editor.  I looked at the list of editors vetted by She Writes.  They all looked good, but I chose Liz Kracht, whom I thought might resonate with my memoir, "The Coconut Latitudes." Why?  My book is set in the Caribbean, and in Liz's profile, it indicated she'd spent time in Puerto Rico.  A loose connection, to be sure!  The good news was she was excellent, and tough, and caring and became fully engaged in the story and its success.  I was a bit concerned that my 300 page book was whittling itself down to more like a 210 page book by the end of the editing process - but Liz and I were both pleased with the results.  Am looking forward to my launch in September.

  • Elizabeth Enslin

    Mary, thanks for letting us know about the freelance editorial work you do. It's great to hear an editor's point of view.

    And thanks, Cheryl, for raving about your editor here. That's some high praise and a great recommendation.

  • Mary L. Holden

    Every writer who strives for publication should enjoy a good relationship with the editor of their choice for exactly the reasons Ms. Enslin described in her experience with an editor on contract. As a freelance editor, it is a privilege to work with writers in the realm of their creativity and my goal is to have them "know" their work even better than they did when they started out to write the story. The key word for those who self-publish is "choice." Ask for a sample edit (I still give them for free when I have time because I believe self-published writers should conserve money where possible; if I do not have time to give a sample due to current workload, I'm honest). The world will change for the better through the creative arts and editors get to play a little part in the "better!"

  • Cheryl Rice

    Thank you Elizabeth for giving me a forum to rave about the developmental editor I worked as I wrote my memoir (Where Have I Been All My Life? to be published this Fall by SWP!). Her name is Anne Dubuisson Anderson (www.anneconsults.com) I was not a professional writer. This was my first book. It was a labor of love but a labor none-the-less. Anne was the most perfect editorial mid-wife a newbie like me could ask for. She very quickly understood and helped shape the narrative arc of my story. She gave me feedback that was consistently useful and thoughtful even when it was tough. She sensitively coached me through the process of putting my truths on paper and scarier still - sharing them with key people in my life. Then she ably helped me determine my best option for publishing, and is still advising me as I put together my marketing and publicity strategy. Oh - and did I mention she is a delight to work with? Witty. Wise. Wonderful. My gratitude knows no bounds. If I write a second book it will be in part because I enjoyed our partnership so very much! 

  • Elizabeth Enslin

    Thanks for the recommendation on your editor, Thea. I agree on how hard it can be to see the forest for the trees (or vice versa) when you're deep into a piece of writing.

    And I love hearing more about your process as a manuscript consultant, Jessica. The more I follow this path toward publication, the more admiration I have for editors who do so much creative work behind the scenes.

    Yvonne: I believe she's a freelancer who works with various publishing houses. But since she's on contract to Seal, not me, I didn't feel it was my place to reveal her name without permission. I'll check with my editor at Seal and let you know.

  • Jessica Keener

    Lovely article, Elizabeth, especially what you said about your editor inspiring trust.  I think that is absolutely key to this kind of editorial process. As a manuscript consultant (with Grub Street and independently), I feel it is a privilege to work with someone's unfinished draft. At this unpolished stage, the writer is exposing herself, really putting herself on the line.  So, when I'm working with someone, I take each manuscript on its own terms, respecting whatever state it's in at that particular point in the process. Then I begin my own process of questioning so I can get at the heart of things.  What is the story trying to say and achieve? What's getting in the way of saying it best? Where are the strengths? Weaknesses? What's working? What's not, and why? Where does the writer feel blocked? Are there missing links and transitions? Does the writer have a sense of audience? I bring those fresh eyes to the manuscript and then it's a matter of finding the right balance of encouragement and analysis. My goal as a developmental editor is to energize the writer, give my client a feeling of confidence and faith and patience to stay the course. 

  • Yvonne M.Conde


    Does this editor work exclusively for Seal Press or does she freelance? if so, after such a glowig review, why not post her name?

  • Thea Constantine

    Thank You Elizabeth. This is a great piece. I really loved working with Jenn Springsteen from PDX Writers. I loved that she didn't try to make it fit a 'marketing mold' but really took time to find out what I was trying to do and make that vision strong and tight.

    It's true that after a while I couldn't 'see' my work--truly--forest for the trees. A good editor really helps with that.