Content Editing – The Nuts and Bolts by Cassiel Knight

As you may/may not remember, I edit for several publishing houses. I’m also the Senior Editor at Champagne Book Group, a role which I’m loving.  Since I’ve begun working as a content editor, I’ve discovered something interesting. Well, I’ve discovered a lot of interesting things, actually all of which, at some point, I’m sure I’ll share with you. <grin> In particular, I’ve learned that a lot of authors (not all) have no idea or concept of what a content/developmental editor does.

While there are some variances, most content/developmental editors are similar. For me, I’m a content editor (or a developmental editor) who does some line editing. I know grammar but I am not an expert by any stretch. This is why I content edit and why I’m good at it.

Because I’ve noticed a lot of confusion over the past couple of weeks, I thought I’d write a post to educate writers about what a content/developmental editor (CD editor) actually does. I’m hoping this will help authors understand their CD editor’s role and why we ask authors to do the things we do.

“There is no great writing, only great rewriting.”
Justice Brandeis

So, let’s start with definitions. Why? ‘Cause I love them so deal with it. <grin>

Anyway, one definition of editing is: the process of selecting and preparing written…used to convey information through the process of correction, condensation, organization and other modifications performed with an intention of producing a correct, consistent, accurate, and complete work. Mamishev, Alexander, Williams, Sean, Technical Writing for Teams: The STREAM Tools Handbook, Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, John Wiley & Sons. Inc., Hoboken, 2009, p.128.

Sounds fancy doesn’t it? And I think you’d agree that it fits with your understanding of editing overall.

However, the levels of editing is where it gets trickier and where I think the disconnect happens.

Most writers understand editing for the basics: grammar, punctuation, misspelled words and format. While CD editors address these as well, this is NOT our focus. That is the copy/line editor’s focus. But, most of us just can’t help doing some of it. Hey, we are there, why not?

But CD, if done right, goes deeper. Here are some things CD editors look at:

  • Point of View – Is it consistent throughout? How much head-hopping is being done? Is the POV clear to the reader?
  • Plot – D1oes it make sense? Is there a beginning, middle and end?
  • Characterization – Are the characters real to the reader? Does the reader know them or simply know about them?
  • Pacing – Does it fit the story? Is it too fast or too slow?
  • Overall – Is the author telling the story or showing?
  • Redundancies – Is the author repeating words, phrases or thoughts?
  • Wordiness – Are five words being used when three will do?
  • Sentence structure – Is there a mix of sentence length and sentence starts to keep story flowing and moving?
  • Lack of focus – Does the story ramble with no purpose? Is it episodic?
  • Tone – Does the tone of the story match the genre or theme? Does a mystery feel mysterious? A romance have romance?
  • Word Choice – Is the author using the right word in the right way? Is the author using words incorrectly in order to avoid using similar words?
  • Tense – Is the tense correct throughout the manuscript?
“Books aren’t written-they’re rewritten. Including your own.”
Michael Crichton

Like everyone involved in the publishing process, the goal of the CD is to help you make the story the best it can possibly be while staying within house style and general concepts of good writing. Not perfect—no one does perfect.

All traditional publishing venues (New York, small press and digital first/only presses) run authors through this process. Vanity and self-published authors SHOULD do both but they aren’t required to. However, for the others, house authors are required to go through the process. Caveat—Yes, I’m aware there are certain big name authors who actually have it written in their contract they won’t be edited (IMO, that’s just ridiculous). I’m not talking about them. They aren’t you. I’m talking about the average author.

The CD is the first level of the editing process. We are the substantive editors, not copy, not proofreaders. It’s a clear distinction. No one level is better than the other but they are different. Authors should make sure to understand what each one does. It will help make  getting your book ready for publication go smoother with less stress.

What do you think? Did you know the difference? What, to you, makes a good content editor?


Posted on September 19, 2012, in General and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 9 Comments.

  1. Today, I’m interviewing Carole DeSanti (vice president, editor-at-large at Viking Penguin and a longtime champion of strong and original voices in fiction) about women and writing and publishing as part of my new HuffPost Publishing series.


  2. Hi Kim,

    Great post! Yes, I knew the difference between a content editor and a copy editor. Having a copy editor to help make my novel the best it can be is one of the reasons I would like to sell to an established publisher rather than self-publish. Thank you for sharing this useful information with us writers.


  3. This makes perfect sense and thanks for clarifying. I’ve worked as an editor on newspapers and magazines before and I’ve edited a few books. Folks don’t understand there are many levels of editing. Most believe it’s all about spelling. I told a wannabe writer recently she needed to be sure whatever she sent out for publication was perfect grammatically, etc. Her response: “Won’t they do that for me if they want to publish it?” See how much your excellent advise is needed?


  4. It is the good content/development editor who can make the book, and you as an author, so much better. It is the GREAT content/development editor who can make the difference between a midlist and a best seller if the book lends itself to that type of commercial appeal.

    A good CD is much more difficult to find than a good copy editor. I’m someone who believes that good CDs are intuitive teachers, analyzers, and story structure experts. Yes, an editor can learn this, but the good/great ones have a special talent for it.

    It is important for authors to learn this too, so they know what is being asked and why, and when to push back. The editors assigned to this job vary in experience and ability, even within the same house. Because of this, authors should not expect they can provide an average manuscript and an editor will help them develop it. Instead, we still have to present a great manuscript and then hope the editor pushes us to make it even more amazing.


    • Maggie, as always, excellent comments and I agree completely. I’ve had both and you definitely recognize the good/great CD. And authors should work just as hard to turn in the cleanest manuscript they can – whether it’s the first or number fifty.


  5. Thank you for the insight! I’m nowhere near the publishing process (another 4-5 months to finish my novel), but this is fantastic to know. One question – what should a writer do in the last drafts (say, draft 8 or 9) to make a copy editor’s job easier? Anything?


    • Hi! Copy editor? Just clarifying that you mean the polishing stage which is the copy editor’s role. For that, concentrate on punctuation, word repetition (which I find happens quite a lot) and make sure you catch those pesky words that won’t get caught by spell check. For example as I’m reading one right now – in talking about a musical note, the word is chord, not cord. This happens a lot. Spell check won’t catch it because it’s spelled right but it’s the wrong word. Oh, and I hate to suggest this because I find it very difficult to do myself, but read your story out loud. It really works – I hear it time and time again. It’s uncomfortable but well worth doing. That will save a lot of work later. Good luck!


  6. I’m new to the whole publishing gig, but I love my content editor. She’s Piper Denna of Lyrical Press, and she made my first publishing experience a beautiful one. Not only did she point out lots of the things above (repetitions and pov issues come to mind), but she also showed an enthusiasm for my work that helped motivate me to keep my nose to the grindstone until the editing process was complete.

    Thanks for the great article. It’s awesome to know the nuts and bolts of what a content editor is doing for me!


    • That’s great, Jessi. I’m published at Lyrical and while my fantastic editor moved on, I know my next one there will be awesome. Wonder if I can get Piper?


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