developmental editing. Editorial intervention, usually at an early stage, to help the author with structure, substance, or other fundamental elements of a manuscript. Compare with copyediting and line editing.”

Peter Ginna, What Editors Do, p. 278

The Center for Engaged Learning produces two book series on engaged learning and teaching – one in partnership with Stylus Publishing and one that’s open access and supports books that experiment with genre or medium in ways that take advantage of an online format. In both series, Peter Felten and I offer developmental editing on manuscript drafts — at least once in the book’s timeline — to help authors anticipate and address their readers’ needs. As series editors, we want authors to achieve the goals they’ve articulated for their publications and to reach a broad audience who can act on or respond to the book’s content.

Nancy Miller describes this work as getting “the ‘bones’ of the book in their proper shape” (2017, p. 61). She continues, “A nonfiction book has to have an engaging core idea, a framework that makes sense, a well-shaped argument. But at its most basic, a book has to have a reason to exist — and it’s the editor’s job to make sure that reason is evident to the reader on every page” (Miller 2017, p. 61).

To fulfill that job, Peter and I usually work with print copies of a manuscript, writing comments in the margins and flagging pages with sticky notes. As we read, we channel the lens of series’ readers…

  • noting where the organization creates confusion,
  • identifying where we need more evidence in support of claims or examples to illustrate ideas,
  • considering whether the author has engaged prior work by diverse scholars,
  • prompting authors to revisit their language choices for clarity and consistency across chapters, and
  • asking questions about the author’s purpose when sections seem to stray from the book’s primary focus.

Because books in both our series have supplemental resources hosted on the Center’s website, I also read for content that might function more effectively as a supplemental resource. For example, if multiple case studies become repetitive in the main text, we can move some of the cases to the book’s website, where we also can experiment with multimedia representations of the information. Similarly, if the traditional layout of a book limits the potential of interactive content (e.g., sample worksheets), we can include a static example in the main text and offer an editable version as a supplemental resource.

What we aren’t doing at this stage is copyediting. First, we know that if we are asking for significant structural changes, those revisions likely also will impact sentence-level choices, so it would be premature for us to copyedit during developmental editing. Second, we are fortunate to work with a managing editor who is a skilled copyeditor; we trust her to catch mistakes — and to improve the readability of the text — when we ultimately accept the manuscript to move to production.

After Peter and I both have read the manuscript, we meet to discuss our notes, prioritizing our feedback based on our understanding of the author’s audience and their purpose for writing the text — two items we’ve negotiated with them as part of the book proposal process. Miller notes that “There’s a problem-solving aspect to the editing process that can feel almost like doing a crossword or jigsaw puzzle, complete with the satisfaction of seeing things ultimately fall into place” (2017, p. 61). Peter and I explore whether a suggestion to rearrange content will resolve a question we have about explaining a key term to readers, or whether moving content from a later chapter to the introduction will provide a stronger “hook” for readers, or whether moving an extended example from the proposed supplemental resources to the main text will help illustrate a complex theory.

We then write a letter to the author, describing what we see the manuscript accomplishing, comparing the text to the goals outlined in the book proposal, and suggesting higher-order revisions (e.g., reorganization, content development, etc.). (An aside: This feedback pattern also is helpful in teaching contexts.) We often attach an electronic copy of the text in which we’ve used comments to flag examples related to our summary comments. Because we’ve taken time to prioritize our feedback — and to piece together the jigsaw — we share only a fraction of the comments we’ve made while reading. After all, we’re not the author. We’re not revising the text. Instead, we’re helping the author consider how they can revise to most effectively engage their audience and achieve their purpose. To that end, we also draw attention to the strengths of the manuscript — the things that continue to excite us as we support the author’s efforts to go public with their work.

When we send authors our feedback, we also offer to meet with them via phone or web conference to help them process our feedback and to answer questions.

Writers invest not only their time but also pieces of their identities in their manuscripts, and I know from personal experience that receiving a robust set of feedback from a developmental editor can be emotionally draining, at least initially. Yet as an editor, I also know that comprehensive developmental feedback reflects an investment in the writer and a desire to see their work in print, where others can read and cite it. So when our authors receive our feedback, I hope they see our earnest effort to collaborate on (re)assembling the jigsaw so that they also experience the “satisfaction of seeing things ultimately fall into place” (Miller 2017, p. 61).

P.S. This post is part of CEL’s series on the process of academic book publishing. If you missed our earlier posts, check out my overview of the process for publishing a (SoTL) book, and Jennie Goforth’s explanation of what happens during copyediting.


  • Ginna, Peter. 2017. What Editors Do: The Art, Craft, & Business of Book Editing. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • Miller, Nancy S. 2017. “The Book’s Journey.” In What Editors Do: The Art, Craft, & Business of Book Editing, edited by Peter Ginna, 59-68. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Jessie L. Moore is Director of the Center for Engaged Learning and Professor of English: Professional Writing & Rhetoric. With Peter Felten, she edits the Stylus Publishing/Center for Engaged Learning Series on Engaged Learning and Teaching and the Center for Engaged Learning Open Access Series.

How to cite this post:

Moore, Jessie L. 2020, May 5. Academic book publishing: What happens during developmental editing? [Blog Post]. Retrieved from