Developmental Editing for Non-fiction
Developmental editing for non-fiction books is an essential part of the publishing process. However, finding the right editor can be challenging. 

In this article, you’ll discover what is required for non-fiction developmental editing, you’ll learn why each non-fiction book is different, and you’ll understand the skills needed for an editor to provide effective editing.

What is Developmental Editing?

Developmental editing is known by several different names. In addition to developmental editing, it is called content editing, structural editing, story editing, substantive editing, comprehensive editing, macro editing, or even heavy editing.

But they are all the same.

Wikipedia describes developmental editing as "significant structuring or restructuring of a manuscript's discourse".

In reality, editing is a much more involved process. The editor will examine the entire manuscript, considering all aspects of the book, including its flow and structure. For fiction, they will also consider readability, plot, and structure. Some editors will look out for line-level problems, such as sentence structure, grammar, and punctuation. The better editors will assess a book's suitability for the marketplace. They may also help you to pinpoint the book's genre correctly.

Understanding Developmental Editing Approach for Non-Fiction

In most cases, when you come across articles on the Internet about editing, they tend to be talking about developmental editing for fiction. It is true that developmental editing for fiction and non-fiction share some distinct similarities, but there are fundamental differences.
Whilst fiction and non-fiction editing require the same attention to detail and approach to the manuscript, the problems that need to be identified, assessed, and solved, are different for non-fiction.

Clearly, for fiction editing character development, plot, an element such as description, I'll keep building blocks to the editing process. However, these are not present in most non-fiction manuscripts. 

This means that an editor must take a different approach to a non-fiction book than they would to a novel.
In addition, the content, style, and approach seen across non-fiction manuscripts vary far greater than that seen across fiction manuscripts. For example, a novel written within the science fiction genre requires much the same approach as a novel written in the romance genre. It is true that tropes and reader’s expectations will differ between the genres, but fundamentally the way in which they are written is remarkably similar. This is not the case for non-fiction. It is easy to see how a non-fiction memoir varies greatly from a non-fiction textbook written about brain surgery.
It is therefore impossible to create an exhaustive list of what a non-fiction developmental editor must apply to each title they edit. This said, there are a number of elements that are consistent across all non-fiction titles. 

It is these elements that are addressed in this article.
It is therefore essential that an editor takes a tailored approach to each non-fiction manuscript. It is vital that an editor has a deep understanding of the non-fiction book before the editing process begins. They must not only understand the goal of the book, and the aim of the writer but also what the reader is expecting to gain from the book. It is only from this point that a deep understanding that the editorial process can begin.

In the remainder of this article, we will look in detail at some of the common elements of non-fiction editing that can be applied to most manuscripts.

Understanding is the Start Point

As mentioned in the previous section a deep understanding of the manuscript is essential for a successful developmental edit. An editor must take steps to understand all aspects of a manuscript before the editorial process can start.
This understanding can be split into three key areas:
1. Understanding the goal of the writer

The first step in the editorial process is for the editor to gain a deep understanding of what the writer is hoping to gain from the book. The editor must understand why the writer wrote the book, and what they're hoping the reader will take away from the book. These goals and aims will vary greatly from manuscript-to-manuscript but they are the first essential step to a successful edit.
2. Understanding the goal of the book

It is possible that the goal of the writer and the goal of the book are the same thing, but this is not always the case, and it is not uncommon for the goal of the writer and the goal of the book to be different.
For example, a business owner may decide to write a book about how to lose weight. The aim of the book would be to teach the reader key techniques for weight loss. However, the business owner may be selling a video training course, which is supporting the book. This means that the aim of the writer and the aim of the book are not aligned. The aim of the book is to teach each reader the skill needed to lose weight, but the aim of the writer is to create trust and ultimately sell that course.
3. Understanding the goal of the reader

It is essential that an editor has a very clear understanding of what a reader is hoping to gain from the non-fiction title they are editing. Only by having an understanding of the reader’s expectations can the editor ensure that their feedback is correctly aligned. 

A misunderstanding of the reader’s goals can be a disastrous step in the editorial process. It is therefore essential that an editor takes the time and effort to talk to the writer to ensure that they have the correct understanding of the readership.
For example, when editing a book about weight loss, it is clear to see that a reader’s expectation will be to gain the skills needed to lose weight. However, this is not so clear for a memoir. In this case, the other side will need to take additional steps to ensure that they understand what readers are expecting to get when they embark on the memoir.

Importance of an Introduction

One of the most underrated elements of non-fiction books is the inclusion of an introduction. This is an important part of the manuscript, which can be used to clearly frame the book and ensure that the reader’s expectations are aligned to the content.
As with all cases for non-fiction books, the introduction for a manuscript will vary greatly from book-to-book. However, there are a number of key elements that can be included in almost every introduction.
A bit about the reader and what qualifies the writer

The first thing to include in an introduction is a brief section that introduces the writer and sets out what qualifies them to write the book. This is the first chance for the writer to build trust with the reader and it is important that essential information is included.
The writer must include a small section outlining relevant information about them and their life. This should only include information that is directly relevant to the book’s contents, there is almost never a need for pages of biographical information. 

For example, imagine a writer has written a book about leadership and is teaching skills that they learned whilst in the armed forces. In the section about the writer, all that is needed is a very brief explanation of the time served in the forces, and, perhaps, a little about their role. There is no need for an extensive service record since this is not relevant to the book.   
The introduction should then include a second small section that outlines the qualifications of the writer to write the book. These may be academic qualifications but in most cases are something else.
For example, if a writer had gone through the process of extreme weight loss, learning many important skills along the way, this would be an adequate qualification for writing a book about weight loss.
A bit about why this book and why now

The next section in the introduction should look at why the writer has decided to write the book and why now.
It is important that the reader has a clear understanding of the writer’s motivation for writing the book. They need to understand what forced the reader to put pen to paper. Equally important, is why the writer has decided to write this book now. After all, the writer could have written any book and at any moment, therefore must have a reason for the manuscript they have created.
For example, a writer may have been motivated by the events of 2020 and decided to create a book about global politics. This would be the reason for writing the book, the reason for the timing may simply be that the writer wishes to give people a deeper understanding of the events that are occurring to, and around, them.
A bit about what the reader will get

It is essential that you clearly set out what the reader can expect to get from the manuscript. It is important that the reader has a very clear understanding of what is, and is not, included in the book. This will help to frame the reader’s expectations and potentially avoid disappointed readers.
Readers are selfish, and it is important that you give them a very clear reason for wanting to read the manuscript. Where possible, this should be the process of highlighting the benefits, not the features. 

Anything special about the book

The final essential element of any introduction is to include a clear indication of what is special about the book. This should be a small section that outlines anything out of the unusual.
For example, if it is essential that the book is read in chronological order then this should be mentioned in the introduction. Alternatively, if a reader can dip in and out of a book reading whichever section they fancy, this should also be included in the introduction.


One element that is universal across all non-fiction developmental edits is the need for clarity. It is essential that any concepts and ideas delivered in the manuscript are presented in a way that is logical and easy to understand. These ideas must begin in their simplest form and presented in a way that provides the reader with ample description and, if possible, examples. Only once the simplest ideas have been explained, can the more complex ideas be introduced.

In other words, the non-fiction book should be like building a wall, with the simplest ideas explained first. Only once this has been achieved can the more complex ideas be built upon the foundational concepts. 
In taking this approach, the manuscript will present a systematic and methodical development of important ideas. When done correctly, this powerful technique can make even the most complex concepts easy to understand.
It is also important to and sure that the writer is not making any assumptions about the understanding and knowledge levels of the reader. It is all too easy to stuff a manuscript full of jargon, or to assume a reader will understand a concept that they have, in fact, never come across. In these cases, the reader can quickly become disconnected and confused. It is essential for an editor to highlight any key sections that may be making assumptions that are not fulfilled by the reader’s knowledge.

This is not to say that some assumptions can’t be made, but this is where the editor’s understanding of the readership comes into play.

For example, let’s say a writer has written a book about coding. The title of the book is Advanced Coding for Experts. It is clear from the title alone that this book is not for beginners. In fact, a good editor will also ask the writer to ensure that the introduction says clearly that the reader is expected to have some basic knowledge of coding. In this situation, it would be safe to assume that the reader understands the concepts of arrays, full-stack development, and a plethora of other terms that may need explaining to a reader with little or no understanding of coding. 


One element that is shared by both fiction and non-fiction manuscripts is the importance of readability. This is the ease at which a manuscript can be read and understood. A developmental editor can make a number of suggestions to ensure that readability is emphasized.
One important aspect is to ensure that the book’s structure is clear, logical, consistent, and easy to understand. The book should be structured in a consistent manner that makes sense.
For example, an editor should ensure that chapter titles are both easy to understand, and relevant to the content of the chapter. In addition, they should ensure that chapter titles are formatted in a way that represents their hierarchy within the manuscript. This is just one example of many small changes that can make a big difference.
It is also important to ensure that a manuscript meets the reader’s expectations. A reader will approach a book with a set understanding of what they are expecting to find and learn. It is essential that the reader’s and the writer’s expectations match.
For example, if you are reading a book about meditation it would be acceptable for the reader to expect some basic description of meditative techniques. If these were not included, then it must be clear to the reader from the outset that they have been admitted and the reasons why. The introduction would be a good place to do this. 
Finally, line-level considerations are important to the overall readability of a manuscript. Sentence structure must make sense, as well as grammar and punctuation being used correctly and consistently.


The need for referencing will vary from book-to-book, as well as the type and depth of referencing. Some non-fiction manuscripts require university standard referencing for all concepts and arguments, whilst other books will require little, if any, referencing.
If referencing is required, and this is a big if, one role of the developmental editor is to ensure that a suitable type of editing is being used. 

There are a number of possible ways to provide suitable references. One option is to use footnotes, which appear at the end of each page. A second option is to use endnotes, which appear at the end of chapters. Then there is the option of using a detailed bibliography, most typically a list of books presented at the end of the manuscript. It is even possible to use a more informal approach with a few selected titles being highlighted as important to the creation of the book.

As with all elements of non-fiction developmental editing the type of referencing will be dependant on the book’s subject matter, the writer’s goals, and the reader’s expectations. 
One further consideration is the use of references to build trust between the reader and the writer. One technique that can be used when dealing with controversial material is to include regular references to key arguments throughout the text. Though it is unlikely that the reader will follow up on these references, what it is doing is showing the reader that the writer has spent the time and effort to ensure that their arguments are sound and well presented. Overtime this trust will allow the writer to present increasingly complex and, perhaps, controversial ideas. 


It is worth noting that fact-checking may be an important role for the developmental editor. As we have already stated, manuscripts vary greatly and for some books fact-checking is not required. However, the alternative is often true with editors being asked to check a large number of facts and concepts.
As a rule of thumb, the more specialist and complex the manuscript, the more specialist the editor.
For example, if you have written a military history book with complex university standard historical referencing, then you should be looking for a specialist military history developmental editor with relevant post-graduate qualifications and experience in editing similar books.

Final Thoughts

Non-fiction developmental editing is a complex and time-consuming process. It requires an editor to gain an in-depth knowledge of a book, the writer, and the goals of the project before any editorial process can begin. It also requires an editor to be flexible, rigorous, and imaginative in their editorial approach.
This means that finding the correct editor for a non-fiction manuscript can be a tricky process. It requires a writer to interact with an editor before any money changes hands and to ensure the relationship is right for the book.
This said when this relationship works it is possible for a developmental editor to lift a non-fiction manuscript to a new level.