Five Things to Know When You Get Content Editing

Content editing, also known as developmental editing, looks at big-picture issues. It means examining a story to see if there’s enough conflict, if the throughline is strong, if the character arcs are satisfying, etc. Ideally, it’s the first type of editing a manuscript gets, well before the fine tuning of beta readers and copy editors.

As one of the content editors here at Mythcreants, I generally have a great time working on each manuscript. However, I’ve noticed several common gaps in author knowledge that impede the process. These five things are important to know ahead of time, so you can get the most out of your edit.

1. You Must Be Willing to Revise Your Story

A content edit is concerned first and foremost with the big picture. My job isn’t to polish description or improve dialogue. I look at entire plot threads, and then I tell you what works and what doesn’t work, along with options for how to fix problems. If I were doing a content edit on Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, I wouldn’t be concerned with how snappy Harry’s quips are. Instead, I’d recommend a total overhaul to Barty Crouch Jr’s infiltration story because it’s just too convoluted to be believable.

The problems I find in content editing can’t be solved with small adjustments, so it’s important that authors be willing to make major revisions. Those revisions might be in line with the options I lay out, or you might find your own brilliant solution. Either way, your next draft will look significantly different. That’s just the nature of content editing.

Naturally, some authors are reluctant to change their work. I get it. I immediately fall deeply in love with every word I type, and I hate changing any of them. But when I pay someone to tell me where my story needs work, I find a way to listen to them, and it’s important you do the same. If you’re not willing to revise, then hiring me is a waste of your money, and I don’t want anyone to waste their money!

Of course, some authors order content editing with every intention to revise, but then they realize they just can’t do it when the time comes. That’s one of the reasons we recommend submitting outlines first. If you’re at all unsure about your ability to revise, using an outline is a cheaper way to test your readiness.

2. Your Story Needs More Work Than You Think

One of the many problems facing new writers is that there just isn’t a good system in place for teaching them how to evaluate their own work. Writing classes are inconsistent and often of poor quality. Writing groups, both online and off, are the Wild West when it comes to advice, and it’s impossible to tell good from bad. Even using published books as a benchmark doesn’t work well, as those stories usually go through several rounds of polishing before we mere mortals see them.

As such, it’s all too common for a client of mine to think their story is almost ready for publication, only for me to tell them that the core plot structure isn’t working and will require some serious effort to fix. This can be hugely discouraging, to say the least. Some authors have trouble getting their inspiration back after such a major shock.

While it’s probably impossible to completely avoid this disappointment, knowing what you’re in for in advance will help. Nearly every manuscript I edit requires major changes, and this is even more true for first-time authors or for stories that haven’t been edited before. Even if the manuscript seems like it’s 99% of the way there to you, that’s probably because it’s your writing. Few of us are objective judges of our own work, and that absolutely includes me. We’re too close and can’t see the problems that are obvious to an outside observer.

Making revisions doesn’t diminish your accomplishment. You’ve finished a draft, and that’s something to be proud of. There’s nothing wrong with you as a writer because the story still requires some revisions; it just puts you in the company of every author who’s ever put words to paper.

3. Trunking a Story Isn’t Failure

Here at Mythcreants, we believe that almost any manuscript can be turned into a good story with enough work and revision. However, that doesn’t mean every manuscript is worth that much effort. Sometimes, authors will reach a point where it would be less work to start from scratch, rather than revising what they already have. This is especially common when authors first seek out content editing, as they don’t yet have a strong grasp of story structure, and their plotting can be really rough.

If you reach that point, it is perfectly okay to put the old manuscript down and work on something new. Or, take a break from writing altogether, whatever works best for your process. Some writers, especially new writers, have this idea that putting their current manuscript in the trunk is a failure. They fear that all the time, effort, and money they put into that story is wasted. That’s not the case.

Instead, your trunked manuscript is a learning experience. Now that you understand what went wrong, you can start fresh with those lessons in mind. Beginning a new manuscript is simply more efficient, as you can lay a proper foundation from the beginning, rather than trying to go back and add one after the fact.

The tipping point where it’s no longer worth it to keep revising a manuscript is different for everyone. Some authors have endless wells of revision energy. They can keep working on even the roughest manuscript until it shines. Others prefer to write one manuscript after another until they finally get one that doesn’t need a lot of revisions. You have to make that choice for yourself based on your own writing process, but both paths are valid.

4. Social Justice Is Critical to Storytelling

It’s very important to me that potential clients know where I stand on sexism, racism, homophobia, and other social-justice topics. That’s one reason I write so many articles about them. Even so, this is an area where it’s easy for authors to get defensive. Sometimes, it’s because a client hired me without realizing where I stand on these issues; other times, the clients thought they were doing fine and were surprised when I pointed out problematic elements.

I understand the instinct to get defensive about a manuscript’s social-justice issues. None of us want to write stories that might harm our readers, so it’s a real blow to be told we’ve done so anyway. But that’s part of the process. We can’t fix problems we don’t know are there, and it’s so much worse to only find out about something like this after a story’s been published.

When I point out a social-justice issue in your story, I’m not shaming you or saying you’re a bad person. Again, we all make mistakes like this, especially the more privileged among us. What matters isn’t that you made the mistake but that you’re willing to put in the work fixing it. And while that process isn’t always pleasant, it also means you’re not likely to make that mistake again in the future.

Finally, it’s important to understand why I point out social-justice problems. First and foremost, it’s the right thing to do. Not harming marginalized readers is a worthy goal on its own. But avoiding these pitfalls will also help your story be successful. As general social awareness grows, readers are less and less accepting of stories that send harmful messages. Getting your social-justice ducks in a row will not only make your story more successful now but also give it a longer shelf life in the face of evolving societal values.

5. Adding More Justification Isn’t the Answer

I love working with a manuscript across multiple drafts, and I’m always honored when an author finds my recommendations helpful enough to come back for another round. However, there’s one unfortunate trend I often see in second drafts. Instead of addressing a serious issue with the plot, authors will simply add more justification for why that issue is there, either in dialogue or narration.

Needless to say, this strategy never works. If a plot problem can be fixed with a better explanation, please believe me that I will recommend that first. If I’ve recommended a more substantial change, then that’s what the story needs. Adding more justification actually makes the story worse in most cases. It requires way more exposition for the reader to absorb, and even if the explanation is elaborate enough to be technically plausible, it will confuse most readers too much to be of any use. Plus, most readers will have a hard time remembering the explanation later anyway, if the basic situation still doesn’t make sense.

It’s not difficult to see why authors do this. We’ve already gone over how difficult revisions can be, and it’s tempting to think that really all you need to do is add more dialogue explaining why this plot hole isn’t really a plot hole. That certainly takes a lot less work than actually revising major elements of the story.

But even in the best-case scenario, this is just papering over a serious problem, and it probably won’t accomplish that much. What’s more, if you decide to bring a manuscript back to me and I find justification substituted for an actual revision, I can only tell you that the original problem is still a problem. That’s not a great use of your money, and it’s really important to me that you get your money’s worth from my edits.

The most important part of a content editor’s job is making sure the client gets value out of the experience. I do everything I can to make that happen on my end, but editing is a two-way street. Authors also have to do their part, otherwise a content edit is just a waste of money. Fortunately, simply adopting the right mindset goes a long way. If you know what to expect from the editing process, you’re already a lot closer to making your story shine.

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  1. Cay Reet

    I’ve found it a good strategy to put a manuscript aside for a while (weeks, ideally months) before I do the content and other editing for it. Like this, I’ve worked on other stuff in the meantime, the story is no longer fresh on my mind, and I can see the weaknesses more clearly than I could right after finishing it. There’s something like a runner’s high for writers, too, upon finishing up a manuscript (at least definitely for me).

    By now, despite being a discovery writer by nature, I also do some outlining and that also helps with asking ‘will there be some sort of conflict, will the plot come together’ before you start writing. Like this, I can make changes to the plot and see if that works better before I do all the hours of actually writing the story.

  2. LeeEsq

    The idea that social justice is critical to a story seems very didactic, in the way that certain high ideological projects of the past deemed that all media must be ideological correct on even the most minor issue. I think there should be a difference between a story trying to make an explicit ideological/political point and a story that just aims to entertain or is making a less grand point. A story shouldn’t be racist, sexist, etc. but that doesn’t mean every one needs to follow the same ideological talking points.

    There also seems to be an assumption that we can come to an agreement on what constitutes Real True Social Justice (TM). There are somethings that are obviously racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic and there are things that depend based on your ideological convictions. A big issue in these conversations is that you have a rather small group of people discussing these issues online and offline and assuming that everybody agrees with them. Even if we limit opinions to liberal leaning people under 30, I’m sure that we are going to find that most people who don’t spend significant amount of time online are going to not be in exact agreement over whether something is racist, sexist, etc.

    • LazerRobot

      It really just comes down to basic decency and respect. If you are a privileged person, and a marginalized person feels something was hurtful to them, you really need to be respectful and listen to them. Often people get too hung up on their own intentions, and think “well I didn’t mean to be racist, therefore if someone interprets what I said as racist, they’re wrong/it’s their problem.” When really, we can’t know what it’s like to live in someone else’s shoes, so we have to learn to take their word for it. We must be humble, accept our mistakes, apologize when possible, and learn from it.

      • Dvärghundspossen

        LeeEsq and LazerRobot both have a point.

        Yeah, if black people say I write black characters in a racist way, I should listen to them, and not just go “that’s impossible! I’m a nice person and couldn’t possibly do anything racist!”

        Even so, there’s lots of disagreement WITHIN marginalized groups as well, and no, all that can’t be explained away by saying that some of them just internalized their own oppression. Reasonable, engaged people within the very same group often disagree, in a manner that makes it impossible to please them all. This might be most obvious when it comes to language issues. Everyone agrees that there are certain words for disabilities that are offensive, but should you say “disabled person”, “person with disability”, or “differently abled person”? It’s LITERALLY impossible to make a choice here that won’t have SOME people go “that’s offensive, you should have said [one of the others] instead!”.
        The very first comment I posted on Mythcreants was because I was upset with something Fay Onyx, their very own disability expert with their own experiences of mental illness, had written. I’ve been a psychiatric patient for twenty plus years with a condition in the schizo ballpark, and I disagree with mental illness stuff I read from SJ people, often with THEIR own experiences of the issue, quite a lot. (Fay gave me a nice reply, though.)

        EVEN SO: The social justice stuff is a feature with Oren, not a bug. Hiring Oren to do content editing and then get mad that he talks so much about social justice, is like buying an electric car, and then complain to the car salesman that it takes time to load up the battery and why can’t it just be filled up with gas at the gas station like all the other cars?
        Also, there’s still no need to get defensive. Suppose I hired Oren to do content editing (won’t happen since I write in Swedish, but hypothetically), and then I have a legit disagreement with some comment he’s made on SJ stuff. Then I’ll say something like “I see your point, but I disagree because of these reasons, so I won’t change this according to your suggestions”. Not go “nooo, I can’t possibly be in the wrong, because I’m not an oppressive person, I’m nice!”

      • LeeEsq

        As Dvarghundspossen says, saying it comes down to basic decent and respect is easy to say but hard to pull off. What many social justice communities seem to create is a damned if you do or damned if you don’t system where failure to include leads to assault but including in a wrong way also leads to assault. This will ultimately breed cynicism among the majority population rather than reform. Like what if you write a legal procedural novel with a trans character that also happens to be an ambulance chaser lawyer rather than a champion of the oppressed lawyer? A ambulance chaser lawyer that happens to be trans would seem like a really interesting character but it could also get shot down fast and hard because of politics.

        Like a lot of Western political movements, there
        is a strong Calvinist influence in the Social Justice movement. This manifests as seeing that the only thing people can be is less bad rather than good. Since I’m not a Christian, I really don’t like politics that borrow a lot from Christian theology. Why should I believe in secular original sin when I don’t believe in religious original sin? Plus, people need to be able to feel good about themselves if you want them to do good.

        • Dvärghundspossen

          The Mythcreants crew are super nice, though. I feel like people sometimes accuse them of stuff that completely different “SJW:s” have been doing.

    • V

      A key difference is where the power is though.
      A dominant ideology or group in power trying to censor media is different from a collection of non dominant groups and minorities trying to get media to stop stereotypes and insulting implications.
      I believe the quote is along the lines of “hitting up is satire, hitting down is bullying”? I think it’s Pratchett but really can’t remember.

      The rest though is totally accurate but sort of missing the point. I’ve caught flak from some people trying to fight homophobia and transphobia for using the terms I define myself as (debated term- they felt it’s a pejorative, I didn’t).
      The best we can do is make an effort.
      We’re guaranteed to get on someone’s bad side, and 50 years from now we may have sided with the group that lost the debate, or the community might still be debating (50+ years and different camps in feminism still debate porn for example). Just ignoring it though is still bad. It’s a gamble, but it’s what we’ve got and the only sure loss is to ignore it.

      Social issues are part of how humans experience the world, and since both the authors and the audiences are currently humans social issues will influence the writing and the reading.
      To look at history the only time there aren’t certain issues is when something dominates so completely there’s no other things to worry about and thus no issue. It’s incredibly rare for it to exist without an oppression on the other side or a major conflict period before it.
      In other words, while it may make you feel cynical, this is normal.
      People form groups and subgroups and they all argue and debate and fight. Authors are trying to entertain these groups, and these groups want to be entertained. A group won’t be entertained by being erased or insulted. An author isn’t necessarily trying to make a point, they’re just trying to entertain multiple groups and involve them in the story; or readers don’t necessarily demand a point be made they simply want to feel part of the story.

      You’re not a christian, neither am I. It’d be very frustrating if the vast majority of stories were framed in a christian world view and nonchristian characters either never existed, or were always foolish or evil. Not very entertaining. I’ve read a number of books and seen a few things that do exactly that and I found them downright irritating.
      Does that mean the author is always making a point or that looking for an author that doesn’t do that means I’m looking for a story with a Point? Nope.
      Authors think that’s entertaining and I don’t. I can either join with others and ask authors to do it differently because I find it annoying and insulting, or I can seek authors that are already doing it differently.
      If I find a term insulting and you didn’t is trying not to insult me making a point or just being kind and helping me enjoy the story like you?

      There’s no reason that a story meant for being entertaining can’t be crafted without making a point, or a big deal out of the fact that it’s made to be enjoyed by a wide variety of people. It’s harder, but making your friends laugh is easier than doing stand-up is too. Wider audiences take more work, there’s more issues to be aware of, more differences in reception. That’s life.

      (I feel I rambled but I hope I cleaned it up enough in the end.)

  3. Levi Armstrong

    I like that you said book writers should not waste their time and money hiring a content editing service if they are not willing to revise the story they made. My friend, Elise, has written a young adult coming-of-age novel that I think has great potential. However, I think she would benefit a lot from hiring an editing service. I’ll suggest this over brunch this weekend, and warn her that she should be open to critic and revision. Thanks for this!

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