What to look for in a developmental editor

A couple years ago, I published a Medium post outlining 8 Signs You Need a Developmental Editor for Your Academic Book. At the end of that post, I promised a future post that would cover what else to look for in a good developmental editor and how to find one who’s right for your project. Well, it took me a while, but here’s that post!

The profile of scholarly developmental editing has risen a lot over the past several years. Many more scholars are aware that developmental editing is a thing, and I’m happy to see many authors sharing that they have worked with developmental editors on their books. Once you’re sold on the idea of hiring a developmental editor to push your book manuscript (or book proposal or journal article) forward, you then have to find the actual person who is going to be a good match for your specific needs. There’s no central directory of all academic developmental editors (though you might try the Editorial Freelancers Association to see if anyone registered there appeals to you). My first tip, then, is to start asking around in your networks about which editors people have worked with or heard good things about. You’ll probably shake out at least a few names that way.

If you have never worked with a developmental editor before, you may not be sure how to evaluate an editor you’re considering. My first stop would be the editor’s website, but you may also want to make an appointment to speak with the editor directly before you make a decision. Many editors offer free initial consultations, so you shouldn’t be shy about setting one up. Every author’s criteria will be personal, but I’ve got a few questions you can ask yourself as you research editors:

Do they have experience with manuscripts like the one you want to produce?
If you’re working on a book, you want an editor who knows how books are structured and how to solve common problems in book manuscripts. Ditto for journal articles and book proposals. The field you’re writing in matters as well; because writing and publishing conventions differ across academic fields, you’ll want someone who is intimately familiar with what is expected in your field.

“Experience” with manuscripts may come in a few forms. An editor might have a long track record of working with clients on similar manuscripts to the one you’re writing. Or they may have published books or articles of their own. Or they may have an advanced degree in your field, which would point to, at the very least, their having read a lot of published work of the kind you want to produce. Many developmental editors will tick all three of these boxes.

Do they have a track record of helping authors get published?
Not all editors publicize the projects they’ve worked on (I do because I’m very proud of them and my clients are cool with it), but they should at least be able to assure you that they know what it takes to get published at the kinds of places you want to get published. If you want to publish with a university press or academic journal, you may want to find an editor who has worked on the publishing side with one of those entities in the past.

Can they accommodate your timeline?
Many experienced developmental editors book up months in advance, especially for long projects like book manuscripts. If you need help now, you may want to narrow your search to people who are more flexible in their availability. Some editors will take jobs on short notice but charge a rush rate, which, if you have the money to throw at the problem, is a great way to get on someone’s schedule right away.

Can you afford them?
Developmental editors are professionals who charge for their time and expertise. So they don’t always come cheap. If you are on a tight budget, you may want to look for editors who are just starting out and hoping to build a portfolio (hopefully they have other kinds of experience that cause you to trust their advice). Not all editors post their rates publicly, but that’s something you should be able to ascertain with an email or initial consultation. While you may not be able to find out exactly how much your job will cost when it’s all said and done, the editor should at least be able to give you an estimate or range based on what your needs are. If you find an editor you love but you have budget concerns, you can mention what you’re working with to the editor. If I really want to work on a particular project, I will often find a way to alter the scope of my work or offer a different service that will align with the funds a client has available.

Do you like their vibe?
Editors have different personal styles (we’re human, so duh) and you might need to check out a few before you find one who just feels like the right fit. Some editors are very professional and direct, some are more warm and nurturing, some are quirky and awkward (just like a lot of writers out there). Because sharing your unpolished work with someone can put in you in a vulnerable emotional spot, you need to feel safe and with your editor. For some people, “safe” means “won’t sugarcoat their feedback,” while for others it means “will make sure to encourage me and keep my morale up” or “won’t judge me for being quirky and awkward myself.” No one style is better than another, it’s just a question of what you’re most comfortable with.

If you’re talking with an editor who doesn’t seem like quite the right fit, that’s ok. You can thank them for their time and move on. Many editors will be happy to provide referrals to their colleagues as well. If I can’t accommodate a prospective client’s timeline, budget, or disciplinary needs, I’m always eager to suggest an editor friend or two who I think might be a better match.

If think you may want to look for a developmental editor but you’re not sure when you’ll need them, my advice is to start looking now. The editor you want may need several months’ notice to get you on their schedule. This post may help you too: When to Bring in a Developmental Editor on Your Academic Book Project.

Any questions about finding a developmental editor that I didn’t answer here? Shoot me an email and I’ll try to help!


A brief reminder that I will be in Honolulu at the same time as the American Studies Association conference next month and I’m setting up in-person Quick Proposal Evals while I’m there. I have a couple spots left for the afternoon of November 8th, so please reach out if you’d like to get on the schedule!