Blog

The Most Important Kind of Edit a Book Needs


By Jody Hedlund, @JodyHedlund

Over the past several years of having multiple books in the traditional publication pipeline, I've now experienced LOTS of editing.

After all that editing, I've come to realize THE single most important edit is the CONTENT edit (also known in the publishing business as macro edits, rewrites, or substantive edits).

Having an overall critique of the story is critical to the success of a book. No I'm not diminishing the importance of line-edits that focus on smaller issues like transitions, dialogue, cliches, etc. Neither am I turning my nose up at the need for a thorough copy edit that can catch grammar and spelling mistakes. It's not acceptable for any writer to publish material that's riddled with errors.

What I've learned, however, is that readers can forgive a few smaller mistakes. In fact most average (non-writing) readers don't even notice we when get a little clunky with our narrative or dialogue. Or when we use adverbs or passive tense or over-describe some things.

The fact is, when readers get swept up into an exciting STORY, they might overlook the minor things we do wrong. That's probably why Stephanie Meyer's Twilight series did so well (besides the fact that she was on the cusp of a new genre). I wasn't super impressed with the writing style or descriptions when I read the first book in the series. But the STORY was fascinating and compelling and kept my interest.

Readers hardly ever–if never–come away from a book and say something like, "Wow, that was perfect grammar. I liked the word choices. And what amazing spelling." Don't get me wrong. As I said before, we should strive to give our readers a clean read.

But most of the time when a book really resonates it's because of the STORY. Readers come away saying, "Wow, what a great story. The characters came alive and the plot was so riveting I couldn't put the book down."

In the publishing world, the content edit is often the hardest to get and to get done well. All too often, it's easier for publishers facing budget cuts to toss out the content edit (or at least spend less time on it). And in the self-publishing world, many face the difficult challenge of finding someone who's qualified to give them that kind of edit.

Recently I got back my content editorial notes on Captured by Love, my novel releasing next spring. My editors read the book, took notes of what wasn't working, and then compiled those and sent them to me. Generally speaking, when I think back on all my content edits, here are the top issues that my editors address:

1. Main character growth – Are the major character arcs solid and woven throughout?

2. Minor character development – Are there issues with any of the minor characters?

3. Story pacing – Does everything flow smoothly or are some areas too slow or over-the-top?

4. Plot issues – Where are the plot holes?

5. The ending – Does the ending wrap up the story the way it should?

My editors point out as many issues as they possibly can about the story itself. And because they've become experts in the historical romance genre, I've come to realize that they're usually right about most of their suggestions, even the suggestions I didn't think mattered or that I didn't like.

So how does a writer go about getting a content edit? 

I think there are several possibilities. First a writer could put together a test group of beta readers, particularly fans of the book's genre. Formulate a short survey those readers can fill out with questions about the bigger picture issues such as I've mentioned above. The drawback is that readers often have very different opinions, and so it becomes difficult to sort through whose opinions are valid.

Second a writer could look for a critique partner, perhaps another writer (or several) within our genre, who would be willing to do a read-through to specifically assess bigger issues. Again the drawback is that even experienced writers within the same genre have various likes and dislikes. And so we're not wise to change our stories at every shift of opinion.

Third, a writer can hire a professional editor who has gained a reputation for content editing. As self-publishing as come of age, I've noticed more and more writers hanging out an editor-for-hire shingle. While I'm sure some of those writers make good editors, there's nothing that compares to someone who knows our genre and is trained to spot the weaknesses in stories.

My summary: Don't skip or even gloss over the content edit. It's the story that matters most to readers. So make sure to get feedback that will make the story the best it can be.

Do you agree or disagree with my opinion about the content edit being the most important? Why or why not? For those who are self-publishing, how have you gone about finding a good content editor? 

26 comments:

  1. Hi Jody. I completely agree. I've gotten caught up in a couple of brilliant stories lately. When I've gone back and analyzed then, I've realized that while in a couple of areas they may not be technically perfect (in a craft sense) I didn't notice because the story was so great. While others, which were technically exemplary, just didn't have the story magic.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi Kara,

      LOVE the way you put it! That's exactly what I was trying to say. When we get swept away into a story, we often don't notice some of the minor technical imperfections. Thanks for sharing your thoughts! :-)

      Delete
  2. I might make somebody mad by saying this (I'm sorry!), but...

    First, i agree with you re: content editing being the most important. If your story isn't right, readers won't be coming back. But as far as self-publishing, a content editor (for me, so far) is the most difficult editor to find. I have found it very difficult to find good editors, in general. Maybe my wish list for editors is too long or too picky, but many editors charge hefty fees, and so far, I've had trouble finding an editor to has lived up to what they advertised.

    I'm in the process of hiring editors now, and I'm really excited about the ones I've found. I have found editors through recommendations from other writers and recommendations from well-known editors who already have a full schedule. I interview them through email to see if our schedules fit. I ask questions about the type of edit they do. It's amazing to me how many ways different editors describe what they do. Sometimes it's difficult to know exactly what type of edit you're getting. Writers must ASK QUESTIONS. Also, good editors will do a sample edit of 5 pages or so (although this only really works for line edits). Difficult to get a sample of what content editors are offering. With content editors, I look to see if they have a blog and what types of advice the offer there. Do they have a good grasp of story, structure, characterization. And I always look to see what former clients say of their work.

    I also agree with you Jody that writers need beta readers and critique partners. These people go a long way to helping a writer know if their story is working.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi Heather,

      Thank you for giving your perspective from the self-publishing side of things! It's all too easy for writers to think that they can make a little extra money on the side by "editing." That would be like me deciding to open up an editing business. Sure, I could probably give fairly good feedback. But when someone is a professional editor and really knows story structure and has an eye for editing, that makes a huge difference.

      Delete
    2. This is very true! I think the key to finding a great content editor is that if given the choice of writing vs editing - they'd chose editing. These are the editors that are committed to the author and that author's story. Throughout college for me, the focus of workshop classes were the story, and I'm so thankful for that. It makes writing a little harder at times, because you are more critical, but this is why I love editing. It's so exciting as an editor to work with an author to help them create the best possible story - giving suggestions is great, but the best part of being an editor (for me) is when that author turns around and proves that they are a writer for a reason - they take suggestions to the next level and create something even more powerful.
      Great post!

      Delete
  3. You are spot on, Jody. Without story, word choices don't matter. If a reader never reads beyond page ten, they cannot be impressed by your grasp of symbolism, or metaphor, or eloquent sentence structure. You need to have a plot that readers can't resist.

    Finding those magical content editors can be a challenge. I've had numerous writers volunteer to beta read, just to have them pull out. (I understand, we all have to focus on our own work, but...) Through trial and error, I've finally found a few critique partners. At this stage in my writing career, paying for edits is out.

    What I've found the most curious is how divergent critiques can be. Readers can disagree over everything. What one critiquer loves, the next may say doesn't work at all.

    Which makes me think I need more beta readers. If only they were easier to come by!

    Great post, Jody.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi Kerry Ann,

      Yes, those divergent critiques can be hard to decipher. But I think one thing to look for in the case of beta readers or critique partners are the similarities in what everyone is saying. If several of our readers note the same thing like "the character didn't resonate" or "I didn't like this part of the plot" then we have a pretty good idea that something with that isn't working and we'd be wise to go back and evaluate why.

      Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts! :-)

      Delete
  4. Hi Jody! We both know I'm not an author and forgive me if I'm wrong, but don't you need an alpha reader (other than the author) before a beta reader? I find this post extremely fascinating...how the concept of a book develops from start to finish. We have an "Australianism" (to coin a phrase) from "go to whoa," in which you have so aptly conveyed the process to "non authors" as well, in your post. The storyline to a reader is important..that is what captivates my interest first up! I'd love to be a "crit" reader! Do hope you didn't mind my "sixpenneth worth," of input. LOL!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi Rosie,

      Interesting point! There are varying ideas of what alpha and beta readers are and WHO they should be. A lot of times the terms are used synonymously. I think I could write a whole post about what *I* think about the terms and how I personally use them! But I won't bore you! LOL

      Thanks for your input! Always love getting a reader's perspective! :-)

      Delete
  5. I also meant to say how much I'm enjoying,"A Noble Groom". It's keeping me "sane" right now! Bless you.:0)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. SO glad you're enjoying A Noble Groom and that it's keeping you sane! Hang in there, my dear! :-)

      Delete
  6. I don't know. I definitely notice awkward dialogue and small inconsistencies when I read, but then I am a writer. A while back, I was reading and the author used the wrong name in one line of a scene. Once was SURE that it was a mistake and I hadn't missed anything, I almost had to put the book down because I felt like I couldn't trust it anymore. Basically, if I EVER find a mistake like that in a published book, it drives me so insane that I will skim through the rest of the page just so I can turn to the next page and get away from it. Maybe I'm too critical, or maybe I'm just trying so hard to learn the craft that I've become hyper-aware of what's going on when I read. Lol. I guess think micro and macro edits are equally important.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi Ashely,

      We writers are cursed with an internal editor that won't shut off, aren't we? I can rarely get through a book without noticing "issues." But I have to say, in books where the story grips me, I find that the internal editor starts to whisper rather than shout! :-) I always love the kind of stories that make me forget that I'm a writer.

      Delete
  7. Content edits for me are always the most difficult. At first it's a bit difficult emotionally, but I always make myself see it through new eyes with a willingness to open my heart up to my editors suggestions. So far, we've done three rounds of this ad each time, I see her wisdom and I'm SO thankful for an editor willing to give me that kind of feedback so that it can be a better book. Working with my copy editor now and it seems like the 6th round of revisions on this book and with each one, I'm so thankful for those different layers of edits, but can always look back to the content edits and remember how important they are.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi Joanne!

      Thank you so much for sharing your experience! Oh my! I feel for you! I've had some very difficult rewrites too, the kind where my editor has to call me on the phone first and tell me "not to worry since we still have plenty of time, but you'll have to rewrite major sections of the book." :-) Tough to swallow. But like you, I've grown to appreciate an editor who takes the time to give me the best and most important kind of feedback that a book needs.

      Delete
  8. Definitely, I would rate it pretty high on the list. Personally, typos bug me, even though I find them funny. The story, to me, is most important, with typos/grammatical things coming in a close second.

    Blessings for Captured By Love,

    Andrea

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi Andrea,

      Yes, we definitely don't want to have things that will jar our readers or take them out of the story. Typos and other issues like that can be annoying. But I can usually overlook them if the story pulls me in!

      Thanks for the rewrite blessings! Hoping to start them this coming weekend! Have a lot of work ahead. But trying to remind myself just how important this stage is! :-)

      Delete
    2. Jody, I have confidence that God will guide you through this stage of rewrites. :) Have fun with it!

      Delete
  9. I just had a copy edit done for my breakout novel, but I also had someone help with what didn't work. Reading the whole kit-and-kaboodle through out loud was an immense help in finding errors in syntax and flow. I guess the point I'm trying to make, is they're all important. But the story definitely has to work or why bother. :)

    ReplyDelete
  10. Jody, I agree so much with this! I specialize in content editing, so perhaps I'm biased. ;) While grammar corrections are important, most reader reviews talk about the STORY. What they liked and didn't like about the plot or characters. I've read books that could've used help in the plot, structure, characters, or setting. And when I see those gaps and inconsistencies, I rarely console myself with "well at least the grammar was perfect." Most readers (dare I generalize...) are pulled into stories that offer emotional connection, teach us lessons about our humanity, and entertain us using a logical flow of events. I think critique partners can be helpful, but a good content editor is an artist...who loves stories and is able to support writers' goals with creative ideas and solutions. Thanks so much for the great post!

    ReplyDelete
  11. Such great stuff, Jody! I always love your posts, thank you! I have gathered a few good beta readers and I can't wait to see what they find. Even though I do my best to catch everything...sometimes its hard to see the forest for the trees, and I miss stuff, you know?
    I hope all is well. Can't wait for your next release.

    HUGS
    Amber

    ReplyDelete
  12. I think you're right about the story being the most important part. Of course, shouldn't the writer be the first content editor? I just finished Jame Scott Bell's Plot & Structure and he delineates an exceptional process for editing for content before you begin your second draft. We all agree the first draft is just getting the basics on the page and before our work will be ready for "other " eyes, we will have to read it critically looking for holes in the plot and asking whether or not the character is growing.
    Great post. All edits are important but I'm not sure I would pay for a content edit unless I was self-publishing.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi Sharon,

      I think the writer definitely needs to do their own self-editing. And there are some great tools available to help us with that. James Scott Bell's books are awesome for that. He even has one directed at self-editing. However, the issue for us is always that we're too enmeshed, too subjective with our own work to see the fatal flaws or sometimes even minor issues. I'm amazed at some of the smaller things (like repetitions) that my editors point out to me that I didn't catch myself.

      And yes, if you're going traditional publication, hopefully you'll get a good in-house content edit, although nowadays that's not always a guarantee.

      Delete
  13. Yes, I definitely agree. I've been reading/reviewing a lot of books on the subject on which I have been writing, incest. That, in itself, for many is a riveting read. Many of the books I've been reviewing are written by the author who is telling their true story and their true stories grab me every time, even when their narrative styles get a bit heavy or I wish they'd throw in some conversation to move it along a little faster. I guess I'll know if I succeeded in supplying "riveting content" when the public gets its hands on my book, now at the printer. Wish me luck! NO TEARS FOR MY FATHER

    ReplyDelete
  14. Não sei se você vai ler isto, mas saiba que se você ler eu ficarei muito feliz, sou sua fã te admiro muito, te sigo em todas as redes sociais, se você poder me responder vou até pular de alegria !! Com muito carinho escrevi este pequeno texto.. this site here

    ReplyDelete

© All the articles in this blog are copyrighted and may not be used without prior written consent from the author. You may quote without permission if you give proper credit and links. Thank you!