Panel on Custodial Parenting: The Work of a Developmental Editor
Forum organized by John Bergez
A diverse panel of highly experienced developmental editors met at our February forum to discuss the various roles of a developmental editor, what it takes to do the work, and how they define success. The panelists included John Bergez, freelance developmental editor and founding member of Bay Area Editors' Forum; Jeanne Woodward, a developmental editor for Apple's technical communications division and BAEF member; Byron Schneider, senior developmental editor for Jossey-Bass's business and management series; and Anna Lustig, a developmental editor for Cengage Learning.
The panelists agreed that the primary skill of a developmental editor is empathy, both for an author's (or publisher's) vision for the book and for what an audience needs and wants. According to Bergez, "You have to be a chameleon and take on the color of whatever is required to mediate the communication that's going on." This idea is especially true for Bergez, whose freelance work has him editing anything from a history book for third-graders to books for a business audience.
Another important tool for the developmental editor's toolbox is a commitment to defining and adhering to the editorial vision of the work. Bergez defined this as pragmatic idealism. "Copyeditors are working with what exists [the text], while developmental editors have to work with what doesn't exist. Therefore, it's important to define the vision of the book right at the beginning." Bergez said he often writes a vision statement as the first step in the process, or he asks the author to do it. He also asks the author to write a paragraph describing the book's audience. This ensures that the team always has a touchstone to measure progress throughout the project. Having a clear vision statement and understanding the audience both help to diffuse conflict. Bergez said, "This allows you to move the conversation from 'what I think would be good' to 'what I understand the editorial goals are' or 'what I understand the audience wants.' You center on the audience, not an adversarial situation between you and the author."
As in-house developmental editors, Schneider and Lusting hire freelancers on projects, and each said they look for editors who can provide a full range of services to the author and publisher. Some of these key skills include experience and enthusiasm in the specific subject matter of their books; emotional intelligence and diplomacy; and the ability to work on multiple levels, from copyediting to ghostwriting. They also want editors who charge reasonable rates--in the neighborhood of $70 an hour.
Developmental editors have several different ways of defining success, but one common thread from the panelists was positive feedback. Woodward said that she considers it a win when the documents she edits get positive comments from users on Apple's Web site. On the personal side, she said she also enjoys receiving positive responses from the writers she works with. "I know I've gained their trust when I get comments like 'I really like your comments on chapter five,' or 'I've redone the section based on what you suggested, and it flows much better.'"
Similarly, Lustig said she feels she has succeeded when she hears back from students who are reading and working with the material she helps to produce. "Sometimes when I get bogged down in the nitty-gritty details of editing a book, I know that the work I'm doing will help a student learn more effectively, and it's really gratifying when I get emails saying, 'This book is great; it really helped me.'"
For Bergez, the most gratifying part of his work as a developmental editor is being the catalyst for getting the best work out of an author. He recalled working on a psychology textbook that was behind schedule; he was waiting on the author's revisions to a chapter. Because the project was so late, Bergez felt it was best to hold back on what he honestly thought--it was the author's weakest chapter--and instead provided the necessary advice for a minimum threshold of acceptability. When the revised chapter finally came in, it was, in Bergez's words, "gold." Attached to the manuscript was a note that simply said: "Dear John, I heard what you didn't say."
The process of publishing a book is sometimes compared to giving birth, with the developmental editor in the role of midwife. But if the author and publisher are the parents, then perhaps, in the words of one of the panelists, the developmental editor functions more as a custodial parent--one who is charged with guarding and ensuring the successful realization of the book's editorial vision and purpose.
Micah Standley is the associate editor of artistic publications for San Francisco Opera. He has written and edited for projects ranging from music and opera to veterinary medicine and quilting. He is also a freelance musician.