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Development editing a textbook

Here’s a niche blog post for you: what development editing a school textbook might involve.

It seems like there’s lots of information out there about copyediting and proofreading and what they entail, but rather less on development editing. So I hope this might be an interesting read for anyone who wants to get into it (or even for teachers and textbook writers interested in the editing process).

I’ve spent over a decade developing school textbooks for the UK market both in-house and as a freelancer. Here’s 10 things I’ll typically look out for.

1. Does the book match the spec?

Any typical GCSE or A level textbook is written to match an exam board’s specification. Exam specs these days tend to prescribe a lot of specific content that students are expected to learn, and it’s usually the development editor’s job to check the manuscript against the spec to make sure everything’s been covered.

Knowing whether this content has been covered at the right level of depth is much harder to tell – often you just have to rely on author to get this right – but the development editor should at least flag up any places where it seems like a topic has been rushed through or skimmed over, or if it feels like some basic questions (‘how does photosynthesis work?’) are still missing answers.

(Occasionally authors legitimately take issue with the spec itself: perhaps it’s not clear why a certain topic has been left out, or there’s a topic that’s really too difficult to treat sensibly. Or Eastern religions have been straightjacketed into the same structure and approach as Western ones. This can lead to some fun wrangling between staying faithful to the spec and not covering the subject in a stupid way.)

2. Is the book the right length?

One way textbooks are different to novels is that they’re more rigidly structured. A textbook is costed with a fixed pagination (this means that before the author even starts writing, the publisher has already been decided how many pages long the book will be). Increasing the pagination is possible but difficult (because it increases printing costs). This means that authors are expected to stick to a word count. If they’re way out – and the publisher can’t change the pagination – then the development editor will likely be the one to suggest cuts or additions.

Sometimes the author’s not working to a word count for the whole book, but a word count for each chapter or even each double-page spread. I’ve worked on a number of GCSE textbooks where each double-page spread covers one topic in the spec. That means checking the word count is roughly right for every spread, and – because more often than not there’s too much content and not enough space – suggesting cuts to get everything to fit.

3. Are all the features included?

Textbooks usually contain repeated ‘features’, such as study tips, key terms boxes, discussion points, revision checklists, etc. The author brief will say roughly how many of each type of feature there should be in each chapter. The development editor needs to check these have been included (and that they’re treated in a consistent way from chapter to chapter).

4. Is the language level right?

Can the writing in a GCSE textbook be understood by a typical 15 year old? Both word choice and the style of writing matter. There’s a balance to be found between getting too wordy and dumbing down too much. In general, GCSE students benefit from short, clear sentences that don’t use unnecessarily complicated language. A-level writing can be wordier or get more technical. This is one of those areas that might be left to the copyeditor to sort out – particularly if there are isolated sentences here and there that need reining in – but if it’s a wider problem then it’s something the development editor should weigh in on.

5. Do the activities work?

This is something that I think can easily get missed, but it’s important that someone at some point checks whether any activities, practice questions, knowledge checks and so on make sense. Are the questions or instructions clear and unambiguous? Are they answerable from the information given in the textbook? Do the answers actually match the questions? Are ‘exam style’ questions in the right format?

6. Could any part of the text cause offence?

Sometimes a publisher will pay for a sensitivity review, when someone will check the text for anything that could potentially cause offence or be seen as biased or misleading, etc. But often the development editor needs to have an eye on this as well.

The credibility of textbooks relies a lot on the general belief that they’re purely factual and objective. But this is something that can be surprisingly hard to achieve. When I worked in-house on Religious Studies textbooks, we spent hours with the authors talking about and researching and tweaking double-page spreads on controversial topics like euthanasia and abortion. Even just defining ‘euthanasia’ isn’t straightforward: there’s a huge difference between ‘a gentle, painless death’ and ‘murder’.

One of the troubles with textbooks (and one of the things that makes editing them really interesting) is that there’s never enough room. Particularly at GCSE. Eight hundred words to define and explain euthanasia, give an example or two, and then present arguments for and against is not a lot of words. There’s little room in textbooks to qualify or give more detail. You have to simplify – but the trick is simplifying in a way that’s not misleading.

In my work on Religious Studies textbooks I’ve spent a fair amount of time questioning how to quantify the number of people who might believe one thing or another. When there’s not room to write more than one sentence, is it ‘Some Christians believe that…’ or ‘Most…’ or ‘Many…’?

I find it fascinating, but anyway, let’s move on to…

7. Are there reviewer comments to take in?

Perhaps a series reviewer, exam-board reviewer or subject specialist has already read the manuscript and made suggestions or raised problems that need to be considered. (If the aim is to get the textbook endorsed by the exam board then the exam board’s feedback can’t be ignored.) The development editor might be expected to work with the author to make sure this feedback is incorporated.

8. Are there enough (but not too many) artworks and photos?

The author will likely have been briefed to include a certain number of artworks and photos in the book, and the publisher will have a budget for these. Artworks and photos help to make a textbook more digestible, but they also take up room and can cost quite a bit, so a balance has to be struck between too many and too few.

The development editor will check that approximately the right number of artworks and photos have been included. They’ll also hopefully find time to check that they’re appropriate (no skimpy bikinis), relevant (why has a photo of ice-cream been used to illustrate predestination?), varied (a mix of ages, genders, ethnicities, etc.), and preferably not too naff (‘good’ and ‘evil’ signposts to illustrate free will).

9. Is there anything specific to watch out for?

For example, if I’m development editing a Religious Studies textbook then I’ll check that the author hasn’t used a confessional tone or that religious beliefs aren’t presented as fact. (‘Jesus came to earth to save us from our sins’ would be better as ‘Christians believe Jesus came to earth to save people from their sins.’)

For an International Baccalaureate textbook, it’s important to bear in mind the global audience, for example by making sure photos won’t offend readers in more conservative countries, and that case studies represent a diverse range of locations.

10. Finally – is it well written (and not plagiarised)?

Most textbook authors are primarily teachers, not writers, and so may need some help to get their writing to flow well. A textbook doesn’t have to be a great literary masterpiece, but it should be clearly written and logically structured. This is something the development editor and/or copyeditor can help out with.

It’s not usually part of the development editor’s job to fact check or check for plagiarism. But sometimes you do want to check out a fact that seems iffy or needs clarification, at which point you might find the author’s copied and pasted a definition or explanation from online. Or the style of the writing suddenly changes (or it’s now simply in a different font), which suggests it might have been nicked from somewhere else.

It still surprises me when teachers do this, but I think most times it’s entirely unintentional and just needs gently pointing out. It’s obviously something to flag up with the publisher, and may require more careful checking.


So, hands up anyone who's got this far (thank you!) and still wants to edit a textbook or two...?


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