This week authors J. Thorn and Crys Cain talk all about the different types of editing. They discuss developmental editing, line editing, copy editing and proofreading, and dive into the differences and benefits of each.


Three Story Method Editors


Crys: Welcome to the TASM podcast. I’m Crys Cain with my cohost J Thorn.

J: How’s it going?

Crys: It’s much better today because yesterday morning I was in New York.

J: Congrats. I saw that.

Crys: It was cold. Vancy has been sold.

J: Awesome.

Crys: Yeah, Priscilla posted Vancy again and it is the time of year when everyone is dreaming about getting out of the snow and the cold, and so they’re looking at vans, they’re buying vans. And we had a bunch of potential interest and one really serious person was like, okay, like I’m coming to view it. From New York city, she was flying in to look at it on Monday.

So Thursday I bought a ticket to fly out Sunday. I sold the van on Monday. I did a lot of shopping, managed to fit it all in one duffel bag, including an entire sewing machine, and then I flew back yesterday morning.

J: Wow, congrats. That’s quite a trip.

Crys: It was busy. It was busy. How has your week been?

J: Good. I don’t really pay attention to certain things like I should, but I realized this is episode 50. It’s like a landmark episode in a way, like we say in The Career Author Podcast. Yeah. I looked it up and our episode zero introduction came out on February 23rd, 2021. So we’re coming up on a year.

Crys: Excellent. Maybe we’ll do something for a year. I’ll think over it. I have two weeks to do think on that.

J: A topic to celebrate one

Crys: year.

Exactly. So for this week, this question came out of a conversation I had with another writer about like, what are the different kinds of editing? Because so often we use different words for different levels of editing. Sometimes we use different words for the same level of editing. And so I felt like this was a good topic, not just for new writers, but for everyone.

Especially as we’ve been working with Eve started the three-story method editing. I am a three-story method editor. We have a bunch of folks under us and we have even some different stuff that other people aren’t doing. So I thought this would be just a cool conversation to have.

J: Definitely, it’s tricky, like you said. Because some terms are used interchangeably and they have different meanings and so it’s going to be a bit of a challenge. But I think we can maybe talk about what the benefits are and what you get versus what the labels are.

Crys: Yeah. So I’m gonna give us a rundown of the types that people probably hear the most. And that’s developmental editing, line editing, copy editing, and proofreading.

J: Content editing.

Crys: Content editing. I hear that one less specifically for fiction, but do you hear that people use that a lot?

J: I do.

Crys: Excellent. Then we’ll add a content editing. So, all right, let’s start out with developmental editing. What would you say is developmental editing?

J: Developmental editing is looking at the story. Here’s what it’s not: it’s not grammar and spelling, it’s not punctuation, it’s not style, it’s not voice. More often than not it’s focused on plot, although not entirely. It’s character development, it’s emotional arc, it’s theme or armature. It’s looking at the biggest broadest aspects of your story.

Crys: Yeah, the short version I would give for it is definitely that it’s the big picture edit.

Editors will respond in different ways when they’re doing developmental editing. Some of them will give in-line comments on a manuscript. Some of them will create an editorial letter where they go over things. For any of these particular types of editing, but particularly this one, it’s good to ask your editor how they handle it so that you both are on the same page as far as expectations.

J: And that really matters. And the reason that matters is, and I think we’ll get into this, but one of my foundational tenants of an editor is I don’t do the work for you. Now, there are editors who will do the work for you. I want to make that clear and I’m not passing judgment on that. If you are the type of writer who you want to submit a manuscript and you want to have someone fix it, and then you go publish it, like that’s great. There are editors who will do that.

I was never that kind of editor. I didn’t want to be that kind of editor. I don’t hire those kinds of editors. Because I want to learn, and I want to know, and I want to be challenged and I don’t want to make the same mistake twice. So my fear is, as an author, was if I hire an editor who makes all the changes for me and I just go through track changes and accept them all, kind of not really thinking about it, I’m not learning very much. I’m not internalizing what the issues were.

Whereas if an editor points out to me the mistakes I made or places where I lack clarity and then leaves it up to me to fix it, I’m much more likely then to learn from that. Now that puts more of the burden on me as the writer. But I think in the long run, I think you’re better off that way because then you’re less likely to make those same mistakes again.

Crys: I want to throw out another term that isn’t often used in indie publishing. It’s used more on things that are intended to be best sellers. And that is book doctor. So that is that editor / writer who goes in and fixes your book and it’s often hired by a publishing house on behalf of an author.

It’s rarely done for those of us who are coming from the ground up. It’s generally coming from someone who has a big name, whose book is ” too big to fail” and they need to fix it. So you might hear that term.

J: And my understanding, again, this is just very broad strokes, my understanding of the book doctor is it’s not necessarily a writer- editor relationship. It’s more or less, you’ve taken that manuscript as far as you can and now the book doctor will polish it off. That’s my understanding of it.

Crys: All right, so content editing. That I’m like more familiar with in the world of blogging but tell me what you hear about this and like what people tend to be looking for here.

J: I hear that used the same as line editing. So maybe we could talk about line editing because I hear those two terms used interchangeably.

Crys: Okay. Yeah. That makes sense. So line editing, what would you say is line editing?

J: Line editing is really getting into the stylistic elements of your story. So now we’re looking at things like sentence structure, we’re looking at pacing, dialogue, word choice. It blurs a little bit. We get into sort of into proofreading. Some of those lines are blurred, but generally speaking it’s more of the stylistic. It’s not necessarily, you know, did your protagonists ultimately solve the problem? Like that’s not something a content or a line editor looks at. It’s more about the reading experience more so than anything else.

Crys: Yeah, reading experience the way that I’ve described it when I’ve done line editing in the past is how do I help you get across the message you’re trying to get across on the paragraph and line level, while maintaining your particular voice and style. And that’s what a good line editor or content editor will do for you.

J: And that is really hard to do as an editor. It’s really hard to maintain the authors voice and tonality while still making it more readable. That’s really challenging.

Crys: And one of the tricks that I often use when I am working with people at this level, generally during coaching, is I will put an example in there that is so far from their voice.

It’s an example of the kind of communication that I’m trying to convey, and I will purposefully do it very differently than their voice would be so they can see the goal, but they don’t feel inclined to copy the words.

J: That’s a great approach by the way. One of the things that is really hard for us to do, everybody, not just editors but in general, it’s hard not to give advice.

We all want to do it. We ask for it. And really it advice isn’t helpful, what’s helpful is hearing someone else’s experience. So I think your approach is great in that if you can put as much distance as you can between what you think someone should do and what they need to do, that’s gonna benefit them the most.

Crys: And then I tend to say that copy editing and proofreading in the world of indie publishing is basically the same thing. I think they have different roles in traditional publishing because of the number of people it passes through, but for us and in indie publishing, I think they’re about the same. And copy editing is making sure that your grammar and your spelling is correct, basically.

J: I would agree with that. I would also say that copy editing and proofreading have been used interchangeably. The functions might be the same. Like those could be different roles in a major publishing house, but I feel like they do the same thing. It’s just like a second set of eyes.

Crys: Yeah, cause the proofreader is literally the last person who goes through after the copywriter has gone through and caught everything, and then the proofreader goes through just to make sure. Often after the book has been formatted specifically, to make sure that nothing wacky happened in that last transition from the copy edit on the manuscript to the formatted version.

J: That’s a good point. Unfortunately, and I think we’re going to be talking about this in a minute. Unfortunately, I think most people when they think of hiring an editor, what they’re thinking about is copy or proofreading. And that’s it, which is unfortunate. But I think that’s what people think when they say, oh, I read this book on Amazon and it was terribly edited, I found like four grammar errors. It’s just one kind of editing.

Crys: Yep. And a lot of times I do look at this one as like the bare minimum. This is the only essential version of editing in my mind that you absolutely have to do, because it’s the cheapest, it’s the easiest to work through, but it is the one that teaches you absolutely zero.

J: And this is the one I would rely on an AI for, or a computer program. I think I would go so far as to say you could rely on Pro Writing Aid or Grammarly or an autocorrect to do the proofreading. I wouldn’t, I would still hire a proofreader, but I think you could get away with it without having any major issues.

But I agree, you’re not gonna learn anything from it unless you’re paying very close attention to all those recommendations in the sidebar of your program. But otherwise, yeah, you’re not going to learn much from it.

Crys: Yeah, fun story, I have an author that I’ve worked with who’s co-written with me as well, who for some reason or another does not like either the American or the British rules for punctuation. And so they made up their own style guide. And I was like, that’s fine, it doesn’t matter to me. As long as we have consistency, we can work with that.

And I know that there have been, especially in like sci-fi, some experimental punctuation styles. I feel like Joe Conrad tried to do a duology like that. He was like, this is going to blow things out of the water. And I’m like, no, this has literally been done like a million times before in sci-fi. You’re not new. But regardless, your proofreader or copy editor is going to be the one who’s going to help you maintain those style guides.

And then for Three Story Methoding, we have something that’s not quite any of these. And it’s something you started doing years ago called a diagnostic edit. Can you describe that?

J: The diagnostic edit is basically doing a developmental edit on a manuscript script but not making the changes for the author, not doing the work for them.

And I’ve been very upfront about that, very clear with that. And people have loved the service over the years. So if you’re like, oh, why would I pay someone and still have to do the work? It gets back to what we were talking about earlier where what a diagnostic allows you to do. And Christine, we got to give Christine props for this, I think she’s the one that came up with it, is we’re looking to create better writers, not just better manuscripts.

So yes, a diagnostic is going to improve your manuscript because a three-story method editor will go through with the story rubric and comments and show you objectively where you can make some improvements, here’s where you can make some changes and some modifications.

But ultimately, you want to be able to internalize that story rubric or that process so that eventually you don’t need to hire someone to do a diagnostic. You will have learned where those possible pitfalls are in whatever project or genre that you’re working on. And that’s the long-term goal is to make better writers instead of just better manuscripts.

That’s what the diagnostic is. It diagnoses what’s wrong, or I should say not what’s wrong, but what’s not working. It does it in a very objective manner. There’s a rubric so that it’s somewhat objective because one of the other pitfalls of hiring an editor is if you have an editor who says something like, that character, I don’t know, I just didn’t connect with them. As an author, there’s nothing you can do with that. There’s no actionable items that you can check off that will address that. Whereas if you are saying, your conflict is weak, now, okay, I can improve that. I can deepen the consequences to make the conflict whatever.

So I think that the whole idea of the diagnostic is here’s the criteria by which we’re saying whether or not these things work or can be improved, and now it’s up to you, the author, to then either take those suggestions and do something with them or not.

Crys: Now as we’re talking, it finally crystallized in my mind why I specifically have had trouble doing the diagnostic. And it has been because the people that I’ve worked with most recently, since we started doing three-story method editing, know what their weakness is. That like specifically, like people have been coming to me for the emotional aspect, because that’s what I talk a lot about.

And they know that the emotional, like conveying the emotional aspect is their weak point. And so they’re coming to me specifically because of that. And I find that because they already know that that’s their weak point, and this is kind of what I figured out as you were talking, the diagnostic feels like not the tool I need in the moment because we’re trying to address a specific strength. And I feel like that’s why I’ve been struggling with it.

When I’m looking over somebody’s work, who they don’t know yet what the weaknesses of the manuscript are, or they might have some suspicions, that’s when I feel like the diagnostic would be super useful. And I wonder cause Jeff Elkins, The Dialogue Doctor, and I have talked about this just a little bit, that we both have a bit trouble with this. And I think it’s because people are coming to us for specific elements of the diagnostic to strengthen that element. And I think that’s why I’ve been having trouble giving a diagnostic edit on people who are coming to me for a specific strength.

J: I could see that. I think it’s a bit of a double-edged sword because as a specialist, people are looking for you for one thing. However, I would also say that we’re not very good at our own self-assessment.

Sometimes writers have come to me and said, listen, I’m really good on X, I need you to help me with Y. And I do the diagnostic and I’m like, you’re not as good at X as you thought you were. And that’s a bit of a fine line and you have to be careful cause people’s egos get in the way. Someone told them they’re really good at characterization and they feel like they got it locked down and then you get into manuscript and you’re like, I could help them make this better.

So I get it. And I think eventually, I think some of the three-story method editors, you and Jeff specifically, because you do have these specific things that you’re helping people with, I think you might get more and more of that. But right now I would encourage your clients or your potential clients to be open to the process because they may think they have something nailed down that they don’t.

Crys: No, and that’s absolutely fair because there’s a lot of things that do come up as I’m going through the manuscript that are not within my specific focus on the wheelhouse that can come up in the diagnostic. But I’ve realized that’s why it’s something that I’ve been struggling with because I haven’t figured out how to combine as I’m going through the brain that is working on the specific specialty that I have and the brain part that is working on the diagnostic overall. Because it’s a bit of a difference between breadth and depth and trying to figure out how to balance those as I’m doing.

J: And I haven’t talked to Jeff about this at all. So this might be the first he’s hearing of it, but I fully expect an editor like Jeff, who has a very specialized skill, to end up creating a diagnostic that is tailored to that specific skill. And you might not end up doing the general three-story method diagnostic on experienced writers who are coming to you for a very specific thing. And eventually you might be only taking those clients.

One of the things that I did very early on as an editor is I took all kinds of clients. I specialized in post apoc, dystopian sci-fi and horror. And my first two years. I did almost all memoir. And, so I thought oh, here’s my specialty. And yet, I sort of broadened it.

And then then I brought it back in and said, okay, now here’s what I’m really good at, but I had to have that experience too. So there is a little bit of benefit in forcing yourself to doing the more general ones or taking clients who are a little less experienced or don’t know what they want, just as an editor goes.

Crys: A hundred percent. Now, there’s one that we haven’t mentioned that’s kind of editing, kind of not editing. And you’ve done some of this in the past, and that’s book coaching. Can you describe that very muddy world that is different for every human?

J: In a way it isn’t. It is and it isn’t. It was how I started building a client base and this is all I did early on. I couldn’t get anyone to buy a diagnostic from me. Even though I was story grid certified, I could go back and check but it was months, if not years, before anyone hired me to do a diagnostic. What I was hired to do was book coaching. And the most general definition of book coaching is that you have a coach who’s helping you with a specific manuscript and you meet with that coach on a regular basis.

So for the clients I was working with, it was one hour a week. And I think this is pretty common practice, but what they would do is they would have a chapter or two, depending on how quickly we would get through them. They would send me a chapter or two a few days prior to our meeting. I would look it over, I would make some notes, we would come together on the call and talk about the chapter and make some suggestions. It would even be like, I’d pull up a screen share and I’d share, make comments and share that document later. And we just repeat that process until we got all the way through the manuscript.

And that is a phenomenal service for authors if you can find someone who you click with. I think that’s the trick is like it’s not necessarily genre dependent or age dependent or gender specific, but you have to click with the person that you want to be your book coach.

That’s a great way to go through manuscript. It’s an investment. It’s most expensive, I would guess, but you learn so much that way because you are in an immediate feedback loop. Instead of taking a manuscript as far as you can and then reaching out to an editor, you are bringing that editor in the revision process.

So you have a rough draft, but you’re molding those revisions together and you learn so much that way. So I would not underestimate the power of a book coach if you are thinking about any type of editing service.

Crys: Yeah, it’s one-on-one mentorship, teaching, accountability, all built in to one.

Now one last question, and this is what do you find is the mistake that most authors make in the realm of editing their books? The biggest mistake, maybe the most dangerous mistake?

J: Is this assuming they are hiring an editor? Because I would say a very big mistake is thinking you don’t need anyone else to look at your work.

Assuming you’re hiring an editor, I think shopping by price or trying to get the cheapest editor is the biggest mistake. And I’ve told people who were never my clients, I said, listen, whether you hire me or not, determine your budget, how much you’re willing to spend, and save up the money until you have it. And then hire someone. Don’t try and bootstrap it.

I think there’s some danger in using critique groups as editors. There are dynamics involved in critique groups that aren’t necessarily beneficial to the manuscript. But I think that’s the biggest one is shopping on price or a race to the bottom, going to Fiverr and nothing against Fiverr, I’m just saying I think the cheapest is not necessarily the best when it comes to something like editing.

If you’re buying paper towels, like fine. But when you’re talking about a highly demanding intellectual service, I think you have to consider all the variables, not just the price.

Crys: Excellent. My question for our listeners this week is: what is your best or worst experience with an editor? You get to pick.

J: Unless it’s with myself or Crys, and then you can’t share that.

Crys: All right. Thank you for joining us again this week. If you would like to join this conversation in real time, we’d love for you to pop over and check out what The Author Success Mastermind is all about.