A Dev Editing Handbook with Novelistic Empathy


By Matthew Bennett

In anticipation of our upcoming November 12 member meeting on developmental editing, let’s review a book that’s an inspiring and comprehensive introduction to the craft of “dev editing,” my own preferred corner of the craft.

Imagine for a moment you’re an editor in a publishing house, perhaps one of the local presses like Wave Books in Seattle. As you sip your morning coffee, two of your colleagues (frazzled editors in their own right) collide in the hall and mix up their manuscripts.

One of these manuscripts is a sly and meticulous instruction manual on the craft of developmental editing. The other is a novel about books, a story driven by conflict and (sometimes) resolution between editors, writers, and publishers. To aid your colleagues, you accidentally shuffle several chapters of each book into the other like a poker dealer with a stack of cards. One would expect the new hybrid manuscript to bewilder the narrative, but the shuffled whole catalyzes so harmoniously that the publisher rejoices in the happy accident. This resulting book is Scott Norton’s Developmental Editing: A Handbook for Freelancers, Authors, and Publishers (Chicago, 2009).

Norton divides his guide into ten chapters, each describing developmental editing processes and tools, on the one hand, and a fictionalized editing project, on the other. These fictional sections address several aspects of developmental editing by dramatizing a problematic writer-editor relationship, such as an uncompromising writer with a manuscript lacking a concept. To teach the interested writer or editor, Norton creates problems in the novelistic sections that he resolves in the guidance sections.

Norton begins with the foundation of any successful editing relationship: to “engage in sustained acts of two-way empathy—toward … authors and their prospective readers.” For the writer, the craft of fiction demands a keenly developed empathetic imagination. For the dev editor as well, robust empathy is necessary for both the writer and their potential audience. Combining his own empathy with a mania for outlining, Norton humorously delivers his lessons for improving troubled manuscripts while encouraging an amicable working relationship between writer and editor.

There is a wide variety of editing techniques in Developmental Editing, as well as endearing character studies and even views on the publishing industry, but for the sake of brevity I’ll focus on only one section as exemplary of the whole.

In chapter two of Developmental Editing we encounter the zombie manuscript: a shambling text that resembles a book and yet has no soul. Here Norton discusses the problem of a manuscript lacking a core concept, and he plops this text down between a first-time author, a New York trade publisher, and a freelance editor. For Norton, a subject is simply a topic that guides a particular discussion, while a concept is something larger, what we might refer to as a position or “an author’s special take on a subject.”

Here is Norton’s editing process in a nutshell: interview the writer, read the manuscript deeply (twice is best!), take notes, categorize subjects, synthesize these categories, and finally raise one subject to the level of concept.

Here’s the same editing process in fine-grained detail. When a manuscript has too many subjects and no concept, Norton recommends the editor begin by interviewing both the author (assessing desired impact) and the publisher (assessing content preferences). The reading task then begins, and the editor jots down the location of each new subject change and includes a shorthand description. These notes form the basis of an outline, which the editor constructs by categorizing and combining the subjects into groups. Finally, the editor selects the main subject and “transmutes” it into a concept, or the guiding idea for the book itself.

The main subject, the one that the writer returns to often enough to organize the larger narrative, may be raised to the level of concept through a meticulous recording of the transitions between subjects, a process that (with a little luck) reveals the writer’s unspoken position. By creating a concept from a subject, the editor may, with the assistance and approval of the writer and publisher, reorganize the manuscript for clarity, impact, and appeal.

And this complex and demanding task is what an editor means when they say they are “in the weeds.”

If you want to make a book, you won’t find a better bird’s-eye view for improving argument and focus while respecting the taste and sensibilities of those involved. Norton’s guide is unlike other traditional editing handbooks, such as Einsohn’s Copyeditor’s Handbook. It approaches the revision of the “manuscript’s discourse” by recognizing the inherent empathetic connections between writer, editor, and publisher necessary to get a good book to print. Norton’s Developmental Editing is not only the best introduction to the dev editing craft, it is also the most ambitious. By embedding his advice within plots, characters, and settings, Norton offers an impressively memorable and gratifying primer for developing book-length manuscripts.

Matt Bennett is the Guild’s current vice president of Member Services and chair of the Programming committee. He began editing in 2008 at Ronsdale Press, where he shepherded documents from submission to final print and served as editor for publications such as Sheila James’s In the Wake of Loss (2009). He later acted as a freelance copyeditor for academic monographs, such as Nicholas Hudson’s A Political Biography of Samuel Johnson (Pickering & Chatto, 2013). His recent editing work is largely developmental and includes novels and short stories, master’s theses and doctoral dissertations. He is the co-founder of Cascadia Editors Collective, an organization of professional editors based primarily in Seattle, WA, and Vancouver, BC.

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