Sometimes, authors seek editorial work for a manuscript that isn’t yet ready for the editing stage. (And oftentimes, authors are surprised to hear this feedback.) But what if your manuscript is underbaked (or unformed or underdeveloped)? What can you do to prepare your manuscript for eventual publication?
If your manuscript doesn’t qualify for developmental work, you’ve received good news and bad news. The good news is simply the fact of feedback. Manuscripts are many and editors are few: If an editor responds to your work—even to say it’s not yet ready—something in it caught their attention.
The bad news is the manuscript is underdone. It could be the argument lacks precision, illustration, or evidence. Or it may be the treatment of argument, illustration, or evidence lacks depth, detail, or distinction. Regardless of the cause, after the hyperintense effort of writing, you may feel frustrated or demoralized by the prospect of a return to drafting.
What should you do? You should take a break.
“Take a break” sounds like an ineffective or childish intervention, but findings from brain-based research are robust: When it comes to periods of acute skill acquisition, emotional engagement, work productivity, and of course muscle activity, taking a break is imperative for mental, emotional, or physical consolidation.
Taking a break from the work also clears brain congestion to enable more efficient neurological processing. This, in turn, might help you see your manuscript more clearly, and through the critical perspective required for self-revision.
So, if you’re an author with manuscript feedback that amounts to “not yet,” fully enact that assessment: Take a break.
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, Adobe InDesign, and a number of client-based content management systems.
Although Docs is popular with my clients because of its promised collaborative potential, its tools aren’t well suited to projects with a long timeline, or (from my perspective) 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.
But Word is still more navigable than Google Docs, as I’ve written about before, and it more capably and more transparently (with the right tools) handles long dialogic projects.
InDesign offers another programmatic tool, but it typically applies to typeset projects, or projects in which interior layout design has already been applied. It is seldom flexible or navigable enough for early-stage work. Although I sometimes work in InDesign, designers and proofreaders work there much 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 are a lot 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. Creative and systemic come together by way of an intimate but structured conversation.
“Intimacy” is a somewhat extreme word to use in reference to an argument-driven manuscript, but most authors are well aware that writing requires a teeth-gnashing, garment-rending, hair-tearing effort. And even if it doesn’t inspire self-inflicted figurative violence, good writing depends on 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 the world within their work.
A developmental editor extends the writer’s attention, care, and time—but also stages 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—maybe an author seeks a straightforward proofread or requires a too-tight timeline—I will typically encourage a visit to the Editorial Freelancers Association job board.
Other times, however, the fit feels right, and our conversation becomes a lot more interesting.
In some ways, a developmental edit is more like 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.
The conversation begins with an author articulating their extratextual focus, providing answers or ruminations to questions such as the following: What is your book’s 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 do you want out of the book publication process (in terms of number of books sold, but also in terms of legacy)? How do you want to be introduced to others five years from now?
Once I understand these answers, we turn to the manuscript and extend the conversation.
Like other Minnesotans, I’m not as much out in the world these days. When I venture into public, it’s usually to run to the grocery store, where masks make idle chit-chat feel positively furtive.
Now, when I’m asked what it is I do, exactly, it’s not in casual conversation but when describing my services–their use and their potential value–to prospective clients. In these conversations, I’m typically 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 a big help to me because I can capture a writer’s rhythm and cadence, which often invaluably informs my 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, 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 collective’s responsibility.
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 years, critics have often felt a professional obligation to criticize the administration’s use of rhetoric to foster cruelty and perpetuate a fantasy of violence. The fantasy is rooted in what literary critic Richard Slotkin called (50 years ago) the “American mythogenesis.” And it tells the story of American identity and strength as dependent on “regeneration through violence.” Today, Trump extends the fantasy through language, partly by coding administrative action as valiant, partly by soliciting sympathetic readers to ascend from the rank-and-file to heroism in the life-threatening context of American life.
On the one hand, it’s just words.
On the other, it’s not.
Trump recently contributed a tweet to the perpetuation of this 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 facilitates 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 warriors. Because they face political opposition, which in Trump’s language endangers their lives, they are not only freed from the rules governing shared reality, they are freed from sharing in the common sense of reality at all.
The fantasy of violence works by way of a superficial imitation of the flight-or-fight binary. When matters of political disagreement are defined as a threat to life, any retaliatory action is justified, no matter how distorted the perception of threat.
It’s possible that a fantasy rooted in violent American myth is the most effective way to communicate federal policy informed by white supremacy. But we must recognize its use as a weapon that damages our shared reality. It’s not “just words” when it perpetuates a warrior worldview: It’s actionable, fostering systemic division and the violence attendant to it.
How can such a “war” be won? It’s not entirely clear. But most of us already know that weapons of violence and “shotgun blasts into the face” do not solve complicated problems.
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.