Developmental Editors: For Manuscripts and Life

March 10, 2023 § 10 Comments

By Joanne Nelson

This is about prostate cancer, my daughter’s floors, and developmental editors. One I want removed from my spouse, one I’m curious about, one I’d like to shadow me for the rest of my life.

Developmental Editor. Someone who fixes the big picture in a narrative, perhaps even finds the big picture. Someone who catches those digressions. Or, as defined at, someone who “works with an author to define and improve the structure and content of a manuscript.” 

I have a developmental editor for a book of essays, poems and vignettes coming out this summer. If only I could keep one on my shoulder as I write. Not the good angel and bad angel of metaphor, but someone who would seventy percent of the time tell me I’m on my way while gently guiding: how about putting this over here instead; the timing is confusing; or, ending the paragraph/conversation with this material leaves the reader with a stronger impression.

Don’t we all wish to end with a stronger impression?

I’d like her to tell me yes, she understands what my book is all about. Because despite the angst of recollection (staring at photos, playing music to spur memory, massaging my temples), hours of background reading, accretion of drafts, and careful curation of contents by theme, I’m not always sure. I often suspect a secret message about my innermost being—obvious to everyone except me—lies beneath the details and sensory imagery. 

My writing group begins critiques with the sentence starter, This is about…. I hate starting with this phrase—too often I name the obvious (this is about when the author’s grandpa died), miss what everyone else recognized (this is about how the author came to terms with the passing of her youth and her recognition of parsnips in generational continuity) and yet long for the group’s comments on what my own piece is telling the world.

I enjoy saying I have a developmental editor. Someone to take care of the pages and paragraphs of my book. Or do I mean someone to take care of me? This developmental editor would help me sort through the what if cancerous drumbeats currently looping through my brain and highlight the melodic distraction of flooring colors over surgery or radiation choices. She’d know how to stop sneaky negatives from taking over the narrative of my daily existence. She’d let me know I overuse certain phrases such as, I didn’t sleep well, or just a smidge more coffee, please. She’d confirm the number of times I’d like a little more red wine or a nice chocolate stout are just fine. She’d tell me my worries about dust buildup or even money are redundant and I should take more walks. She’d remind me to get my butt in the chair. Perhaps I hope for too much.

My book’s developmental editor said wonderful things about how my phrases mesh well with the themes in the book and that the narrative had “great continuity.” There were also suggestions about rearranging a few of the stories, changing up line breaks for more power, and the occasional need for more concise language. 

Her comments make me yearn for someone to edit my narratives both written and lived. I want my vignettes to reflect a continuity of themes across my years. I’m willing to reassess the meaning I’ve assigned to a few of my life’s stories and consider how changing the line breaks could affect the future. 

My developmental editor and I could sit down together at the end of each day. Just have a little chat about the big picture pieces. She’d stay away from things the copy editor could sweep up later: the useless word picked for wordle, the overcooked rice, the yellow lights I speed through. Maybe she’d comment on the yellow lights.

My developmental editor would know the right amount to worry about my husband’s upcoming surgery and she’d be able to pronounce radical prostatectomy with lymph node dissection without any hesitancy. She’d know my daughter’s floors need a light oak stain to offset the seafoam green of her walls. My developmental editor would know what all this is really about.


Joanne Nelson is the author of the forthcoming My Neglected Gods and the memoir, This Is How We Leave. Her writing appears in numerous journals and anthologies. She won the Hal Prize in nonfiction, as well as other literary awards, and has contributed to Lake Effect on Milwaukee’s NPR station. Nelson lives in Hartland, Wisconsin, where she teaches at the university level and leads community programs. She gives presentations on mindfulness and writing, creativity, and the second half of life. Nelson holds an MFA from the Bennington Writing Seminars, an MSSW from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and is a certified meditation instructor. You can contact her at

§ 10 Responses to Developmental Editors: For Manuscripts and Life

  • If one has to open with the words, “this is about”, does that not imply that ‘this’ is a failure? Surely the very point of ‘this’ is to explain itself …. ‘this’ is ‘this’ and cannot be described any better than in the way it is presented. An artist should never be expected to explain the art because the art IS the explanation. If it needs to be explained it will never be understood.

  • I so love this piece. Although my book, also a collection, is with a publisher, I still sometimes ask myself, “But what’s it really about?” I would love a developmental editor to live on my shoulder for the next few years. Well done, Joanne.

    • Joanne Nelson says:

      Thanks Eileen! There are so many layers to what we write–I think we can discover more and more as time goes by.

  • Amanda Le Rougetel says:

    I have often thought that having an editor on one’s shoulder would make navigating life’s path smoother. I appreciated your essay, Joanne. It’s stayed in mind since I read it yesterday…

  • Marvelous. Thank you! I want your developmental editor too—perhaps we could share one in order to have them always about? What my story is about is often the last thing I figure out.

  • sheenacook63 says:

    Joanne, this was lovely. Makes we want a developmental editor too. I’m also a Bennington MFA grad and also have a husband who had the same surgery as your husband. We’re seven years out now and he’s doing well.

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