Peer review versus academic developmental editing

Academic developmental editing involves looking at big picture issues in a text. It asks questions such as: how does the text hold together as an interesting and convincing piece of writing? Does it meet the conventions of its genre? Does it speak to the audiences it aims to engage with? Is the author’s message clear and compelling?

Developmental editing does not involve fine-tuning the text at sentence level. Nor is it about applying a style guide, formatting reference lists, and ensuring the manuscript is as close to error-free as is humanly possible. These are all tasks for the copyeditor. For academic texts, developmental editing includes an analysis of a book or journal article’s structure, arguments, concepts, cohesion, pacing, and general organisation.

Aren’t all these issues points that a decent peer reviewer would pick up on though?

Actually … it depends. Yes, the first stage (and only stage for many) of a developmental edit involves writing a report (a manuscript assessment) that includes feedback in a style with some similar features to peer review. However, there are several big differences between academic feedback from a peer reviewer and developmental editing. Here are three important ones:

1. Developmental editing is not about gatekeeping

Peer review feedback serves two main functions: editing and gatekeeping.

Journal editors (especially!) and peer reviewers (to some extent) get to define what texts are important and relevant in a particular discipline or subfield. They usually do this by looking at how much your text is aware of and contributes to ongoing conversations in the field. This gatekeeping role is nuanced and complex and I won’t get into it here. It’s not an aspect of your text that a developmental editor will normally engage with though.

This is because developmental editors are not gatekeepers – they (usually) sit completely outside of the academic system. However, they often have an intimate knowledge of how parts of that system work (often through previous employment in academia or academic publishing).

Developmental editors are not going to tell you that your paper is rubbish because you didn’t cite author X. Instead, they will give you distanced feedback on how to improve the text as a piece of writing and scholarly communication. This involves gathering information about the text’s background and the author’s aim, before making suggestions with the imagined audience and a general academic reader in mind.

As developmental editors can typically only give general advice on gatekeeping (e.g. pick a journal whose articles you reference; pick a journal with someone who has heard of you on the editorial board), it is also good to get feedback on your text from a more senior colleague in your field. They will be able to tell you if your text might fail at one of the hurdles (desk rejection or peer review) for gatekeeping reasons. This can and does happen to texts that have been carefully edited and proofread.

2. Developmental editing does not focus on subject nuance

Academics are subject experts who are highly attuned to subtle nuances in concepts and terminology. For example, in the field I used to work in – political anthropology (a subdiscipline in social anthropology) – there have been big discussions over whether the term state, nation-state, nation state (unhyphenated), or something else is best or most appropriate, and what the implications of those different choices might be.

Whole academic careers have been built on advocating different positions expressed in these nuances. What’s more – these differences matter as the frames that researchers, experts, the media, activists, and governments take have real-life implications. A developmental editor isn’t going to argue for one of these positions though. In cases where developmental editors have substantial subject (disciplinary) knowledge, they may have formed their own views on these issues (I know I have!), but they wouldn’t try to persuade the author to agree with their position. They will foreground the author’s views and focus on bigger picture issues present in the text.

Interestingly, this emphasis on nuance has more in common with the gaze that a decent copyeditor brings to a text.

3. Developmental editors are advocates for the reader

Developmental editors are advocates for the reader in a general sense. If your planned readership consists of a handful of people in your subdiscipline, it may not be worth collaborating with a developmental editor unfamiliar with that audience. (Note that this is more likely to apply to a very niche journal article rather than a book project.)

However, if you want your book or journal articles to be read and appreciated by much wider audiences across your discipline and neighbouring disciplines (that is, a bigger impact or echo), getting a second opinion from somebody outside of your area of disciplinary or geographical expertise can help extend the potential readership of the text.

Points that are taken for granted within your subfield likely need to be explained to a wider audience.

But there is some overlap…

Despite these differences, there is significant overlap between developmental editing and peer review. Peer reviewers will often make developmental suggestions on how to improve the organisation and presentation of a text. They may mine your text for the arguments hiding between the lines, and a peer reviewer may become a strident advocate on behalf of your project too. For these reasons, extensive experience as a peer reviewer is a useful background for future academic developmental editors.

Looking for developmental help with your book manuscript?

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Photo by Ryoji Iwata on Unsplash

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