What to Expect from a Content Editor

While attending the University of Washington, I was given the interesting opportunity to intern as a slush pile reader for a local literary agency. It definitely wasn’t a glamorous experience, but I neither wished nor expected it to be. It was like a child peering under the hood of a car for the first time. Suddenly, the vehicle runs on gears and pistons and spinning contraptions rather than magic. For me, I saw the query letters, sample pages, and non-fiction proposals — cogs of the literary machine. I was surprised, excited, and in some ways disappointed.

My days were spent combing through print submissions and setting aside any decent manuscripts that drifted into the office. It was disheartening how few submissions showed even a passable grasp of structure and style. These were full length manuscripts — novels of several hundred pages representing years of hard work — that were unceremoniously delivered straight into the recycling bin for issues that could easily have been fixed with the help of an editor and/or proofreader. As a writer, I can forgive mistakes of language, but I also know, without any doubt, that a writer knows his or her own shortcomings. As an editor, I just can’t forgive how those writers simply ignored their failings. It’s almost delinquent — like a parent who raises a child with strong values but doesn’t send them to school, and just like every parent can’t be expected to homeschool their kids, neither can every writer be expected to polish their own writing. That is why editors exist.

Unfortunately, I think a lot of the negligence around post-draft revision stems from the confusion surrounding all the different styles of editing and proofreading. It can be hard to find exactly what you need.

There are three basic types of editing: content editing (also called developmental editing), copy editing (also called line editing), and proofreading. Each editing process envelopes a different arena of content, but not every document requires the same type of editing, That’s why it’s important to understand the differences between each editing style.

For now, let’s focus on content editing.

Content editing is different from other types of editing due to the nature of its breadth. While proofreaders correct mistakes within a sentence, and copy editors effect to improve the flow of ideas within a page, content editors view the story as a entire unit, giving attention to plot arcs, character development, dialogue, narrative voice, sensory description, style, pacing, premise, and more — the craft and literary art of the book.

Content editors do not, however, busy themselves with the conventional errors inherent within any document. That is the job of a copy editor or proofreader; a content editor makes better use of his time preparing a document for magnified scrutiny. What good is a story with perfect grammar if the underlying ideas and styles within the story are flawed? As with anything, success comes from setting your priorities and sticking to them.

Any competent content editor will give you feedback on these aspects of a story, but the mark of a good editor is found in the nature of that feedback. Whether the edits have been made digitally or by pen, they should be clear and understandable. Content editors should offer specific solutions with recommendations and suggestions. For example, simply saying that the “dialogue is unrealistic” isn’t enough; a good editor will offer ideas as to how you might give realism to the dialogue.

To be sure, not every editor will have creative opinions that jive perfectly with your style, and it’s important that you not let the suggestions of anyone overwhelm your vision for a story; however, even when an editor doesn’t agree with the choices of a client, he or she should always  remain respectful of the author and his right to make the final decision. With that in mind, it is always a good idea to meet with a prospective content editor and discuss your ideas before entering into a contract with him, as you should seek out an editor whose vision for your work is compatible with your own.

It is also important to note that, unlike copy editors or proofreaders, content editors can be called upon in any stage of the writing process, sometimes even before the first word is put to page. In many ways, a content editor is like a coach — someone to guide you through the writing process.

My own editing and proofreading business, Sidekick, offers an additional, yet similar, service — creative process consultation. Like the coaching services of a content editor, a creative process consultant will offer advice and direction in response to specific questions asked by a client. The service is different from that offered by a content editor in three major aspects: one, a creative process consultant does not typically work with entire documents, focusing instead on relevant selections provided by a client; two, a creative process consultant does not offer editorial advice outside of what is specifically requested by the client, whereas a content editor will evaluate the document exhaustively; and three, while a content editor might work with a client for months at a time, a creative process consultation can be as succinct as a single email response. This type of service can be useful, as an example, for a writer who is unsure about whether a specific line of dialogue flows correctly or is uncertain as to whether a character has been aptly named.

Your story deserves a good editor, and with almost 300,000 new books published in the US every year, only a polished document has a chance at the shelves.

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