Like any craft, developmental editing is aided, and sometimes limited, by the tools of its trade. As a freelance developmental editor, I use Google Docs, the MS Office Suite, and Adobe InDesign.
Although Docs is popular with my clients because of its promised collaborative potential, but its tools aren’t well suited to projects with a long timeline, or (to be honest) multiple readers. MS Word can also be maddening: Its nonembedded fonts, nonuniversal autoformatting features, and processing limitations on long docs with tracked changes can pose annoying obstacles to efficiency.
InDesign offers another programmatic tool, but it typically applies to typeset projects, or projects already subjected to interior layout design. It is seldom flexible or navigable enough for early-stage work, so while I work in InDesign, designers and proofreaders work there more frequently and efficiently.
Excel, on the other hand, is crucial for tracking word counts and other project details, and for informing client content-management platforms. I augment it with a trusty shareable, interactive calendar (Google or otherwise), and a synced cloud-based folder.
Developmental editors, freelance and otherwise, are like project managers. Both plan, facilitate, and manage execution, and both simultaneously attend to micro, macro, and meta perspectives. The right (or right-enough) tools make such attention possible.
Because developmental editing is a type of creative work, editors often take an idiosyncratic approach to their projects. But because developmental editing is also a type of project management, editors often take a systematic and regimented approach. In my work, creative and systemic come together in an intimate, but structured conversation.
Intimacy may sound like a strange word to use in reference to an argument-driven manuscript, but most authors are well aware that writing is a teeth-gnashing, garment-rending, hair-tearing effort. Good writing, even if it doesn’t inspire figurative violence, requires attention, care, and time. It therefore represents and reflects fundamental truths, maybe about the world at large, but most definitely about the world within the writer, and within their work.
A developmental editor extends the writer’s attention, care, and time—but they also stage an intervention. This is necessary because intimacy, while it brings us closer and more deeply into our work, narrows our field of vision. To make use of its potential value, we must adopt the meta-perspective that enables us to see both the benefits and the drawbacks of closeness.
Helping writers acquire this perspective is the developmental editor’s job. We insert ourselves into an extant intimate conversation, using tools to structure the intimacy and make it more meaningful.
If my skill set doesn’t fit an author’s needs—if they seek a simple proofread or have a too-tight timeline, for example—I encourage them to visit the Editorial Freelancers Association job board (and I wish them luck wading through the reams of responses they’ll most definitely receive).
Other times, however, if the fit feels right, our conversation becomes much more interesting.
Indeed, in some ways, a developmental edit is just an intense, ongoing conversation consisting of three intertwined dialogues: between the author and me, between the author and their manuscript, and between their manuscript and me.
I therefore ask authors to articulate their extratextual focus by providing answers or even ruminations to questions such as the following: What is their message? Who wants or needs to hear it? Why does this audience want or need to hear it, and what will they gain from it? What does the author want out of the book publication process (in terms of number of books sold, but also in terms of legacy)? How do they want to be introduced to others five years from now?
Once I understand their answers, I open a conversation with their manuscript.
Like other Minnesotans, I am not as much out in the world these days. When I venture into public, it’s to run necessary errands, where masks make idle chit-chat feel positively furtive.
Now, when I’m asked what it is, exactly, I do, I’m describing my services–their use and their potential value–over the phone to prospective clients. Typically, I’m describing developmental editing, my most popular service for writers and publishers.
A developmental editor is a big-picture editor who helps strengthen a manuscript’s focus and structure. Most developmental editors (or at least this one) offer hands-on substantive support, including reverse outlines, sample sentences and paragraphs, and quick-and-dirty lessons on grammar or syntax.
My developmental work is informed by a bifurcated sense of focus, in both textual and extratextual terms. Textual focus refers, of course, to the clarity and persistence of subject-specific investigation. For example, if I’m working with a self-help or how-to book, I’m assessing it for focus on a clear, replicable process.
Extratextual refers to something a bit different, but something that often proves crucial to the success of a final project: This is the triangulation of a writer’s message, audience, and goals.
Frequently, when a book lacks textual focus, the blurred lines are a consequence of a lack of extratextual lucidity. Accordingly, my developmental services frequently begin with a series of phone calls to discuss a writer’s sense of alignment among message, audience, and goal.
These conversations are always enlightening, and by capturing a writer’s rhythm and cadence, they invaluably inform developmental work. They also set in motion the deeper, more intense, and ongoing conversation that constitutes a major part of the developmental edit.
What does it mean to work as though we live in the days of a better civilization? Although frequently attributed to Alasdair Gray (despite his disavowal), the line belongs to Gray’s contemporary, Canadian Dennis Lee.
And best of all is finding a place to be in the early days of a better civilization For we are a conquered nation: sea to sea we bartered everything that counts, till we have nothing to lose but our forebears’ will to lose. But what good is that in a nation of losers and quislings
Although Lee’s early work denounced Canada’s colonial complicity and earned him the Governor General’s award in 1972, he is better known for his children’s poetry. In fact, his poetry was a favorite of engineering professor Deb Chachra, who recently namechecked Lee in Metafoundry, her newsletter on the nexus of infrastructure, engineering, art, and individuals.
In issue 73: Our Cyborg Collective Body, Ourselves, Chachra invokes the slow-burning apocalypse in William Gibson’s scifi novels (specifically, The Peripheral and Agency) to describe the current COVID crisis. She then cites Lee’s poetic injunction, calling on us to imagine a systemic, collective response.
What would it look like, after all, to build an infrastructure fit to serve a better civilization?
According to Paul Graham Raven, infrastructure is a “tool,” “an extension of baseline human abilities.” It’s a systematized technical augmentation–but with a biological input (us!).
In the context of COVID, we know our bodies have needs that manifest individually but must be met collectively: We become infectiously ill individuals, sometimes so ill we must be isolated from the collective to be cared for by the collective before returning to the collective. Needs like these are met (or not) through infrastructural responses, such as public health (but also public education).
Yet, to build tools to meet the needs of a better civilization, we must not only identify needs that have not yet been met, but also determine those needs that have not yet been recognized as the responsibility of the collective.
In Sexuality for All Abilities, Katie Thune and I argue that there is an individual and acollective need for comprehensive sex education for young people in the special education classroom. While writing this book will not determine a better civilization, arguing for recognition of a collectively solvable problem may help hasten its arrival.
Way back in January of 2018, on my negligible commute, I tuned in to Minneapolis Public Radio for the local angle on NPR’s special series, “Abused and Betrayed.”
The conversation was guided by Marianne Combs and focused on the silent epidemic of sexual abuse among people with intellectual disabilities. Combs was joined by NPR correspondent and special-series investigator Joseph Shapiro, sexuality educator Katie Thune, and attorney Patrick Noaker to discuss the Minnesotan context of this national problem and respond to listeners’ phone calls.
The guests’ words were incredibly powerful, but my driveway moment was attributable to the anguish expressed by the parents and caregivers who called in to discuss the abuse sustained by their loved ones with disabilities.
Particularly memorable–and devastating–was the voice of an elderly woman who talked about the exploitation of her adult son. She recounted a situation that occurred years ago, when a powerful man in the community approached her young adult son with a sexual proposition. Her son has a traumatic brain injury: He lives independently, but he has limited cognition and social awareness and can be easy to confuse. The powerful man preyed on this vulnerability, framing his proposition as an arrangement that would help powerful man “relieve stress” and “do his job better.” Her son ultimately agreed, believing his actions were necessary and that he would be paid for them.
A few years later, the man died. When her son learned of the man’s death, he explained to his mom that he would be inheriting money, and why. She was of course shocked and furious, but what followed was even worse: When her son didn’t receive his money, he couldn’t understand why and accused his mother and siblings of stealing it.
We created this book to give educators and others the tools and confidence required to teach topics in comprehensive sex education in the context of special education. In it, we draw on the expertise of educators, the experience of teachers, the stories of parents and caregivers, and the words of people with disabilities to inform lessons on healthy relationships, public and private spaces and behaviors, consent, hygiene, and other important topics necessary to living an informed life.
The book is a useful resource in and out of the classroom, but it’s also a contribution to the better civilization we strive to build—a civilization in which we acknowledge a wide range of individuals with varying abilities, and in which we seek to supply the education necessary to live as fully, safely, and with as much autonomy and pleasure as possible.
During the Trump presidency, writers in various pursuits have often felt a professional obligation to call attention to or criticize the administration’s flagrant use of rhetoric to foster cruelty and perpetuate a fantasy of violence. The fantasy, what 50 years ago literary critic Richard Slotkin described as germane to “American mythogenesis,” imagines a nation “tor[n] violently from the implacable and opulent wilderness.” It helps code potential administrative action as valiant, while soliciting heroism from readers who can ascend from the rank-and-file to warriors in the life-threatening context of American life.
On the one hand, it’s just words.
On the other, it’s not.
Trump recently tweeted another contribution to the annals of his fantasy in response to the Supreme Court’s 5-4 DACA ruling. The majority decision, penned by Bush appointee, John Roberts, called the federal administration’s decision to terminate DACA “arbitrary and capricious,” noting it failed to provide adequate information that “policy concerns outweigh[ed] reliance interests.” Dreamers were consequently granted temporary reprieve.
The aggressive language casts the decision as murderous, and its violent imagery helps facilitate the Manichean worldview on which fascism depends. It’s us against them, Trump warns, by any means necessary. Here, fascism’s nationalists are redefined as an army of warriors who, because they face the life-endangering threat of political opposition, are freed from the rules governing shared reality.
The fantasy of violence is effective in part because it activates a superficial imitation of the limbic system’s flight-or-flight trap. Its efficacy is activated by defining a threat to life that justifies any retaliatory action, even if unreasonable or illogical.
It’s not surprising that a fantasy of violence bolsters a federal policy apparently informed by white supremacy. But it’s important to recognize its degradation of the shared reality on which we depend. It’s also important to note that it’s the same fantasy informing the “warrior worldview,” which, propagated through rhetoric, fosters systemic division through perpetual distortion.
Authors for whom a digital first impression feels uncomfortably distant can take refuge in the etymology of digital in “finger’s breadth” (and in the inherent ambiguity of every impression).
According to ZG Communications, a Canadian-based marketing agency, authors, publishers, marketers, booksellers, book buyers, and anyone associated with writing, making, selling, buying, and reading books must be especially agile in adopting (and adapting) digital-first branding strategies.
The American Booksellers Association (ABA) echoes the suggestion. In Action Items for Authors, ABA instructs authors to work with local booksellers to create virtual story time, livestream readings, conduct Skype- or Zoom-based conversations, or offer Twitter-based AMAs.
It isn’t clear how the pandemic and potential bookstore closures will redefine bookselling or buying. But the general, newly narrowed focus on establishing, maintaining, and building a digital presence will broadly impact the industry.
Publishers Weekly, for example, has responded to COVID closures with a virtual handselling campaign. The effort, designed to give booksellers an opportunity to introduce books published during the pandemic, works to replicate the bookstore customer’s happenstance purchases.
Its reach is necessarily limited and not yet tested, but the campaign nonetheless introduces new and old readers to books they might not have otherwise encountered. Consequently, it gestures to the intimacy available via digital strategies. For authors, in particular, such strategies can offer readers the realness of apparently unfiltered immediacy—sometimes by simply providing glimpses into authors’ private lives.
While authors may have little control over the future of the industry, they can certainly use their platform to more intimately communicate with potential readers. Authors who build platforms featuring virtual events (or events that easily adapt to virtual venues), for example, will be better positioned to reach a variety of readers in the future, regardless of the future’s particulars.
This is true for unpublished authors or authors with a work in progress, as well. These authors can create digital-first platforms that deliver reader-responsive expertise through webinars, lecture-led discussions, Q&As, specialty training sessions, or anything else their audience might like to access.
Simply put, when a digital impression is the only impression, it’s the only impression that matters.
An author platform houses the various inputs by which you define yourself as an author and express and communicate your message to potential readers. A platform is a point of connection (usually several points of connection) between you and the readers who want to know more about you, your expertise, and your various projects.
For most authors, an author platform is made up of a relevant handful of the following: a website, a Twitter profile, a Facebook page, a newsletter, and podcast appearances, speaking gigs, and writing–or writing adjacent–projects.
Nonfiction writers should view an author platform as a helpful aid to securing publisher interest. The platform testifies to an author’s ability to produce work that resonates with readers. It also suggests the presence of readers ready to purchase the work. This is important because, as McKean argues, a platform “is there to sell books.”
Despite this, nonfiction authors can and should begin to build their platform while in book development. You may feel ill-equipped to build a platform before your book is finished, or you may fear that sharing too much of your project will dilute its power. However, creating connections with interested audiences takes effort, and effort takes time. Your audience can provide essential insight into what work resonates and with which audience members. Further, the mere presence of an interested audience can prompt production.
The work of building an author platform may initially feel arduous, but it builds its own momentum. Overlook its jargon-adjacent phrasing, and consider it an instrumental part of the author process.
It’s Earth Day, which means Transform Yourself with Climate Truth, my book with Margaret Klein Salamon, is now available from New Society! But because we’re quarantined in a pandemic while radical pro-gun extremists bully nurses, doctors, and state governments to sacrifice the weak—as if that’s a meaningful solution to the precarious futures of important industries (like publishing)—it’s a muted celebration.
Earth Day was established in 1970 on the presumption that Americans deeply cared about the environmental damage wreaked by industrial development. Bipartisan, cross-generational, and cross-class supporters verified this belief, publicly recognizing our fundamental human reliance on a healthy environment for sustenance.
Although the recognition is often collapsed into a niche interest in “environmentalism,” it’s an extension of fact: We can’t bear children, raise children, be children, grow into adults, or function as adults without the benefit of clean air, good food, and drinkable water. This is the requirement of every member of our species, whether or not we care about sustaining the planet beyond our mere survival.
Today, care—such a crucial requirement for change—feels like a scarce resource. Callous examples of leadership reinforce the sense of finitude: Trump’s pride in his antipathy seems to inspire those who enjoy participating in a rigid Darwinian contest where every resource is limited. In this game, sacrificing the weak is the only available strategy for defining the strong.
Then, of course, there are those who must attend to so many pressures from so many sides that care can only be parceled out on an as-needed basis. COVID-19 has simply made manifest this pressure: Who can care about anything else when a minimum of 45,000 Americans are dead and 22 million Americans are unemployed?
When care is considered finite—whether because it serves “the strong” or preserves “the weak”—it can be utilized only as an aid to survival.
Yet care is not essentially limited. In Transform Yourself with Climate Truth, Margaret argues that our environment is essential to our practical and spiritual lives, and we must care enough about it to prioritize its preservation. It’s not just a practical decision; it’s also an emotional one. The book guides readers to welcome the pain contingent on caring, because, by welcoming the pain, we can expand our capacity to care.
Margaret is a psychologist, and she knows from personal and professional experience that caring can hurt. In fact, to care is rooted in Germanic Old English to sorrow or to grieve. While our desire to avoid pain is natural, it is not possible. And because it limits our ability to feel and thus to empathize, it should not be desirable. Pain is a part of life, sometimes a very big part of life: When we learn not just to withstand that pain but to welcome it, we become truly strong because we become capable of infinite care.