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Fazeela Jiwa

The Radical Role of Developmental Editing

Two people are at a desk with papers, pens, and a cup of coffee. The dark-haired person holds a book and is leaning toward the light-haired person.
Two people are at a desk with papers, pens, and a cup of coffee. The dark-haired person holds a book and is leaning toward the light-haired person.
Copyright: monkographic

This post was adapted from a talk Fazeela Jiwa gave on acquisitions and developmental editing at The Festival of Literary Diversity (FOLD) this year.

Writers bring the complex and embodied facets of their lives to their practice, and I approach my work as a developmental editor with this in mind. I understand editing as a deeply collaborative creative practice, one that can build community and support liberation struggles.

I’m an acquisitions and development editor with Fernwood Publishing, an indie press with explicitly radical politics. When I acquire writers, it’s important that I also support them through the process — not only to develop accessible, stylish writing with exquisite structure but also to work through potential structural barriers to writing.

Barriers to writing

Supporting authors through barriers to writing itself often involves translation to suit the audience they’re trying to reach. For example, folks may have a story to tell in English that comes from a different ontology or worldview; this requires sensitive structural editing, balancing the needs of the audience and the story. Or they may be accustomed to writing in one genre, but their narrative demands a different one. They may speak multiple languages and need structural translation that stays true to their voice while suiting or appropriately challenging an English-language reader.

I also see my development role as a political accomplice to the writer. I enter deep conversations with writers with the understanding that it takes great respect to lovingly critique someone’s ideas. This must be done in a way that challenges the inbuilt power relationships within publishing, where editors are seen as “experts” — no, the author is the expert, and I am their most engaged reader. We both learn from this collaborative, skill-sharing process; it’s not a one-way interaction. Following Iva Cheung’s thinking on trauma-informed querying and Crystal Shelley’s advice on conscious editing, I make sure to first build relationships that will withstand a heavy conversation.

The context of writing

Barriers can also be related to the context of writing. Authors are people, not commodities, and they may have constraints or crises that hamper writing. Many have health, family or community concerns that overshadow their commitment to an editor. That requires our respect and creativity in figuring out how to get the work done. For example, I’ve edited interview transcripts to include a crucial perspective if they can’t write it themselves. I’ve read my comments over the phone and transcribed their answers. I have gone to people’s houses to get consent or discuss revisions.

This may exceed what editors expect from their profession, and it’s important for workers to create boundaries. Still, practising developmental editing as political work means these considerations will always matter. Editors Canada has an excellent description of developmental editing on their website, but these are simply the tasks you complete, not the context in which you complete them. We live in material contexts that require flexibility, humility, empathy and respect.

Developmental editing is an intimate collaboration that has potential to be a revolutionary practice of being in relationship. It is materially changing the world through community-building, skill-sharing, research creation and storytelling.


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2 Comments on “The Radical Role of Developmental Editing”

  • Gael Spivak


    Great post, Fazeela. Thanks for putting in the effort to write it and to share your experience with everyone.

  • Excellent article! Thank you for articulating many things I’ve been working through with editing memoir, especially stories of refugees in Canada. It is a fluctuating and nuanced balance to help maintain the author’s voice and vision while writing for a Canadian audience. I like your term of “political accomplice” to the writer. I have used the phrase “if this project is your baby, then it is my nephew and I want to see it succeed just as much as you do.” I don’t know if this is appropriate, but it feels accurate to how I see my role as editor. I want to listen to the text and deeply listen to the writer in order to best help them execute (and find) their vision. I know I have a lot to learn, but I appreciate your thoughts and the resources you linked to. Thank you for sharing.

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