Editing Explained, Part 1: Substantive Editing

Editing is more complex than just fixing misspelled words (though that is an important step). There are several distinct types of editing that every manuscript should go through: substantive editing, line editing, copy editing, and proofreading. Writers can benefit from understanding these types so they can self-edit as much as possible before handing it off to a professional editor.

What is Substantive Editing?

Also known as structural or content editing, substantive editing is all about the big picture. It’s the first step after your draft is complete, and should occur before correcting grammar, punctuation, or word choice. Believe me, I know how tempting it is to focus on those other things right away, but substantive editing often requires complete overhauls of paragraphs, sections, or even entire chapters, which means you’d be wasting time by focusing on sentence structure beforehand.

Substantive editing requires analyzing many elements of your story, including structure, tone, character voice, point(s) of view, worldbuilding, pacing, dialogue, consistency, plot development, and character arcs. Substantive editing generally takes the longest time (sometimes as long as writing the book did) because it’s dealing with the heart of your story. Fixing plot holes, deleting or adding scenes, adding foreshadowing—this is all within the realm of substantive editing.

Substantive editors also consider whether your manuscript is meeting the goal if its genre and target audience. For example, if George R.R. Martin sent his draft of Game of Thrones to his editor and said it was a book for 8-10 year olds, his editor would probably say “let’s gear this towards adults instead” or “this needs a massive rewrite to be marketable to children.” Likewise, if the first draft of Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games was 200,000 words long, her editor would probably suggest massive cuts in order to bring it down to an appropriate length for the Young Adult market.

How to Self-Edit

Before you begin self-editing your novel, step away. Take some days, weeks, or even months without touching your novel, looking at it, or thinking about it. This is important because you are too close to your novel to properly edit it immediately after you’ve typed “The End.” You need some distance. You could use this time to send it to a few trusted beta readers so their feedback will be waiting for you when you are ready to dig in again.

Read your novel with your fresh eyes and examine it for big problems. Does the pacing feel too fast or too slow? Are the characters drawing you in? Is the dialogue full of tension? Is every scene necessary to the plot? Don’t start rewriting anything yet. Make notes, using your preferred method; some writers like to print out their manuscript and mark it up or use sticky notes, others add comments in Word or Scrivener. I prefer Scrivener for my own work because it includes tools to comment on each chapter and flag them with different colours according to the stage of editing I’m in. When I’m editing someone else’s work, I use comments and Track Changes in Word or Google Docs.

“Working with a substantive editor often means swallowing pride, being willing to listen, and feeling like a lot of hard work is flushed down the drain.”

Once you’ve gone over your novel and added your own comments, the next phase begins. If you’ve acquired beta reader notes, take them out (plus a glass of wine, tea, or preferred calming beverage). Consider their suggestions carefully. Their feedback is important, but remember that beta readers are not usually editors or professionals, and a lot of their comments are opinions. They will point out where something feels off (“I got bored here” or “this character doesn’t interest me”), but may not be able to tell you why or how to fix it. Mark up your manuscript with the comments you think are valuable and ideas about how to adjust your manuscript accordingly.

Then… get to work! Take one change at a time so you don’t feel overwhelmed. And feel free to wallow for a day or two because you thought your novel was done and now realize it isn’t. Deep breaths. You’ve got this.

What to Look for in a Substantive Editor

To have the best potential end product, to write a really good book, you need an editor. Self edits will only get you so far. Here’s what to look for in a content editor:

  • Experience in content editing, not copy editing or proofreading. Most editors are more experienced in one specific type of editing. For example, I am familiar with copy editing and proofreading; I even have training in both of those areas and could do either in a pinch. But I have the most experience with (and passion for) substantive and line editing, which is why that’s my job at Mythos & Ink. We hire two other editors to do the copy editing and proofreading, because that is what they are best at. You want someone who has a lot of experience in the specific type of editing you’re looking for.
  • Experience in your genre. Science fiction and fantasy is a specific type of writing, and you want your editor to be familiar with it. Someone who regularly edits romance novels may do an okay job for you, but someone experienced in speculative fiction will do it better.
  • Dedication to encourage and challenge you. It’s nice to have an editor who points out what is working well in addition to what needs work.
  • Willingness to work within your budget and time frame. If you are hiring an editor (as opposed to working with one if you have a contract with a publisher), you’ll need to work out these details with them. You may want to ask them to do a sample edit of a chapter before committing your whole manuscript.
  • Respect for your author’s voice. Constantly trying to force you into a different voice (probably theirs) is the sign of an inexperienced editor. This is where they rewrite large passages for you and baulk when you try to change it into your own words. You want an editor who values your unique voice and helps it to come through even while correcting structural problems.
  • Ability to provide suggested solutions for problems. Your editor should be able to suggest ideas on how to fix issues in your manuscript rather than just pointing out when there is a problem. (i.e. “This feels rushed” is pointing out a problem. “What if you added some dialogue between these two characters here about X topic while they eat breakfast, which will slow down the pace and add character development” is suggesting a solution.)

Working with a Substantive Editor

“I felt irritated and threatened at first. I did not want to hear all the things he thought were wrong with my masterpiece. It was like enduring the death of a thousand cuts,” writes Terry Brooks in Sometimes the Magic Works: Lessons from a Writing Life. 

After authoring the well-received Sword of Shannara, Brooks sent a draft of a potential sequel to his editor, Lester del Rey, who told him that the four hundred pages were just not working and suggested he scrap them and start afresh. Ouch. Brooks was devastated and tempted to ignore del Rey’s advice, but after examining the editor’s comments, realized he was right. The book had so many problems, problems he had been blind to until del Rey pointed them out, that it was unsalvageable.

“Looking back,” Brooks writes, “I know that I learned more about the craft of writing and about being a writer through that one experience than I learned from all the other writing experiences of my life combined.”

“Feel free to wallow for a day or two because you thought your novel was done and now realize it isn’t.”

Working with a substantive editor often means swallowing pride, being willing to listen, and feeling like a lot of hard work is flushed down the drain. It might even mean scrapping your project and starting over. But if your editor is wise and correct in their assessment, you may find yourself learning more through your failures than you ever would through your successes.

You do not have to take an editor’s advice. If you consider their suggestion carefully and decide it’s not the right move for your story, that’s perfectly okay (though if it’s a large, contentious issue and you are working with a traditional publisher, there’s always the risk of your publisher rejecting you). I’ve heard several authors mention they take about 90% of their editor’s suggestions and reject the other 10%. As an editor, I enjoy seeing writers contemplate a suggestion and then work a new solution that makes more sense for their voice. I appreciate back and forth discussion about what’s best for the story as opposed to dictatorship. My word is not law. It’s their story, and my job to guide them through making it the best story it can be.

Read “Editing Explained, Part 2: Line Editing” >

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