How to carry out a developmental edit of your book?

Developmental editing is important because it diagnoses any issues with the structure, clarity, tone and flow of the manuscript. It also considers if any content should be added or removed. Developmental editing may help to sharpen your book’s argument, message, story or plot and ensure it speaks to your target reader. To ensure the highest-quality of editing, it is usually performed by a developmental editor, but in this post, I show you how to do it yourself when preparing your non-fiction book for publication.

So far, in this non-fiction writing guides series, I have touched upon on how to write a book proposal and how to structure a book. This time, I discuss how to carry out a developmental edit of your non-fiction book and so, let us dive straight into it.

What is developmental editing?

Conventionally, we explain developmental editing as diagnosing the big-picture issues in the manuscript that usually takes place after completing the manuscript (obviously) and before copyediting. I like Scott Norton’s slightly longer definition on pages of Developmental Editing (which I recommend if you want to take a deep dive into developmental editing). Norton denotes developmental editing as an intervention that moves content from one chapter to another, rearranges the lion’s share of the chapter’s contents within itself but falls short of writing new material. It is a tough definition to apply, writes Norton, because developmental editing almost always involves some writing, usually of transitional sentences at the beginnings and ends of passages. However, when an editor finds themselves interviewing the author in order to compose whole passages, they might have crossed over to the realm of ghostwriting.

What is the purpose of developmental editing?

Generally speaking, non-fiction developmental editing aims to help an author clarify their message and deliver it to the intended audience effectively. A vital element of this endeavour is determining what the text tries to achieve and why the reader should care. For instance, after reading every sentence, I like to ask, ‘So what? to weed out fluff and ensure each sentence that remains is relevant.

What does developmental editing entail?

When performing developmental editing, your task is to clarify the central arguments of the book and identify any conflicting arguments or major issues. There are five components to consider here:

  • content,
  • structure,
  • clarity,
  • tone,
  • flow.

1. Content

To diagnose high-level issues with the content, read through your text and, using a different indicator, make a list outlining every time the subject changes and the page number. You can create codes for each argument or subject (e.g. STAT for statistics, PSY for psychology, HOR for hormones) and use them as indicators. This list will be helpful to determine if there are any content issues in the areas of scope, cohesiveness and others. Finally, consider the questions in the table below in the context of your argument or subject codes.

Identifying the main argumentWhich subject is covered most?
Identifying themesCan any subjects be grouped together?
Argument cohesivenessAre any subjects unrelated to the majority of the content?

Is the order of the arguments/subjects logical? Is it clear how one connects to the next?

Scope of the argumentDoes anything divert from the central argument?

Is any information/argument repeated?

Is there any content (not included in the manuscript) that would complement the thesis?

Are there too many subjects?

Supporting the argumentDoes the table of contents support the main argument?

Have you provided enough evidence to support the main argument and each of the chapter’s arguments?

Are there any claims that need to be backed up?

Purpose of the textDoes the manuscript meet its objectives?
Intended audienceCould any of the content confuse the reader?

Have you assumed too much or too little background knowledge?

2. Structure

When diagnosing the structure of your manuscript, consider if the top-down structure is cohesive and smoothly transitioned between chapters, paragraphs and subsections. Go back to your list of subject/argument codes and check in the manuscript if the transitions between each of these elements are present and adequate. For instance, you could use TR to code transitions and add them to the list.
Here is an example of a list tallying up transitions and subjects in the manuscript. Even without counting the pages, you can clearly distinguish strings of pages that indicate dominating subjects and the presence of transitions:

SubjectManuscript pages
TR27–29, 59–82, 100–101, 102–4, 236–38
STAT44–52, 53–58, 105–44, 154–70
PSY1–2, 34–35, 83–96, 145–53, 171–89, 197, 205–28, 239–42
HOR7–11, 30–33, 36–43, 97–99, 190–96, 198–204, 229–35
Table adapted from Scott Norton, Developmental Editing. A Handbook for Freelancers, Authors, and Publishers (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2009), p. 45.

3. Clarity

Clarity is one of the fundamentals of non-fiction developmental editing. To diagnose issues with clarity, consider the intended audience and purpose of the manuscript. Bearing these two aspects in mind, evaluate your manuscript according to the following questions.

  • Is the language too simplistic? Or is there too much jargon? (You could refer to the Plain Language guidelines or readability scores I have written about in the context of publishable non-fiction texts.)
  • Is enough information provided for the intended audience? Or in other words, what assumptions about the reader’s background knowledge did you make?
  • Are there repetitions? Did you notice describe the same thing in different wording?
  • Do figures or tables support the argument? Could they present the information more clearly?

4. Tone

Developmental editing checks if the tone accurately conveys the author’s attitude and evokes desired feelings in the audience. To investigate the tone, consider the following:

  • Is the tone consistent throughout the manuscript?
  • Is the tone too conversational or too formal?
  • Is the tone suitable for the discussed subject?
  • Is the tone appropriate for the intended reader?

5. Flow

Logical structure, smooth transitions and development of the argument throughout the manuscript need to be considered when scrutinising the flow of the text. In practice, to carry out the flow analysis, you could produce an outline of each chapter and see if they comprise a cohesive whole. Often (and especially in non-narrative non-fiction), texts follow a chronological order, but if that does not work for you, you could try:

  • moving from granular details to the macro outlook of each chapter,­
  • moving from the known information to that introduced by your text,
  • grouping chapters by theme.

Finally, whichever approach you adopt, review whether the pieces fall together to narrate your argument.


Developmental editing is an art. It requires creative and analytical skills to dissect a text and reassemble it in a better state as well as empathy to be able to approach the text from the perspective reader’s perspective. And so, I hope I was able to help you carry out a developmental edit of your manuscript. Still, if you would like to work with a developmental editor, contact me for a free sample edit (and remember to use my early bird discount). If you want to hear more from me, including self-editing and writing tips, follow me on MastodonTwitter, Facebook and LinkedIn or join my newsletter.

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I am an editor, indexer and a lifelong lover of literature with a PhD in literary history. I am an Intermediate Member of the Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading (CIEP) and a student member of the Society of Indexers.

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