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? 

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