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The Difference Between a Copy Editor and a Story Editor

By Maxine Thompson

It is often said that if they had to choose, many novelists would prefer to have the developmental (or content) editing completed on their manuscripts versus the copy editing. Why? Because if the story is good, people will overlook a missing comma. But conversely, all the grammatical edits in the world will not bring a fictional story alive, without using various developmental techniques.

From experience as a story editor of over 170 books, I've learned that a good story editor can make a novel work, however, a copy editor can not accomplish this alone. For example, I've worked with a copy editor who can go behind my work and improve any fictional manuscript I've completed.

In fact, with her line edit, this editor might even discover holes in the story, which further tightens up the plot. Nonetheless, for all her skills as a copy editor, she cannot make the characters leap off the page in fiction. Her copy edit works fine in nonfiction, but even in memoirs, there are fictional elements, which will make the book more believable. Without it, a memoir will be one long narrative, without any dialogue, or without any recreating of scenes.

As a last step, there is a book doctor who can read the final product as a whole and determine if the story, including the ending, works for the novel. They will also tell you if you have an interesting protagonist who can sustain a reader's attention for 300 pages plus.

Bottom line is this. A copy edit is very necessary to a manuscript, but it cannot save a hackneyed plot that only flaunts flat narrative. However, a good content edit can resuscitate a story by rerouting the tracks of the tale. A novelist would do well to go through both levels of editing as they complement one another.

In that first level of editing, these are just some of the things a good story edit can bring to the table for your book.

1. A good story edit will develop the different nuances, contradictions, and core values of your characters. By the same token, it will also show the other characters' opposing values, which will deepen the conflict among the characters.

2. A good story edit will help develop the back-story of your protagonist.

3. A good story edit will help you develop your antagonists, so that they are not all bad or your stereotypical villains.

4. A good story edit will help you tie up all the subplots and story questions.

5. A good story edit will clean up your prose when it comes to clich"d writing.

6. A good story will make setting so strong it will stand out like a character.

7. A good story edit will make your details so crisp and clear that the readers feel like they are sitting right in the middle of the scene.

Why Hire a Good Story Editor?

A marriage between fiction writing and story editing can make for a phenomenal reading experience Many great writers, such as James Baldwin, had great editors such as Sol Stein, who was a novelist, editor, and publisher.

According to Kathleen Krul, author of 12 KEYS TO WRITING BOOKS THAT SELL, (p. 84,) "Writers who have worked both sides of the desk treasure a good editor's vision." She quotes Pulitzer prize-winning writer Toni Morrison as saying that "piercing knots in language and in ideas, assisting in the discovery of clarity, connections, illustrations, tone are what editing requires." And as a writer, Morrison "always takes the editor's comments seriously, because even if they are not on target, the fact that the editor is restless about something is important."

Now if Toni Morrison, one of the greatest writers of the twentieth century, can value her editor's opinion, why are so many writer's resistant to change?

Because they take the criticism personally. It's as if someone has called his or her baby ugly.

So toughen your skin, and learn to let your "literary darlings go with love. Like children, let them go so they can grow. In the process, you will grow as a fictional writer with the aid of a developmental editor.

Copyright 2006 Black Butterfly Press

About The Author

Dr. Maxine Thompson is a story editor as well a ghost writer. She also hosts 3 Internet radio shows at, and

Please sign up for her free newsletter at


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