What does a developmental editor do?

So you’ve finished writing your manuscript and you’ve decided that developmental editing is the next step. But what exactly does a developmental editor do and how can they help you to move your manuscript forward?

The right developmental editor is a crucial partner who can assess where your manuscript is now, understand where you want it to be, and help you bridge the gap. They will work with you to strategise and problem-solve. They will help you to convey your message in the best way possible and ensure your intended audience’s needs are met.

But developmental editors can operate quite differently, so it’s important to understand what you’re getting from the service. Here I’ll use the example of what I do as a developmental editor of non-fiction specialising in business, charity and how-to books, reports and other documents. Note that some editors get involved during the writing process, acting more like coaches. Others act more like ghostwriters. Some will help you find your market niche and strategise commercially. None of these is me – I get involved once there is a reasonably full draft (even if it’s messy) and I leave the commercial side of things to others.

If you’re not sure you need a developmental editor yet, check out my post here, which contains a handy flowchart that walks you through the various editorial stages.

Open book with pages flying away into the distance

How does developmental editing fit into the editorial workflow?

The traditional editorial workflow has three major stages – developmental editing, copyediting and proofreading – and there are sound reasons that this split evolved. There is no point tackling the details (copyediting and proofreading) before you’ve addressed the wider questions (developmental editing). It would be like trying to build a house without a proper foundation: you’ll likely manage to erect some sort of structure, but it will be unstable and at some point it will come crashing down.

This traditional split is shown in the top half of the infographic below:

Two bars showing possible workflows for what a developmental editor does. 'Macro (structure)' is on the left outside the bars and 'Micro (details)' on the right outside the bars. The top bar is headed 'Traditional editorial workflow' and the bottom is headed 'Alternative editorial workflow'. The traditional workflow is split into '1 Developmental editing', '2 Copyediting' and '3 Proofreading'. The alternative workflow is split into '1 Developmental editing + line editing' and '2 Proof-editing'.

But the traditional three stages aren’t the only way of breaking up the editorial workflow. I’ve found that my clients tend to prefer a two-stage process, as reflected in the second half of the infographic above. In this process, developmental editing is followed by a process called ‘line editing’, which can be defined in various ways but is essentially a heavy copyedit (again, you can find more detail in my post on the various editing types).

The alternative workflow above is how I split up my core editorial services:

  • My Full Edit service delivers a combination of developmental editing, line editing and copyediting, as required. By grouping these services together, I am able to simply recommend a package of editing based on a discussion with my clients of their needs, rather than my clients needing to worry about what exactly each type of editing entails.
  • My Final Eyes service offers a blend of copyediting and proofreading. It can pick up where another editor has left off after stage 1 of the alternative workflow, or it can deliver stage 3 of the traditional workflow.

It’s important to understand that a developmental edit will not result in a finalised text in either of the workflows. After your developmental edit, you will need to arrange for a comprehensive proofread, at the very least. This stage should look in detail at stylistic consistency (e.g. spelling, hyphenation and punctuation) and provide a final check for sense, clarity and (if relevant) layout. Where appropriate, I always advise my clients on what I recommend they do next and can suggest other suitable professionals where required (while one editor can do the whole process, it’s usually better if they don’t, because they will become too familiar with the text and start to lose the critical ‘edge’ that a fresh pair of eyes provides).

What does a developmental editor do?

So, now that we understand where a developmental editor’s work sits within the editorial process, what does the editor actually do?

Developmental editors will generally start with the macro and then do multiple passes through the text, each time getting more micro in focus. Typically, as part of my Full Edit service (again, this is stage 1 of the alternative workflow above), I’ll do three major passes through the text:

  1. I’ll read through the whole manuscript, making notes on the structure and any recurring or particularly important issues. This stage is essentially like a manuscript critique and the process can stop there, accompanied by a report (often called an editorial letter) on my findings. Or, if I’ve been commissioned to provide a full developmental edit, I’ll raise a set of initial queries to establish some basics about the overall approach and your preferences.
  2. Next, armed with responses to those queries, I’ll embark on a thorough structural edit. I’ll mostly still be working at the macro level (for example, revising the headings), but I’ll also be looking out for more detailed issues that might affect the structure or the overall flow. This stage will produce a further round of queries for you to answer.
  3. Next I’ll get into the details of the text. This is the most micro level of a developmental edit. Here I’ll be looking in more depth at how paragraphs flow together, the tone of the text, the word choices, the clarity of each sentence and so on. Again (you guessed it!), I’ll have a set of queries for you at the end of this stage.

During each of these three passes, I’ll be considering the following seven aspects. In some cases I may not need to make changes if you’ve already comprehensively considered each area and tailored your text appropriately. But I will still consider all of the areas and recommend changes where appropriate.

The audience and the problem

The first thing I want to know as your developmental editor is who you are writing for. This means establishing the answers to questions such as:

  • Are they a niche collection of people or a broad population?
  • What level of experience do they have with your topic?
  • How will they use your publication?
  • How will it relate to other similar publications they might have read?

This leads on to another crucial question: what problem(s) is your text aiming to solve? Any publication needs to have a clear vision of who it is talking to and what those people want from the publication. For example, a business book might seek to offer solutions to the problem of how to prevent employee burnout. Or a charity publication might aim to help readers understand how they can support a specific fundraising campaign. Without a clear understanding of the readership and why they will pick up the publication, a text is likely to flounder and lack a clear focus.

This is the burning centre of the manuscript – its whole reason for being.


Once we have clarified who you are talking to, we can think about how to talk to them. This involves considering another set of questions, such as:

  • What reading level is the audience expected to have?
  • What level of formality is appropriate?
  • Is any specific terminology expected or to be avoided?
  • What kind of relationship are you aiming to establish with your readers? For example, should your publication inform, instruct, encourage, comfort, inspire or energise (or any combination of these)?

Considering these questions will help to determine the authorial voice of your publication, so we can ensure it has a consistent approach throughout.


This involves addressing questions such as:

  • How will your publication be subdivided into sections, chapters and/or parts?
  • How will the headings function?
  • Will each portion be structured in a specific way or will the text be more fluid?
  • Are the sections and paragraphs ordered in such a way as to unfold logically and helpfully for the reader?

Only once these questions have been addressed can you be sure that a manuscript is sound and fit for purpose.

Figures, tables, boxes, etc.

Figures, tables, boxes and other elements (often called ‘assets’) outside the main body of the text can help to bring a publication alive. They can provide extra depth for the reader and present complex concepts in an easy-to-understand format. Questions here include:

  • What extra elements will the manuscript have?
  • How will they be presented?
  • How will they support the text?
  • Are they consistently spread across the manuscript?


This can be a big topic and it’s one my clients often particularly seek help with. It’s important to credit other thinkers’ and writers’ ideas if you have built upon them or quoted from them, but there is no single way to do this. Questions I’ll consider include:

  • Will the readership actively use the references or will they mostly be present as a formality (to give due credit)?
  • Will the readership expect a specific reference style?
  • Should there be a separate list of further reading?

A developmental editor can help you to consider the wide range of possibilities and decide what’s most appropriate for your publication.

Permissions (copyright)

Permissions are related to referencing but distinct from them. Sometimes you’ll need permission to quote from another publication but you may also need permission to reproduce other people’s images, data, lyrics and other intellectual property.

I am trained by the Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading in copyright issues, and I can advise you on when permissions might be needed. The Society of Authors also has a useful guide to when permissions are required.


It’s no coincidence that the words – by which I mean the sentences and paragraphs that make up your text – come last in this sequence. As I mentioned above, it’s vital to get the structure of your manuscript right before we start to worry about the details.

At this stage I will look at whether individual sentences are as clear as possible and which spelling, hyphenation and punctuation styles to use. My goal at this stage is get your manuscript to the point where it reads well and has all significant points of clarity and sense resolved, so that it only needs a final (if thorough) check by a proofreader or proof-editor.

A good developmental editing partnership is a powerful thing. I love the process of helping an author tease out the very best possible version of their manuscript – one that will solve their reader’s problem and showcase whatever message drove them to sit down to write.

It’s important to be sure the person you’re hiring offers the kind of developmental editing you’re looking for. Get in touch if you’re interested in discussing how I can help to find the burning centre of your manuscript and make it shine for your audience.

About Hazel Bird

Hazel delivers editorial services that empower non-profits, charities, businesses and authors to confidently share their expertise and impact. An editor since 2009, she aims to see the big picture while pinpointing every detail. She has been described as ‘superhuman’ and a ‘secret weapon', but until Tony Stark comes calling she's dedicating her superpowers to text-based endeavours.

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