If you’ve been following my work for any amount of time, you probably understand that the question of whether you need an editor is a non-starter: You do! I do! We all do!

But the question of what type of editor you need requires more thought. When it comes to taking a full draft from good to great, you’ve got several options in front of you. And one of the most common questions I hear from people in this situation is: What’s the difference between a content editor and a book doctor–and which one do I need?

Both content editing and book doctoring start with full drafts, and both are aimed at reorganizing and improving your book to make it a better read. But the way they go about achieving that aim is very different.

So to answer this question, let’s first establish the difference between editing content and doctoring it. Then we’ll look at several other factors. This starts with estimating both your timeline to completion and your budget. Then it moves through evaluating your writing skill set and assessing I call your writer’s life force.

Got it? That’s a lot of things to consider, so let’s dive in and take them one by one.

The Difference Between Editing and Book Doctoring

Content editing is the broad category of editorial work that looks at the art of the manuscript. We’re talking the quality and completeness of the content, as well as readability, clarity, and flow. (You’ll notice “perfect grammar” did not make the content editing checklist. Dotting all the i’s and crossing all the t’s is more the realm of the technical editors who take over once the final draft is ready to go.)  

Content editing consists of two categories: Developmental editing and line editing.  

Developmental editing looks at global issues: the book’s structure, voice, content, completeness and more. (I’ve included my developmental editorial checklist in the appendix of my book, The Book You Were Born to Write.) We assess what’s working, what’s not, and where the organization could stand to improve. We look at how the chapters are flowing and whether the order they’re presented in is working. We make sure your ideas are thoroughly explained, without being repetitive. And then, we give you our best advice for how to fix the issues we’ve pointed out.

Then it’s your turn to revise. Usually, this developmental revision requires a certain amount of rewriting. You can expect to spend a couple of weeks working on this round of edits.

Once you feel great about the revision, you return the manuscript to us and we give it a thorough line-edit. While retaining your voice, our goal is to make each sentence better. Following the three C’s–clear, concise, compelling–we’ll clean up your draft, line by line. And pay attention, because this is important: We’ll primarily do it by deletion, rather than rewriting or adding to your work.

There’s your math: developmental editing + line-editing = content editing. Note what we’re not doing, though: We’re not doing the work for you. We let you know what needs to be reorganized and revised in the developmental edit, and we’re improving the sentences that are too wordy or unclear in the line edit. But then we’re handing the manuscript back, leaving the heavy lifting up to you.

Therein lies the major difference between content editing and book doctoring.

Content editing: We tell you what to do, and you do it. Book doctoring, on the other hand? We do it for you. You hand over your manuscript in the best shape you can get it into. Then your editor reads through it, takes a lot of notes about what needs to happen, and goes back in to fix it on your behalf.

In fact, book doctoring is actually what a lot of people imagine editors do: Take your ideas, reorganize them, rewrite them, and hand the draft back, tied up in satin ribbon with a neat little bow on top. (Ok, in the digital age, most people don’t use actual ribbons anymore…but it makes for a nice image!)

Sound easy? Sound efficient? You get the picture! At the same time, doctoring takes a whole lotta time, energy and love–which is why it can cost up to three times as much as content editing.

But you get a lot of bang for your buck: Your editor’s job is to do whatever it takes to make your book shine. She’ll handle the global issues, reorganize your thoughts, write transitions, add content (with your approval) and then polish the words. And from there, your work is simple: You tell your editor where what she’s done is working, as well as where it’s not, and then she makes it better.

So which do you need, content editing or book doctoring? It depends on a bunch of factors. Let’s walk through them here.

How much time ya got?

This is a big one, because your timeline may be negotiable–or not. If you don’t have time to rewrite your book, getting it doctored takes relatively little effort from you, and it can happen in as little as a month. If you’re a first-time author and/or writing is not your superpower, applying the structural and developmental changes your content editor recommends could take you quite a bit longer than it would take a seasoned editor. If time is of the essence, it may be worth hiring a doctor to do it for you.

What’s your budget?

It might come down to money. Book doctoring can cost as much as three times the price of content editing. For some people, this will be the most important factor, full stop. Depending on your budget, you may want to get a content edit and make the revisions yourself.

Do you have the skills to make your next draft shine?

Some people know they have a compelling story to tell, but when they put pen to paper–er, fingers to keyboard–what they end up producing just isn’t what they’d hoped. Now, that alone isn’t a reason to get a book doctor; there’s a lot to be said for gaining new skills. As the delightful Anne Lamott says in her brilliant TED talk, “Every writer you know writes really terrible first drafts, but they keep their butt in the chair; that’s the secret of life.” Going through the content editing process and keeping your butt in that chair can actually make you a better writer.

But for some, the issue isn’t the quality of their writing–it’s the style. We’ve had book doctors pep up super academic dissertations, or go on a copy/paste bonanza for writers who have a beautiful, lyrical style but are all over the place in terms of organization. We’ve also encountered authors who need/want a doctor because English is not their first language.

And then there are those who just don’t write as well as they wish they could. Let me be clear: I think the call of your book dream is real, true and valid, no matter how skilled a writer you may be. (In fact, I wrote about this in greater detail just recently!) But you simply may want to see your story rewritten with the skill of someone who does this for a living. If that’s the case, finding a book doctor may be just the ticket.

How much energy do you have left for this book?

We do a lot of books on energy healing at kn literary, and so by osmosis, I happen to know a quite a bit about the topic. Some call it prana or chi, but I call it writer’s life force, and here’s the truth: To revise your own work, you’re going to need said life force. A lot of it.

If even looking at your computer has you reaching for your stash of essential oils…if the thought of yet another rewrite has you running for the therapist’s couch or the acupuncturist’s table…if you tried a long walk in the woods and your favorite relaxing playlist and your special writing candle and everything else in your toolbox, but you still can’t even think about revising your draft…well, then it may be time to call a book doctor.

Because a content editor will walk with you, she’ll cheer you along, she’ll break it down step by step…but in the end, you’re doing the revision work yourself.

If the thought makes you cringe, and you have the budget to work with, then hiring a book doctor may be your highest and best form of self-care.

In the end, only you can decide whether content editing or doctoring is the best choice for you.

We at kn literary will always support what’s best for you. We’ll also be honest with you if, between your publishing goals and the work your bookneeds, we feel that the editing process requires a more advanced skill set than what you have. (No shame there; you’d be very surprised to learn how many books are doctored and ghostwritten every single day.) This path is yours and yours alone! But that doesn’t mean you have to go it alone.

We’re always here to have a sit-down chat about the ups and downs of the editing vs. doctoring decision. So give us a ring. We’re happy to give you free advice!

Kelly Notaras is the founder of kn literary arts and the author of THE BOOK YOU WERE BORN TO WRITE: Everything You Need to (Finally) Get Your Wisdom Onto the Page and Into the World, published by Hay House. An editor for 20 years, she’s worked at HarperCollins, Penguin, Hyperion and Sounds True. She speaks regularly at the Hay House Writer’s Workshops and offers consultation by appointment. Find out more about how she can help you with your book.