Why You MUST Get a "Content Editor" as Well as a Copy Editor
Created By: Kristin Neperud Merz
Self-published authors are constantly getting the advice to "hire an editor" before they publish. This is great advice. GREAT ADVICE! If you do not do this you should "go directly to jail; do not go pass go, do not collect $200" on your way. Period. End of story… or is it?
Personally, I don't think hiring just a copy editor goes far enough. Not only do you need an editor to go through and make sure your grammar and punctuation are correct, but you also need, what I call, a CONTENT editor (sometimes called a development editor). Which is usually a whole different kind of animal and skill set from your regular editor (not always, but often enough).
So what is a content editor?
What I call a "content editor" is someone who looks at the content, logic and flow of your story more than spelling and punctuation. A content editor is someone you should consult WAY before you even approach a copy editor. (Otherwise you will be wasting your editor's time fixing grammar when really the whole chapter needs to be reworked.)
A content editor is someone who will say to you, "This plot point isn't working." Or, "This part isn't making sense." Or, more specifically, "There is no way that your character could reach around their head and stretch four feet to pick up the candle stick when you just said that their hands were tied together to the radiator." Or, I once had to tell someone, "I think you changed the name of the character half way through." From small observations to big whoppers that mess up your entire story, it is truly amazing the things a content editor can point out to you.
Sometimes these are just small details, but if you are writing fiction everything needs to be believable and make sense otherwise you will lose your reader. And if you are writing non-fiction it really better make sense! That may seem obvious, but given some of the self-published books I have seen, sadly, it is not.
You may think you have already vetted your book by having a few of your friends read through it. But unless you have the right kind of friends acting as content editors for you and giving you feedback this does not count. More typically than not, your friend will just tell you how much they loved it. People are nice. They don't want to hurt your feelings. But if anyone tells you they just "love it" and had no concerns with your book, THEY ARE LYING! LYING to save your feelings.
If you haven't had a team of professional editors from a publishing house go through your manuscript and fix it, there are bound to be some issues that need fixing. (Sadly, I have read a number of books from reputable publishing houses that also have glaring content errors in them.) So, don't take it personally. Your book is going to go through many drafts before you are even ready to hand it to a copy editor.
You want to write the best book ever, right? Well, then you need to welcome every error that is pointed out to you and encourage any content editor that is reading your book to be brutally honest with you. You need to find a content editor that is going to look at every little point of your book and give you so much feedback that at some point you want to cry and give up because it it going to take so much work to fix it. Seriously, if you are not on the verge of tears at some point during the editing process you are either super evolved or not doing it right.
Can't take it? Then write in your journal and don't dup any unsuspecting reader into wasting their time with your book. Was that too harsh for you? Maybe. But this is writing. If you can't take the feedback, seriously reconsider the craft. Anyone can write, but to write well takes WORK.
So buck up little camper and do yourself a huge favor by hiring a content editor or finding the RIGHT friends to read your material and get you feedback.
So if you can't find or afford a content editor, who is the right friend to maybe ask instead?
Here is a quick checklist of criteria for you.
1. Someone who likes to critique things
Find someone who's a little on the perfectionist to complainer side. If you've had lunch with them and they've pointed out that the waiter forgot to tell you the specials, this could be the person for you. They are not afraid to look for and point out errors.
2. Someone who is NOT a yes person
This is not about stroking your ego. Make sure the person reading is going to give you an honest answer and not just flatter you. I.e. Your mommy is probably not the right person, as she will love whatever you do and think it is all brilliant. Find someone who is not afraid to tell you that something is not working, or is confusing, or contrite, or cheesy, or whatever.
Maybe even pick someone you think doesn't really like you. You'll get more honest answers that way, and honesty is what you need to make your book the best it can be. You just need to keep in mind that they are critique your work, NOT you. If they start to critique you, then you need to find someone else.
3. Someone who is a good listener
Good listeners pay attention. They ask for clarification if something you are telling them doesn't make sense. If you ask me, most people are not good listeners. They are busy trying to figure out what they are going to say next instead of really listening to you. But those listeners, oh baby, when you find them, they not only make great friends, but have the makings of a good content editor too. If they are good at listening and paying attentions to things you tell them, they will probably be good at picking up details of your book too.
Alternate #3 . Someone who like detective shows
This may seem odd, but detective show lovers like to pay attention to details. They like all the pieces to come together and make sense. If your story isn't doing that they will be able to help you see the trouble spots.
4. Someone who reads
Big readers make the best writers and the best critics. If they don't read a lot, then they don't have as much of a frame of reference.
5. Someone who reads in your target market
If you can find a reader who reads books from your target market they will have a much better sense of what works and is acceptable in the genre. Writing romance? Your friend who reads business books can probably fulfill all the criteria above, but is not going to get your book on the subtle levels that a romance reader will.
Typically you are not going to find any one person who embodies all of the above, so if you are going the "friend" content editor route, think about asking more than one friend. With Unscribbling I had gone through the content with the ladies in my writer's group several times; I had five "friend content" editors; one genre specific reader that I traded services with to get a full critique from him; and I had two professional copy editors at the very end. Yet still the first few books had a typo in them! (That was fixed as soon as I caught it.)
I was lucky with Unscribbling and I found some of the content editors I picked were amazing and insightful. (A couple went the "I really liked it and thought it was interesting" not-wanting-t-hurt-my-feelings route, which ultimately did not help me one bit.) But with the insightful content editors, all there critiques helped to make the book even better.
Don't be afraid to have your book critiqued. Stay focused on your end desire - to make your book the best it can possibly be. Personally, I didn't incorporate all the feedback, but I made myself hear it all and absorb it all before deciding to make changes or not. I'll admit, some of the feedback was hard to take, but you just need to keep reminding yourself that, "all this feedback is to make the book better. This is not personal. It's about the work."
And as someone who tries to give self-published books a chance whenever I can, all I can say to you self-publishers is, "PLEASE get your book content edited as well as copy edited!" A few typos in your copy I will over look, but a huge content error will get you thrown out the window.