8 Signs You Need a Developmental Editor for Your Academic Book

Back when I was revising my dissertation into an academic book, I’m pretty sure I had no idea that developmental editing was a thing. I thought everyone just fumbled their way through the process like I did, hoping to produce something that would resemble a decent book manuscript and make it through peer review. Sure, I had the help and support of my mentors, acquiring editor, series editors, reviewers, and colleagues, and my book was better for it. What I didn’t know was that there were dedicated, objective people who could help identify my dissertation’s problems with argument, structure, and tone, and zero in on the key intellectual contribution I wanted my book to make. Now that I work as one of those people — known as a developmental editor or DE — I’m obviously aware that many scholars (more savvy than I) actually employ people to do these things. I’ve learned that DEs aren’t just for revised dissertations either; even senior scholars (more of them than you might think) depend on freelance editors through all stages of their careers. So how do you know if you should find a DE for your current book project? Here are 8 signs to look for:

You’re the sort of person who feels you will be a burden to others if you ask colleagues to give up several hours of their time to read and comment on your entire book manuscript.

It me! I have a hard time asking for help, and, given the number of introverts in academia, I bet a lot of the people reading this do too. On top of that, the reality of the academic grind is that most of our friends and colleagues really don’t have many spare hours to spend doing favors, as much as they might like to. A DE is essentially someone you pay to be your helpful colleague for a few hours, weeks, or months. Our whole reason for existing is to give your work the time and attention it isn’t getting anywhere else. We read your book manuscript like it’s our job (it is), and give you expert feedback on what’s working and what isn’t.

Your colleagues have already been generous with their time as you’ve worked on the various bits and pieces of your manuscript.

If this is the case for you, I hope you treated them to several beers/coffees/burritos and promised to return the favor in kind. Yet they still might not be the best people to give you trustworthy feedback on the manuscript as a whole, for exactly the same reason that you yourself may not have good perspective on the manuscript as a whole. They’re already familiar with your research, your stylistic quirks, and what you ultimately want to say. That means they’ll be able to automatically fill in the blanks in the manuscript on their way to the big point. But you need to know where the blanks are because your readers will surely notice. A DE’s job is decidedly not to fill in the blanks; our job is to find the blanks and tell you all about them so that you can fix them. Your readers will appreciate it, I promise.

Your academic friends are too nice to tell it to you straight when your writing isn’t working.

May we all be lucky enough to have friends who think everything we do is brilliant and will always say so when we need a boost of confidence. I have these friends from grad school and I love them and they are absolutely crucial to my life but I don’t usually ask them to read my work. Actually, I take that back; if the stakes are low and I just need someone to say, “this isn’t embarrassing,” then I will ask those friends. But when the publication has real Career Implications™, friends are not the readers you are looking for. You need someone who will unflinchingly (while empathetically) point out what you need to fix, if the bar is at all higher than “not embarrassing.” And when it comes to the book you will be using to build your professional reputation or make your tenure case, the bar is definitely way higher.

You’ve gotten seemingly helpful comments on your work but little actionable advice.

Beta readers and peer reviewers are indispensable to the development of a manuscript because they can give you an indication of how certain audiences will react to the work in its current form. However, there’s a difference between reacting and editing. A DE acts as an advocate for a broad range of readers and as a kind of coach for the author. A skilled DE can read through the eyes of various audiences (say, undergraduates or people outside your discipline) and, crucially, give you practical pointers on how to reach those audiences when you’re not quite connecting. If your colleagues and peer reviewers are able to do these things for you, treasure them. If your reader reports come back saying things like, “the order of chapters is confusing” — with no further details or recommendations — it might be time to call for reinforcements.

You’re so tired of your topic, your research, or the sound of your own writing voice in your head that you can’t imagine trying to “tell a good story” on top of everything else.

Academic books take years to conceive, research, write, and revise, and that’s just to get to a first draft. If you’re at the point where you’ve completed a dissertation or a draft of a book, you probably need and deserve a rest. You are probably not eager to now contemplate the “narrative arc” of your book. Even if those two words don’t make you feel utterly exhausted, you might not be able to get far away enough from the material to see how to pull a reader through it in a logical and engaging way. Fortunately, this is what DEs live for. Picture it: you hand your draft over to someone else and take a vacation from thinking about it for a few weeks. Your DE comes back to you with a practical plan for rearranging the pieces into a compelling story. Sounds nice doesn’t it? A lot of my clients tell me that getting my feedback has actually made them excited to work on their books again. Hard to put a price on that feeling.

You’re feeling mystified or overwhelmed by the reader reports you’ve received.

If writing a book is like running a marathon, then getting confusing or demanding reader reports is like arriving at the finish line of the marathon only to be told that you got the race route wrong and you’ll need to run another ten miles in a different direction. Hiring a DE is like hopping on a GPS-guided scooter for the final stretch: you still have to cover the ground, but it’s going to be easier and faster and you’ll have a sense of direction while you do it. DEs have lots of experience decoding reader reports and making revision plans, so you’ll be in good hands as you produce your final, final, final, for-real-this-time draft.

The thought of giving an elevator pitch about your book project to an acquisitions editor or hiring committee makes your blood run cold.

It me again! I’ve always been awful at figuring out what is interesting or unique about my scholarship (and even worse at putting it concisely at a moment’s notice). It usually clicks for me when someone else, like a mentor or a peer reviewer who understands my field, articulates it. A DE can tell you, in a few sentences, what the big idea of your research project is. Sometimes they give you an elegant rephrasing of what you’ve said in your manuscript; more often they get to the kernel of truth you circled around for 200 pages but never quite stated outright. If, like me, you tend to go blank when someone important says, “tell me about your work,” just having those sentences at your disposal can feel like a life line.

You’re a perfectionist or imposter syndrome sufferer who just needs someone objective to tell you you’re doing well (or tell you exactly how to do better) before you can really let your work go.

I think you know where I’m going with this one. . . .

You have research or start-up funds from your institution that you need to spend on something before you lose them.

Ok, so the reality is that manuscript development isn’t going to come cheap. You’re hiring someone to pay very close attention to your entire book draft and then write up a practical plan for how to make it better, and that’s going to take them anywhere from ten to thirty hours, or more. On top of that, you’re ideally getting someone who has a PhD in a related subject area, has possibly written and published a book of their own, and maybe even has some experience working on the publishing side in some capacity. So you’re going to pay for those things too. The good news is that editing can often be paid for out of research or professional development funds. If you have those funds at your disposal, you might as well use them, right?

When you have to pay out of pocket, it’s a tougher call, for sure. But if a developmental edit is the difference between you finishing your book or not, publishing with your top press or not, getting a promotion or not, then it might just be worth the investment.


In a future post I’ll cover what else to look for in a good DE and how to find one who’s right for your project. In the meantime, if you think your manuscript might benefit from some developmental editing, feel free to get in touch. If I can’t help you, I’ll point you to someone who can!