Why You Need Developmental Editing Done on Your Nonfiction Book

by Bennett R. Coles

Developmental Editing

Developmental editing is important for all book genres, but it’s of critical importance for nonfiction titles. This is the type of editing that’ll make your book connect with your target audience in the most effective way. As an author, your perspective is biased since it’s difficult to keep from becoming your own reader. Therefore, you might fail to realize whether something that works for you will also work for members of your audience.

This is the area where developmental editors shine. They’ll help you engage with your target audience while also bringing out your author voice. In short, they’ll help you find success as a nonfiction author through a combination of audience connection, authentic writing, and compelling message delivery.

I’ll explain below what it is exactly that developmental editors will do for you.

What is Developmental Editing?

Whenever you think about editing, things like spelling, grammar and punctuation will probably come to mind first. This is the type of work that editors are typically known for. The text in a published book always has to be squeaky clean.

This is a role played by the copy editor, sometimes referred to as line editor. But while proper text makes for a clean book, it doesn’t necessarily make for a well-written one.

If your flow of ideas is confusing, if the arc of your book gets interrupted by sentences or paragraphs that seem to be out of place, if the reasoning in parts of your book is either too simplistic or too complex, then that’s where developmental editing comes in.

Basically, developmental editors take a 30,000 foot view of your book. For them it’s not as much about how you chose your words as it’s about the structure of your book and your overall message flow. The truth is that as the author of your book you’re automatically too close to it to be fully objective.

A developmental editor will help you gain perspective and show your what works, as well as what doesn’t work, from the standpoint of the reader. Then they’ll make suggestions on what needs to be done so that you can fix the problems. This feedback is provided through the following two mechanisms:

1- The Developmental Editor’s Letter

The developmental editor will first analyze your entire manuscript and write a letter where they’ll share their overall view of your book, and then go into more detail about what’s not working so that you can take corrective action. Sometimes they’ll suggest that you swap the order of chapters, sometimes they’ll suggest that you create a new chapter between two existing ones and sometimes they’ll suggest dropping a section entirely, if it doesn’t serve the book.

The goal of the editor’s letter is to give you actionable information about your book’s structure so that you can go back to the drafting board and re-work your manuscript to bring it into compliance with their suggestions. This process may need more than a single iteration in order to fulfill the spirit of the letter.

2- Editorial Commenting

The developmental editor will read the manuscript and write notes on the margins (making use of the “track-changes” feature in your work processor). These editorial comments will contain specific feedback about the page’s content and won’t go down to the word-editing level.

For example, they may suggest that you break a paragraph into two or that you add a sentence with new ideas if they feel that this addition is needed to make your message clearer.

Or they may suggest that you move some sentences to the end of the chapter if they’re bringing up conclusive thoughts too early. What they won’t do at this stage is to focus on piecemeal corrections to grammar, spelling and punctuation; that’s the job of the copy editor after developmental editing is completed.

There’s no point in focusing on copy editing when your book is in such a high level of flux, where many sections may soon disappear and many new ones be added.

Why Is Developmental Editing So Critical for Nonfiction Books?

Developmental editing is critical for nonfiction books because it’s the type of editing that focuses the most on your target audience and their needs. As the author, it’s easy for you to be captivated by your passion in your subject matter and therefore lose perspective on how your message will resonate with your audience.

Perhaps your messaging is too elevated for your audience’s current level of understanding. A developmental editor will make recommendations on how to break your message down into bite-sized chunks your audience can easily digest.

Also, they’ll make sure that your book is always attuned to WIIFM (“what’s in it for me”). Your best solution for your audience’s problems will fall on deaf ears if it’s not worded in a way that makes them care for it. As authors we get so engrossed with our solution and its potential to fix our audience’s problem that we often become overly technical or academic.

A developmental editor will help you find your authentic voice so that you can remain passionate about your subject matter while at the same time helping you serve your reader in a way that’s meaningful to them.

Where Do I Begin?

It depends on what stage you’re in your manuscript. If you’re in the idea formation stage, you’ll want to engage your developmental editor at this point in order to help you flesh out your main thesis.

They’ll become a great asset early on by ensuring that you’re standing on solid ground and that your book is structured to carry your message to your readers in the most effective way. If you’ve already completed your first draft by the time you read this article, then before you engage a developmental editor you’ll first need to execute an intermediate step, as shown below.

The Manuscript Evaluation

The manuscript evaluation is a shorter version of the editor’s letter. It’s a summary of the findings the developmental editor encounters when reading your draft manuscript. This evaluation will give you their general overview of your book from the standpoint of your readers and they’ll also use it to assess your manuscript for overall strengths and weaknesses.

Then the developmental editor will recommend the initial major corrective actions to take, so you can implement these changes at your end without incurring extra billable time too early in the process. Often times, authors will go back to work for a few weeks before the manuscript is ready for a full-on developmental editing pass.

Next Steps

Completing the developmental editing stage in your book project is a big task. It can be an emotional process, because you’ll have to learn to “kill your darlings.”

This is a phrase coined by Stephen King in his famous memoir for writers, meaning that if you fall in love with a section in your book that doesn’t fit the narrative, you’ll have to be able to put your ego aside and send it to the cutting-room floor if it doesn’t serve your book.

The developmental editing stage is also time consuming; this is not something that you can rush through. It requires your complete dedication to the ultimate goal of producing the best possible nonfiction work that you’re capable of.

But, this is also the most critical editorial stage for your book, because it’ll make the difference between a personal achievement that’ll be fully embraced by your audience and reviewers and a mediocre book that, while full of great ideas, is unable to communicate effectively.

When all is said and done, you’ll experience a deep sense of joy in knowing that your book will be truly of service to your audience in a way you never anticipated. I wish you all the best on your editorial journey!

If you enjoyed this article and are in the process of writing a nonfiction book, be sure to check out my free nonfiction success guide, drawn from years of experience editing books for bestselling authors (including a New York Times bestseller) and ghostwriting for CEOs and politicians. Simply click here to get instant access.


Leave me a comment below if you have any questions or a specific need that I can help you address – I operate an author services firm that specializes in helping entrepreneurs, professionals and business owners who want to publish books as a calling card for prospects, to establish their status as an expert or to just to generate additional leads for their businesses.

Here are some related posts I highly recommend:

Learn How to Write Nonfiction: 12 Tips From The Pros

How to Format a Manuscript Like A Pro

7 Simple Steps to Writing a Powerful Nonfiction Book

Bennett R. Coles is an award-winning author of six books published through Harper Collins (New York) and Titan Publishing Group (London). He is also the publisher at Promontory Press, editor for multiple bestselling authors (including a NY Times bestseller), ghostwriter for CEOs and politicians and the founder of Cascadia Author Services, a boutique full-service firm that specializes in premium author services specifically designed for busy professionals. Our end-to-end services include writer coaching, ghostwriting, editing, proofing, cover design, book layout, eBook production, marketing, printing and distribution.

3 responses to “Why You Need Developmental Editing Done on Your Nonfiction Book”

  1. Avatar
    Karl Miller

    I am a new author and I fully understand the amount of patience required for the developmental stages of editing, but I sent my editor my MS consisting of approx 175,000 words-this was 6 months ago and I don’t know if this is normal, if she’s slacking, or if I got ripped off being that I gave her $2,000.
    I was a carpenter from Chicago and have seen ALOT of shady deals and scams and don’t know if I’m just being paranoid or impatient.
    Should I ask her for a deadline date? Thank you

    1. Avatar
      Bennett R. Coles

      Hi Karl, thanks for your comment. Six months is definitely a long time to be waiting for an editor to respond. Your book is quite large so it’s fair to allow for a bit of extra time for feedback, but not six months! In my experience an editor shouldn’t need more than four weeks to turn around a first-pass edit. The $2000 price tag is reasonable, so no worries there, but you shouldn’t be waiting this long. You should definitely contact her and get a hard deadline. If she’s too busy with other projects to deal with yours in a timely fashion, I’d recommend getting your money back and finding another editor. There are lots of good editors who will turn your project around in a month or so.

      Ben Coles

  2. Avatar
    Bennett R Coles

    Hi Husna, thanks for your question. The main reason for developmental editing being more expensive that line or copy editing comes from the need to have a very experienced editor do the developmental editing. Line or copy editing focuses much more on the details (the words and paragraphs) whereas developmental editing steps back and examines the big picture. In order to do this well, an editor needs to have already worked on many, many books to develop an appreciation for understanding how the parts of a book go best together. In effect, when you hire a developmental editor you’re not just hiring their time to do the work – you’re hiring their years of experience. At Cascadia a developmental edit of a 40,000-word manuscript would cost $1960, which is very much within the industry norm.

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