May 8, 2012

Higher education requirements for developmental editors?

Hello fellow editors,

I’m looking for your input. I’m teaching an online class to folks interested in exploring work as developmental editors. One student asked this, about possible higher education requirements:

“In his book on developmental editing [“Developmental Editing: A Handbook for Freelancers, Authors, and Publishers”], Scott Norton says that most developmental editors have advanced degrees in their subject matter area. Do you agree? In what genres are advanced degrees more likely to be necessary? Do you have any other input about formal education for DEs?”

Another responded: “I agree that most developmental editing job postings I have seen require mature experience in the subject matter, and some require academic advanced degrees. In our Chicago EFA chapter (newly started this year) there are some developmental editors who are experts in their content arena.  I believe most high level editing requires substantial previous experience…”

My first thought was: Norton (who works for the University of California Press) is probably mainly thinking of developmental editors that work with academic materials and/or university presses, or in-house as developmental editors, where their editing work may focus on niches. Or maybe he is just thinking of DE work with highly researched nonfiction manuscripts (his book appears to focus mainly on nonfiction work). I asked if these were the kind of DE job listings the students had seen.

I can see having an advanced degree or expertise in a subject matter as important for many of the above, but what of editors of mainly fiction? Or of general-readership nonfiction? Of freelancers who want to work with a variety of manuscripts?

I know of many terrific and successful developmental editors who “only” have a Bachelor’s degree in some word, story and/or language orientated field of study (plus typically more adult-education level study specifically in developmental editing). Is that enough?

I myself earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism. For years after that I wrote and edited feature stories for a variety of magazines and newspapers. I later also took the University of Washington’s year-long Editing Certificate program, followed by a year of studying developmental editing specifically with the Author-Editor Clinic. While I do at times chastise myself for not studying more editing and writing basics more often, I believe that I have been able to provide an educated and helpful edit to all of my clients over the past several years.

What about you, developmental editors? What education do you have, and do you think it’s enough? What additional education do you think you might need now, or someday?

Thank you for your thoughts!


  1. I'd agree that Scott Norton's comment probably is informed by work on academic and scholarly texts, and for other publications in which subject matter knowledge beyond that of a layperson is important.

    My science background has been invaluable in doing developmental editing in the sciences. Even if I'm editing material outside my area of specialization, I know enough to be able to research what I don't know in order to make the most appropriate recommendations.

    While having developmental experience of any kind can be helpful for assessing a wider variety of manuscripts, I haven't found an advanced education to be necessary for editing fiction or other manuscripts for a general audience. Yes, an understanding of elements important to fiction writing is important in assessing fiction, but that can be obtained by means other than an advanced degree.

  2. I don't think advanced degrees are necessary for editors to be excellent at what they do. However, I think that in my case my advanced degree in literature is an asset because I came to freelance editing from a teaching career rather than working my way up through the publishing industry or through journalism. I don't have the on-the-job training that many editors have, but I do have this alternative background to offer clients.

  3. Hi from Australia! This is an important issue, Karalynn - thanks for raising it. I can offer a perspective from academic and educational publishing, where I don't really see that a higher degree in an area is critical (except perhaps in sciences/technical subjects).

    In academic publishing an interest in a field is certainly vital. But if I describe what most editors know about academic subjects as 'publishing-related knowledge', would that make sense? In other words, the subject knowledge an editor develops over time comes to inform their publishing decisions and ability to feed into content development. It definitely comes in part from a solid grasp of the types of materials you're publishing, but I'm not sure it needs a degree in a specific subject.

    This said, most scholarly works are published without detailed developmental editing - the content is much more likely to be peer-reviewed by other scholars, leaving the in-house editor to deal with sales/marketing/publishing issues. Of course, the editor will certainly need to know if a work meets its brief, but their own judgement only takes them so far.

    Development editors in educational publishing also tend to be non-specialists. There's no requirement for a degree in the area they're working in, although it's probably nice to have. This is partly because, again, editors talk all the time to external subject experts, brought in to comment on work in progress. But also, because they're likely to be working on a range of subjects, the knowledge they need is cross-disciplinary, so it's not realistic for a publisher to expect a degree that's relevant to all books/topics.

    I hope this helps and thank you, again, for an interesting perspective.

  4. The question of whether developmental editors require advanced degrees is an interesting one. It might usefully be framed in the opposite way: what kind of work can people with advanced degrees find? Often people take advanced degrees in fields they love knowing that teaching positions are scarce. Editing might be one way to use some of the valuable skills gained from learning to research and analyze complex subject matter.

    In terms of other skills that a developmental editor, especially of fiction and creative nonfiction, might require, I see expository writing as primary. In addition to needing to be able to analyze many different issues in literary and commercial writing, the editor has to be able to explain what’s working and what’s not in clear and helpful language in a very organized manner.

    Karalynn’s background in journalism would seem ideal for this purpose. I never studied journalism but I worked on an all-volunteer newspaper collective in Seattle when I was just starting out and credit those two years with giving me a huge amount of experience explaining my ideas succinctly to others (often in a heated atmosphere!) and learning to give and receive critical feedback. I think any volunteer work or professional study that encourages a potential developmental editor to write clearly and convey feedback to writers is probably very helpful. This might include a MFA program with a heavy emphasis on developing critical listening and reading skills.

    I think Katy’s point is well-taken. Most university presses rely on reviewers in the author’s field for the really detailed responses to the subject matter and presentation. The editors at the press will be well-schooled in working with scholars but are usually non-specialists themselves.

    --Barbara Sjoholm

  5. I think there's a question that precedes the question of what a fiction (or creative nonfiction) developmental editor needs in terms of eduction or background, and that is, What roles are played by the author and the editor? In nonfiction it's usually obvious: the author is a subject matter expert and the developmental editor is an expert in shaping the ideas and argument--with the express purpose of publishing the work at the end. (Erm, okay, that's roles and purpose both.)

    With fiction, and creative nonfiction, the case is different. And muddier. If the author isn't able to shape the work without help, what _is_ the author bringing to the collaboration? And is the aim of this collaboration to prepare for (eventual) publishing? If so, why prepare for publishing a work in which the arguments, story arc, or other major elements of fiction are not well along? If publishing isn't the purpose, what is the aim and why is editing the way to get there?

    For me, once those are answered, and the answers will vary greatly case by case, the rest of it, the what and how, falls into place.

    The other way I think about it is this: If I were a fiction writer working with a developmental editor, What would I want? I might hope to work with someone who was also primarily a writer but further along the path than I felt I was. Or perhaps an experienced writing teacher (anyway, teachers of fiction writing are often writers themselves). Or maybe someone with a background as an agent or as an editor in a publishing house and who has worked in the genre I'm working in too. Or... It all depends on what the author and editor hope to achieve, but I think an advanced degree would be beside the point next to these kinds of considerations (when it comes to fiction).

    And then, sometimes these things just come down to life experience and a darned good eye.

  6. I agree with Anonymous in that the central question is "What roles are played by the author and the editor?" The editor-author relationship is a central focus of the Author-Editor Clinic, of course, and many other posts on this blog have touched on it.

    My experience is that clients' answers to "What would I want [from a developmental editor]?" do vary. The answers depend on the manuscript, but also on the writer's experience, publishing goals (and while publication is often the end goal, it's not always the immediate, next-step goal), and past history with writing teachers, writing groups, and beta readers. Sometimes it's not the right time to hire a professional editor--and sometimes it is. It all depends.

    The best relationships I've had with clients have been when we've been able to talk together and establish a good way to work together and get the writer what s/he needs from the editing in order to move forward. I don't have any advanced degrees myself -- and if a project showed up that I thought would need one, I'd turn it down. What I have needed is the ability to listen and speak up in the relationship and the ability to ask questions that think forward into the writer's goals. (And then, of course, to do the editorial work that was decided.)

    A couple of editors I admire have degrees in education, which may have brought them some skills in listening, questioning, and planning. And that's probably not the "advanced degree" that we thought we were talking about. Generally, I think we're all drawing on all sides of the brain and all our past experience when working with writers. That's why editing is so much fun.

  7. I love Kyra's thought that "we're all drawing on all sides of the brain and all our past experience when working with writers."

    Good, solid communication with the writer is Priority #1, regardless of how many diplomas we do or do not have sitting in the bottom of our desk drawer.

    Great discussion! I hope we hear from more editors out there.

  8. Thanks to everyone who's responded! What a great discussion.