Choosing an Editor by Christine Amsden

Understanding the Types of Editing

Most writers understand that at some point in the writing life cycle they will need an editor, but many don’t understand exactly what an editor does. Worse, they don’t understand that there are more than one kind of editor, and that each one serves a vital role in the editorial process.

I am a developmental and content editor. I get most of my work through word of mouth, but I also get some through freelance websites that attempt to match clients with service providers. It is there that I see some variation of the following request far too often:

“I just finished my 97,000-word novel. I need an editor to look it over for spelling, grammar,  sentence structure, characters, plot, flow, etc.”

Whoa! You can’t do all that in a single pass.

Some proposals are even written in such a way that I think the client wants an “editor” to take a deeply flawed rough draft and turn it into a final, publishable draft. If so, they want a ghostwriter, not an editor.

I don’t blame authors for not understanding the role of an editor. Until recently, this role was primarily handled by traditional publishing companies who were the ones to determine exactly what kind of editing was required – and how much. Books on writing gloss over this important stage of the process. Tutorials are usually geared toward self-help.

But times are changing. Self-publishing has created a new literary world, although even authors seeking traditional publishing can sometimes use the help of an editor before querying agents/publishers. Self-publishing has created a new need for experienced editors, though, and since self-published authors have to self-monitor their work, it is particularly important for them to understand the process.

Developmental Editing

I often call this “coaching” because that’s a good way of thinking about it. A developmental editor can help an author plan a project from conception to final draft. They can brainstorm, outline, assist in research, help with time  management, etc. A developmental editor might help you set goals and encourage you to keep them. Savvy Authors offers a mentoring program that is, in essence, developmental editing.

Developmental editing can also begin after a rough draft is complete, if the draft is in rough enough shape that it requires extensive rethinking. The challenge here is knowing whether or not your draft is in such rough shape, which is why it helps to talk to a prospective editor before hiring him/her. Make sure your editor is willing to be completely honest with you, and make sure you are willing to listen to their professional opinion.

A developmental editor is not a critique buddy. A *good* critique buddy can perform the same role and for the sake of your wallet, you might try to find good critique buddies before seeking professional help. But truly keen critique buddies are hard to find, and you should engage a few of them in order to allow for different points of view.

Developmental editors should be experienced with the writing process, with your genre (for fiction) or subject (for non-fiction), have a forthright and friendly style, and be someone you can relate to. (That last is obviously subjective.)

Content Editing

Once you feel reasonably good about your overall story, you still need someone to check it for subtle flaws. And I mean the story – the words themselves are the last step.

Why can’t a content editor also do copy editing? The reason is simple. The work of a good content editor often roughens your story up. The work of a good copy editor smooths the story out. You can’t do both at the same time.

A content editor checks your story for inconsistencies, flow problems, character issues, believability errors, and a whole host of other story-dependent concerns. Fact checking can be part of this step, although if you need specialized fact checking done (scientific concepts, for instance), you should refer to an expert in that field.

There is a lot of overlap between what a content editor does and what a developmental editor does. So much so that an author who isn’t sure what they need can put their trust in an editor who does both and ask them honestly how much work the story needs.

A content editor might suggest cutting a scene, or a few paragraphs, or adding more description – all things that would roughen up your story. But a content edit won’t ask you to rethink fundamental portions of your plot. The overall story, as you wrote it, remains intact after a thorough content edit.

Though a content editor is not performing a copy edit, he or she might point out problems with your style, voice, or tone – especially recurring issues. They are unlikely to flag every instance of this problem, but they may put in a general note such as, “Your overuse of being verbs made your prose feel weak.” (A developmental editor might make the same note.)

A good content editor has all the same qualities as a good developmental editor. In addiction, a content editor needs to be keenly observant and able to remember minor details. A content editor’s job is to nit-pick, so they should never speed read. Do not expect this to be an inexpensive job, or settle for the cheapest bid.

Copy Editing

A copy editor is a grammar nerd – or should be! The copy editor is the last person to see your book before it gets published. They take care of all the little things that went wrong. They find typos, grammar errors, punctuation errors, capitalization errors, homonym problems, etc.

A good copy editor is not a spell checker. They need to know the difference between lie, lay, and laid. They need to know that you meant nauseated, not nacreous. Every time I send my book to a competent copy editor, I learn something new. For example, that blonde is an acceptable alternative to blond, but usually for a woman.

An English degree is neither required nor particularly coveted for developmental or content editing. But for a copy editor, it is a definite plus. I’m not saying someone else couldn’t learn all they need to know to become a great copy editor – I’m a 37-year-old woman who has spent the past thirteen years of my life doing nothing whatsoever related to my college degrees. Nevertheless, for this, your very last step, you are looking for a very real, very specific expertise. Plenty of people will fake it. Some of them will even do a “good enough” job. (Where “good enough” means that it will pass muster with most readers.) I could do a “good enough” job – I often spot copy editing errors that others miss and I have been talked into proofreading work before. But I’m a perfectionist, and I know I’m not perfect at this. Ideally, you want an expert. Get recommendations. Look at on-line ratings.

Gray Area

There is a lot of overlap and gray area when it comes to editing. If a book is in rougher shape than the author supposes, should a content editor revert to developmental editing? I do, unless otherwise prompted by the client. Who does things like flag repetitive words or phrases, a content editor or a copy editor? (I might do it in both types of editing, just to be safe, but I officially believe it falls under copy editing, because that’s the place to smooth things out.) If you have a specific concern or request, make sure to bring it up before your editor begins. Good editors are flexible and can work with your individual needs.

Do I need 3 editors then?

You might. Traditional publishers often send books to more editors than that, especially for a new author. Let’s face it, no matter how good an editor is, that’s just one point of view. If she suggests rewriting the end of your book, do you just take that as gospel or do you get a second opinion? Look at book and movie reviews – even “experts” disagree on what makes for a good story. This is why I urge writers to team up, open up (as in be honest with one another), and find critique partners in the early stages of writing.

But even for content and copy editing, each editor will find new/different errors. Send it to a hundred editors, get a hundred different sets of notes.

If you’re writing your first book, be realistic. You didn’t nail it right out of the gate. Be open to big changes, and consider getting 2-3 different developmental/content editors to look at the story.

If you’re more seasoned, you should understand the process a little better. But it is a process.

Write. Rewrite. Revise. Edit. Repeat.


I’ll be teaching a two-week workshop called “Once Upon a First Line” beginning October 6. We’ll focus tightly on your opening moment, discussing what works and what doesn’t. I’m very hands-on in a workshop. I consider it to be a sort of developmental editing in which I coach you on some specific aspect of your story — and that’s something I take seriously. I’ve been leading workshops here at Savvy Authors since 2007 and currently have six published novels, including the Cassie Scot series.


OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAChristine Amsden has been writing science fiction and fantasy for as long as she can remember. She loves to write and it is her dream that others will be inspired by this love and by her stories. Speculative fiction is fun, magical, and imaginative but great speculative fiction is about real people defining themselves through extraordinary situations. Christine writes primarily about people and it is in this way that she strives to make science fiction and fantasy meaningful for everyone.

At the age of 16, Christine was diagnosed with Stargardt’s Disease, a condition that affects the retina and causes a loss of central vision. She is now legally blind, but has not let this slow her down or get in the way of her dreams. (You can learn more here.)

In addition to writing, Christine teaches workshops on writing at Savvy Authors. She also does some freelance editing work.

Christine currently lives in the Kansas City area with her husband, Austin, who has been her biggest fan and the key to her success. They have two beautiful children, Drake and Celeste.

CassieScot_medCassie Scot is the ungifted daughter of powerful sorcerers, born between worlds but belonging to neither. At 21, all she wants is to find a place for herself, but earning a living as a private investigator in the shadow of her family’s reputation isn’t easy. When she is pulled into a paranormal investigation, and tempted by a powerful and handsome sorcerer, she will have to decide where she truly belongs. Book 1 in the Cassie Scot Series.

Buy a copy of ‘Cassie Scot: Paranormal Detective’ at Amazon.


Christine Amsden is a freelance editor and the author of nine award-winning books. Over the past seven years, she has worked almost exclusively with i...