Content Editing versus Language Editing: Do You Know the Difference?

You can generally break writing a novel down into two distinct phases: drafting and editing. Editing steps can be further categorized as content editing versus language editing.

Writing is the creative side of building a story—where you pour your heart into creating lovable characters, developing a compelling plot, and painting a setting that readers can feel themselves in. Editing takes that work and fine-tunes it to make all the pieces fit together. But what new authors will quickly realize is that editing is so much more than a red pen and a few corrections. There are multiple levels of story development that need to be done in order for a book to be ready for publication.

While getting on a first-name basis with those levels is essential, it helps to start by understanding the differences between editing’s two major functions: content and language. In this piece, we’ll define and distinguish between the two to help you streamline your editing process—whether you’re working with an editor or DIY-ing it. 

Content Editing

Content editing is the heart of the book. It’s where you take your story structure and characters and make sure they’re working together harmoniously. This level of editing looks at how all the parts of a novel—characters, plot, setting, etc.—are organized to create an effective narrative arc. Does your protagonist have a clear goal? Does your plot have enough tension? Are there any areas where the plot might be missing a beat?

All of these questions are addressed in content editing, which typically includes:

  • Planning and getting the overall organization of the story right
  • Drafting (and redrafting) scenes and characters
  • Taking a look at character arcs and motivations
  • Making sure the plot is logical and that it progresses naturally
  • Hiring beta readers to provide feedback

Sometimes content editing is referred to as developmental editing, substantive editing, story editing, or structural editing. Technically, when you start writing your first draft of your novel, you’re already in content editing mode. So don’t be afraid to make changes as you go!

Language Editing

Once the meat of the story is where you want it, it’s time to move on to language editing—the final polish. Language editing takes your already solid content and enhances it by polishing the sentences, making sure phrases make sense in context, fixing any typos or grammar errors, and making sure the voice is consistent throughout.

Also referred to as line editing, copyediting or stylistic editing, this level of editing is where you take your story and make it shine. It requires both knowledge of the English language and an understanding of the style you’re trying to achieve. Many writers choose to work with an editor here, as it requires a keen eye and a lot of attention to detail.

An editor should be able to pick up problems with flow and readability, know when to take out words for better pacing, and help you create an overall tone that’s consistent with the story you’re telling. They may suggest changes to sentence structure or offer advice on a more appropriate word choice. Because this level of editing is the most nitpicky, it often takes the longest. But it’s well worth it to achieve a stellar final product.

Content Editing VS Language Editing 

Now that you’ve got a better idea of what each type of editing entails let’s do a quick comparison.

They Focus on Different Things

Content editing is all about making sure the big components of your story—plot, structure, characters—are working together in harmony. Language editing, on the other hand, focuses more on the small details like grammar, typos, and syntax.

They Require Different Kinds of Skills

Content editing requires a keen eye for story structure and the ability to give feedback that’s specific and helpful. Language editing requires knowledge of the English language, grammar rules, and an eye for detail.

They Happen at Different Times

In general, content editing should come before language editing. This ensures that once you’ve got the heart of the story right, you can fine-tune the language to make sure it fits the narrative. It makes no sense to spend money to hire a copyeditor or line editor before the content or overall structure is set because things will likely be deleted or changed in major ways. 

Procrastinating Your Editing?

Ultimately, content and language editing are both vital pieces of the book-writing puzzle. Together they help create a cohesive story that readers will love—but that doesn’t make the process any less daunting.

If you’re stuck in the editing phase of your novel-writing journey, you’re not alone. Many authors get overwhelmed, which is why working with an experienced book editor can be extremely helpful. A good editor will be able to work with you to ensure your content is as strong and engaging as possible while also helping you get the language just right.

So if you’re having trouble getting through the editing process, click here to check out our editorial services. We offer everything from professional beta reading and development help to line editing and copyediting. With our help and guidance, you’ll be able to make sure your story is as strong and cohesive as possible—and ready for publication.


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Story Coach, Story Development

I’m Pam, Your Story Coach

I help busy professionals write and polish the book of their dreams. Let’s bring authenticity to your speculations, flow to your structure, and heart to your words.

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