March 3, 2023

The Spectrum of Editorial Roles, Part 2: Refining Your Draft

developmental editing
line editing

There are so many people who can help in the creation of a book, and it can be confusing for authors to keep track of the differences between all the different kinds of editing, coaching, and other help available. That’s why in this series, I’m breaking down the different roles to help you understand who might be able to help you with your draft. 

Last week, I wrote about the people who can help you with the creation of the first draft—those who help you with the structure and ideation at the beginning of the process. 

I want to say again that these roles aren’t necessarily all done by different people, and you do NOT need to hire all of them. Often just one or two people can fulfill different editorial roles to help you out. But you should understand the different hats that they wear, and what stage of intervention might be helpful to you.

Here’s a look at the big picture of book development and the types of possible interventions that exist:

Refining Your Draft: Developmental Editing, Content Editing, and Line Editing

After you have (or a ghostwriter has) written your first draft, it will need to be edited. If your first draft is really rough—like, more of a stream of conscious word vomit than actually coherent ideas strung together—an editor might tell you it needs help from a book doctor. But let’s say we’re past that stage. You’ve now got a fairly comprehensive and sensible first draft, with a clear transformation you’re trying to accomplish for the reader. Now, you can move on to true editing

In one of my favorite books on writing, Perennial Seller, Ryan Holiday writes:

“Nobody creates flawless first drafts. And nobody creates better second drafts without the intervention of someone else. Nobody.” - Ryan Holiday, Perennial Seller

There’s a lot that you can do to refine your own work, but all writers still need editors, and here’s why:

  • You’re too close to the text. You’ve spent too much time immersed in it. Your brain knows so well what you want to say, what you intended to say, that you can no longer see what the text actually says. Your brain automatically fills in gaps of information so that you don’t realize the gaps are there. Editors help to point out those gaps.
  • You’re not your reader. Even if you’re writing to someone like you or someone who used to be like you, you are too biased towards yourself to clearly see how you might be coming across to others. 
  • You’re exhausted. Writing a first draft is hard work! Editing is hard work, too. You need to take care of yourself emotionally and mentally, and inviting a partner into the process can help relieve some of the cognitive load and burden of carrying such a massive project forward to completion.

Editors come alongside writers to help them refine their work. Their job is to read the book through the lens of a potential reader, to reflect back to authors what they are actually doing, and not just what they think they are doing. 

Editors use the four Cs of editing to guide them:

  • Clarity—how well you are communicating what you mean to say
  • Cohesion—whether the disparate parts of the book add up to a central idea/message/transformation
  • Consistency—the extent to which all of the parts of the book agree with each other
  • Content—the accuracy, veracity, and strength of the arguments you’re making

All four of these elements are interrelated, and different editors might focus more on different aspects of the manuscript. Let’s start with developmental editing.

Developmental Editing

Developmental editing is always the first stage of a manuscript’s editing. They are primarily concerned with the ideas and structure of the draft, the 30,000-foot perspective. In fact, there’s a lot of overlap between developmental editing and the creation stages of the manuscript—but I would say that developmental editors are more evaluative. They reflect on the creation stages, instead of participating in them. They are mirrors to the author. Developmental editors help authors answer the question, Am I accomplishing what I set out to accomplish?

If the answer is yes, developmental editors help authors move the manuscript forward to the next stage of development by perhaps tightening the arguments, eliminating redundancies, cutting unnecessary tangents, and otherwise boiling the book down to its essence. 

If the answer is no, developmental editors provide guidance on where you need to do more of that foundational work, whether it’s restructuring the entire book, niching down on the audience, or tightening the scope of the book’s transformation. 

Often, the answer is a mix of yes and no—different parts of the book might be delivering on what you promised to different degrees, and a developmental editor will point out the weak spots and help you strengthen them.

Content Editing

Content editing is the loosest term in this entire series, but I include it because I hear it often. It’s sometimes also called substantive editing, and it’s really a mix of developmental and line editing. This term tends to be a catch-all for whatever needs to be done to get the manuscript ready for the final phase before publication. And that’s perfectly fine—most editors can do that.

But here’s what I’ll say: most experienced editors won’t call themselves content editors. They’ll usually specify whether they tend to be developmental or line editors, even if they can do both. It’s more often that authors and others around the publishing industry refer to editors as content editors.

Line Editing

Line editing assumes that all of the major content, structure, and transformation decisions have been made. At this point, the editor turns their attention not so much to the ideas but to the writing itself. Could you be more concise in some areas of the manuscript? Could you be using stronger verbs or nouns throughout? Does each paragraph deliver a cohesive argument? Have you backed up your claims with evidence? Are you citing your sources? Are you transitioning smoothly from idea to idea? 

It’s called line editing because the editor works line by line, often laboring intensively to hone every sentence and paragraph. 

I find that these middle stages tend to get particularly jumbled because manuscripts often need  a mix of support. Chapter 1 might be in great shape, requiring a lighter line edit, while chapter 7 needs a developmental overhaul and a complete restructuring. You might also need to do multiple rounds of developmental editing or line editing, depending on the state of your manuscript.

It’s common for authors to feel a bit apprehensive during these stages of refinement. You hand over your manuscript, and then you’re likely not to hear from your editor for at least a few weeks (sometimes more) while they’re working on the draft. I know that many of my authors have said they were nervous about getting my feedback, and I feel the same way when asking for feedback on my own writing! 

When you get that feedback, you’ll need to spend some time making the prescribed changes to the manuscript. This stage is humbling, to be sure. It’s helpful to remember that your editor is a mirror; they reflect back to you what is actually happening in your book. You might not always agree with your editor’s suggested changes, but you should take their suggestions as a sign that something is amiss. A good editor will not only make a suggestion; they’ll explain what exactly is amiss, too. Often there are multiple ways to solve the same problem, and as the author, you get to decide how to fix things.

By the end of your work with these editors, your first draft should be looking pretty dang good. It still won’t be perfect, but the writing should be as sure and as strong as it could be. I once had an author hire me for developmental editing, and then contact me a month after we stopped working together to chastise me because she had found some typos and grammatical errors in the book.

“What did I hire you for?!” she wrote in her email. (Ouch.) 

I had to explain that she had hired me for developmental editing, not copyediting—and, as you’ll see in next week’s post, I do not pretend to be a copy editor. Thankfully, she understood (although she didn’t apologize). It can be frustrating when authors hire an “editor” and think they’re getting the entire spectrum of editorial roles. This is why we’re having this discussion!

At this point, you’re ready to get ready for publication. (No, that’s not a typo! You’re not ready for publication, but you’re ready to move forward to the next step before publication.)