Demystifying the 7 Levels of Story Development and Editing

Story development encompasses the entire life cycle of a novel, screenplay, or short story—from idea to publication. No matter what kind of content you create, it will need development and revision. First comes the content and then attention to language. 

Story development and editing make your content the best it can be by revising content, fixing errors, and ensuring that the story meets your specific requirements. Editing is a crucial part of the writing process, yet it can be a daunting and confusing task for many writers. I’ve written about several types of professional editing here. This article will add to that discussion by focusing on story development as a continuum.

A story’s lifecycle

To understand the what or which of editing, consider the when. The path from an idea to a published book includes several processes: idea selection, several drafts to clarify the overall story and structure, revisions to polish the sentences, design to format the pages, and finally, printing and ebook creation to distribute to get your book in the hands of readers. The drafting and early revisions focus on content. Once you’ve settled on and revised the content, the subsequent steps address language issues. 

I have a deep appreciation for fast drafting and National Novel Writing Month, but story development takes time. There is a reason why some of the most beloved films take many months, years, if not decades of development. Films are a high-stakes game with hundreds of millions of dollars on the line. You may be alone in your writer’s room, but your story needs just as much care (but hopefully not decades.)

There are different levels of story development and editing, whether done by the author or by a professional editor. Each level has a purpose and a focus: content or language. There is overlap. In this blog post, we’ll take a look at the seven main stages of story development and professional edits so that you can understand your options. Understanding how the terminology and functions fit along the publishing path will help you make the right decisions and help you make sure your novel is well-crafted, polished, and ready for publication.

Content or language?

The seven types of editing fall into two major categories: content editing and language editing. Content editing addresses the overall story and includes book coaching, beta reading, manuscript evaluations, and developmental editing.  Language editing focuses on sentences and words and includes line editing, copyediting, and proofreading. 

Book Coaching: Book coaches support writers in creating a  manuscript that’s ready for editing. However, a book coach can work with a writer during any stage of the writing process, from idea selection, story development, draft production, and initial reviews to proposal creation, agent selection, and pitching. Coaches offer professional feedback and accountability via regular meetings, assignments, and writing deadlines but do not write, correct, or revise (beyond some basic typos, etc.) 

Beta Reading: Professional beta reading by an editor is a significant step beyond friends, family, and your writing group. Editors are trained in writing craft and story structure and understand when a story is and is not working. Beta reading can be helpful in the early drafting phase when you’re just figuring out the content, characters, and form of your story. This type of editing gives feedback—typically one to two pages— but does not provide or recommend changes. 

Manuscript Evaluation: Manuscript evaluations give feedback about the story’s overall strengths and weaknesses.  The report—typically three to ten pages—addresses character development, plot, structure, dialogue, narrative flow, and the ending. A significant step up from a beta reading, a manuscript evaluation identifies where your story is and isn’t working and suggests an editorial direction such as a developmental edit, line editing, or copyediting. While manuscript evaluations review of story elements suggest the next steps, they do not provide in-text comments and do not correct or revise your writing. 

Developmental Editing: Also called content, substantive, or structural editing, this type of edit is the most intense and in-depth of the content edits and focuses on the overall structure, theme, concept, and organization of your manuscript. After the writer has revised to the best of their ability, a developmental editor will help ensure the manuscript has a clear purpose, meets genre conventions, and has unifying execution of all story elements. “Dev edits” may require several rounds of back and forth between editor and writer and ultimately delivers insightful inline comments, a book map or outline, and a detailed editorial letter of ten to twenty pages.

Line Editing: Line editing, also known as heavy copyediting or stylistic editing, is all about perfecting the manuscript’s paragraphs and sentences. This form of language editing focuses on making sure that each sentence is well-written, clear, and flows smoothly into the next. Line editors often address awkward sentences, point-of-view errors, repetitive words, inconsistent verb tenses, and narrative logic.

Line editors strive to maintain the voice, tone, and mood of that story and may query the writer either inside the manuscript via comments or outside via email or other communication. Line edits are very detailed and may require several passes through the document. Line editing may or may not include grammar corrections depending on your needs. The editing letter is usually two to five pages long. 

Copyediting: Copyediting involves very detailed language editing for clarity, coherency, consistency, and correctness—known as “the four C’s, according to Einsohn in The Copyeditor’s Handbook. Unlike line editing, copyediting focuses on correcting for errors in grammar, spelling, and punctuation and makes sure the style adheres to publishing industry standards laid out in the Chicago Manual of Style (CMOS.) Copyeditors can also fact-check content to ensure that the information is accurate.

If self-publishing, copyediting is the last step before book design. For traditional publishing, the publisher arranges copyediting and proofreading (see below), but some writers like a final copyedit before submitting it to an agent. Most modern copyeditors use MS Word’s tracked changes and comments (in the Review tab) to show their corrections and queries. Most copyeditors produce a feedback letter and a style sheet indicating their editing choices. The writer may use this to create or add to their Story Bible. 

Proofreading: Proofreading corrects errors in formatted pages just before they are sent for printing or final ebook setup. Traditionally published authors need not direct this step as the publisher will arrange proofreading, but self-publishing authors are responsible for this final step. Proofreading ensures that the design process introduced no new errors into the polished manuscript. This type of edit does not conceptually change the overall or sentence-level story but rather ensures that your manuscript revisions remain intact and the book and page elements work. 

7 levels of Story Development

Which type of editing do you need?

Now that you know the seven different levels of story development and editing, you might be wondering which one(s) you need for your manuscript. The answer to that question depends on a number of factors, including the type of content you’re creating, your audience, and your personal preferences. In general, though, most stories will benefit from a combination of content and language editing.

If you’re unsure which type(s) of editing your manuscript needs, a good place to start is by doing a self-edit. This involves going through your content yourself and making any necessary changes. Set your work aside for a while and look at it afresh. Revisit your original premise. On the whole, does the work say what you set out to say? If not, has it evolved for the better?

Once you’ve done a self-edit, you can then ask someone else to read through your content (beta reading or manuscript evaluation) and provide feedback. Look for a pattern from beta readers. Based on that feedback, you can determine which type(s) of professional editing would be most beneficial for your story. It’s always a good idea to discuss your goals and the manuscript’s needs with a prospective editor. Sharing a sample of your writing and any prior feedback can be a helpful place to start.

Final thoughts

So there you have it! The seven levels of story development and how they fit in the professional editing world. Now that you know a little bit more about each type of service, you can decide which one is right for your story. When you’re ready to get started, I’d be honored to have you consider my services. Mostly, I’d love to hear about your project!


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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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