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Essay / Ask SAPIENS

How to Work With a Developmental Editor

Writing for SAPIENS and similar magazines involves close collaboration with developmental editors. Here’s how the process works—and what you can do to make the partnership as fruitful as possible.
An illustration shows two people putting together colored puzzle pieces.

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Ask SAPIENS is a series that offers a glimpse into the magazine’s inner workings.

I sometimes shudder to think of my authors’ faces when they first open an edited essay and see a mass of red ink slashing across their words. As a writer myself, I understand the annoyance and pain that can accompany that first glance.

So many changes! Why?!

After editing works of journalism and commentary for more than a decade, I have come to appreciate why such work is necessary even for the best of writers.

Perhaps you have at some point in your life written a piece you thought perfect in every way, then popped it in a desk drawer only to read it a year or a decade later, at which point glaring errors in tone or holes in logic leapt from the page. Since you probably don’t have the luxury of time to make such missteps plain, you can turn to an editor instead. An editor has critical advantages that a writer does not: distance from a draft and fresh eyes.

There are many different kinds of editors for many different types of writing. Academics who publish with scholarly presses or in journals may be most familiar with peer review and with copy editing that aims primarily to correct style, grammar, usage, and spelling. Some may have worked with a developmental editor to refine the tone, structure, and argument of an academic manuscript.

At SAPIENS and other magazines, such as Aeon, your piece starts in the hands of a developmental editor (like me) whose task is to help translate academic ideas into a style more amenable to a public audience. My job is to collaborate with each author to create a piece that is as clear, compelling, and comprehensive as possible for the reader—to help each piece be the best version of itself.

So, what exactly is an editor doing when they turn your piece red?

When I start working on a piece, I first assess any overarching issues. Some writers are fantastic storytellers, but they neglect to add in the substantive facts or context that readers need to understand and trust them. Other writers have a solid handle on the facts but are far too impersonal to be interesting; they need to be drawn into anecdote and emotion. Some authors can’t see the forest for the trees: They have focused in so narrowly on a particular problem that they forget to zoom out to show the big picture. Others write in such broad strokes that there are no fine details for interest or support; they need to zoom in.

The developmental editor’s job is to help identify the shift needed to calibrate your article for the intended audience and to make sure that all the necessary puzzle pieces are in place.

This may involve massive changes to a first draft, including an entire rewrite. Your editor may attempt a rewrite themselves, after a conversation with you, or provide notes to help you do it (or some combination of the two).

Each method has its advantages and disadvantages, considering factors such as deadlines, time zone differences, language barriers, and more. If an editor opts for rewriting, it’s not their intent to put words into your mouth but rather to efficiently show you the tone, level of detail, context, and flow that they think would best suit readers. The notes approach allows you to retain more control over your piece but can also be more time-consuming, requiring more rounds of revision.

Developmental editors are often pressed for time and inured to the process of slash-and-burn, and their advice may seem brusque to those less familiar with the process. Remember: It isn’t personal. Take a deep breath and keep in mind that the editor stands in for that publication’s readers, asking the questions that they will ask, thus saving you from making mistakes or being dull, unclear, or misleading.

Once you and your editor have grappled with the structure and tone of your piece, there is still significant developmental work to be done. The editor’s next job is to address your piece on a sentence-by-sentence level. Paragraphs can be tightened, points can be made clearer, and language can be made more active and exciting.

An editor has critical advantages that a writer does not: distance from a draft and fresh eyes.

Remember that while your editor is an expert in communication, you are the expert in terms of the content of the piece. Each party needs to respect each other’s expertise. Your editor should push you but not so far that the piece is no longer true to your point. If that happens, feel free to push back. Your editor expects and relies on you to have your voice heard in the conversation, just as they expect their own voice to be heard too.

While editors are great at spotting problems, they are not always perfectly suited to fixing them.

Imagine you, the writer, are a structural engineer commissioned to design a building for a public space. You apply your decades of knowledge and experience to drawing up the “perfect” plans. Then the client, the editor, says: “Well, this is all very nice, but there’s no third entrance. We need a side door; people always want a side door. I’ll just erase this wall and draw one in.” Your job is not to say: “Don’t be ridiculous, people don’t need a side door.” Rather, you can try: “Ah, a side door is a good idea. But not there. That’s a load-bearing wall you’ve just erased; that part of the building will fall down. Here, let me put it in a better place.”

No one in this relationship wants the building to fail; everyone wants it to succeed.

After a few rounds of developmental editing (typically two or three), your piece’s journey is not yet complete. Every publication has a slightly different process to get it to the finish line.

At SAPIENS, the draft will then go to a top editor for a fresh read because, by now, after being in conversation with you over days or weeks, your developmental editor no longer has that clarity of distance.

The top editor will probably just tweak a few critical sentences or point out any minor gaps in logic. The copy editor and sub-editor (fact-checker) at SAPIENS will then take a fine-tooth comb through your piece, checking and confirming claims and factual statements, clarifying points, flagging vague wording, addressing any culturally sensitive phrasing or hidden biases, and correcting spelling, grammar, usage, and style in accordance with our house style. You will see your piece before publication and have the opportunity to make final minor adjustments.

Your editor is your partner, not your adversary.

The entire process can move swiftly, but usually it takes several months. Patience, persistence, and good communication are key. Edits and feedback may feel aggressive at times, but the point of the process isn’t to jab at you with a red pen until you fall off a cliff—it’s to provide a safety net that catches you and stops you from getting hurt, dismissed, or ignored. Your editor is your partner, not your adversary.

Remember: There’s no point in writing a comprehensive piece that few people will want to read or a fascinating tirade that few will believe. Let your editor help you.

Ideally, you should feel that your collaboration with your editors has improved your piece at every step—or at least that you trust your editors enough to believe the piece will better serve its readers, even if you can’t yet see the improvements yourself. It should still feel like your piece but a stronger version of it: something you can be proud of.

Nicola Jones is a freelance science journalist living in Pemberton, near Vancouver, British Columbia. She has a bachelor’s degree in oceanography and chemistry, and a master’s in journalism, both from the University of British Columbia. Over her career, Jones has been a regular editor and contributor to SAPIENS, NatureYale Environment 360, Hakai Magazine, Knowable Magazine, and other publications. She has given a TED Talk and edited a major report for Future Earth on sustainability. Follow her on Twitter @nicolakimjones.


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