Content, Critique, Copy Editing… What’s the difference?

Say you go to a salon and ask for a bob. Do you picture symmetrical or angled? Stacked or blunt cut? (Nineteen) twenties fingerwaves or aughts lob? What are the odds the stylist pictures the same thing?

It’s the same when you ask a freelance writer for an article or op-ed. An SOP or a P & P. When you talk to an editor about a critique or an edit, what part of the spectrum from plot and theme to commas and split infinitives do you want to cover?

Though I break things down by my own definitions below, this outline should allow you to discuss your expectations with any professional.

Content

“Content” may mean blog posts, business documentation, website text, even your grandmother’s life story. You tell me what you want, and I write it. Easy peasy! (Well, not quite. If it were that simple, you wouldn’t need to hire a professional.)

Critique

A critique evaluates voice, plot structure, pace, characterization, and general readability. Commonly, it’s the full manuscript between the first and last drafts. Sometimes, though, a writer may want a read on initial chapters to see how they’re shaping up, or feedback on the middle before diving into the end.

The depth and focus vary, so clarify your preference before you invest time and money having a professional look at your work. Whether the feedback is more vague or more nit-picky than you’re expecting, the result can be jarring.

From One End to the Other

A manuscript evaluation may be as general as a thumbs-up/thumbs-down, or you might get the bird’s-eye view on what is working, what isn’t, and what you might focus on next.

You could call it “critique-lite.” This may be your first book (or your first pages!) and you need an educated, objective opinion but don’t want to be overwhelmed. This may be your fifteenth or fiftieth manuscript—not every project calls for a deep-dive critique and not every writer can afford one.

At the other end of the hands-on spectrum, there’s a writing coach or book coach. Like a coach, they spend more time with you, building your writing strengths and literary skills, encouraging you and keeping you accountable.

Again, keep your goals in mind. Do you want a personal trainer in writing, someone who is focused on your skills? Or are you looking for someone project-focused who will shepherd you, step by step, through writing and editing your book?

What makes this different than a developmental edit (if there is one)? To some, “critique” comes earlier the process. “Edit” is when you’re more certain of the book’s destination. Others might call detailed feedback an “edit” and use “critique” for more global comments. If the editor’s website doesn’t define a difference, then just describe what you want. The rest is tomayto/tomahto.

Editing

“Editing” encompasses overarching things like plot, character, and voice down to grammatical nit-picking. The stages are better-defined, though, because it’s a process—refining from broad to small details to prepare it for publication (in whatever form that might be).

There’s some subjective overlap between levels, but each covers a part of the process. In the outline below, I use how I work as a step by step example, but it will give you a good idea of what to expect.

Developmental Editing

You have a first draft, or a good start on one, and need someone to look at the big picture—characterization, plot progress, pacing, and overall voice and tone. I give you specific passages and details that need work and practical options for problem-solving. Some people like to consult via email or Skype so they can ask questions or discuss ideas.

Heavy Copyedit or Line Edit

Once you’ve revised, your story or book should be structurally sound and satisfying, like a well-designed house. Now comes the paint and wallpaper stage. A standard copy edit looks at grammar, style, and usage, plus continuity and basic fact-checking. I query lines or passages where the meaning or intent is unclear, or the logic dots don’t quite connect. (There’s a lot of overlap in what people call a line edit vs a heavy copy edit, so it’s good to clarify.)

Light Copyedit

Some people finish their revision with the paint and plaster in good shape. They only need to smooth out the seams and touch up the trim. I check grammar, usage, and continuity, and query anything that seems unclear.

Proofreading

Last is a white-glove inspection to make sure every T is crossed and I is dotted. As a copy editor, I look for errors and typos, but my sieve is not as fine as a proofreader’s. Plus, you want a fresh pair of eyes for the proofread. The more familiar you are with the text, the more you read what should be there instead of what is.

Any questions? Don’t hesitate to ask.