Substantive Editing

Substantive Editing

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February 6, 2019

We’ve all been there: reading a good book, minding our own business, when something seems to smack us out of the story.  

A gangster gasps and says “goodness!”

The leather-wearing, butt-kicking femme fatale giggles and blushes at a compliment.

“She whirled, her curly hair sticking to her lip gloss.” Wait, that character has curly hair? You’ve been imagining her with straight hair for 200 pages!

“The heroine’s eyes flutter before looking up through her lashes into her beau’s ocean blue eyes. He can’t take his eyes off her, oblivious that all eyes are on him.” So many eyeballs!

Sound familiar? Substantive editing is where you and your editor work together to dial in on any issues that might get in the way of a reader becoming fully immersed in the story or committed to the characters. In this step, everything from misused tenses to awkward wording is addressed. This is where details are organized, the language is smoothed out, and your fifty-millionth draft is polished into a true manuscript.

How it works:

First and foremost, don’t panic. A lot of writers are worried about this step because they fear their voice, humor, or vision will be lost. No editor should make substantive or stylistic changes without your permission. Your editor is on your team and wants to help your vision come across as clearly as possible to your future readers.

Most editors will simply read through your manuscript, leaving comments or suggested changes as they go, and then send it back to you for review. If a larger change is needed or some details need to be restructured, you may also receive a substantive edit report which outlines the problem area and suggests a possible solution or two. It is, of course, entirely up to you what to change and what to keep.

Just keep this in mind: If an editor tells you how to fix something, they might be wrong. If an editor tells you something needs fixing, they’re always right. Whether you take or leave their suggestions, if your editor flags something, it’s not working as is. Take note and make use of your editor’s expert eye—your readers will thank you for it.

Dialogue between you and your editor is extremely important at this stage if you want to end with the best possible result. Always ask for clarification if you are confused with a comment or recommendation, and if you feel your editor didn’t understand the purpose of a device or passage, feel free to talk to them about it.

How to prepare:

Take a short break from your manuscript. Read something else, preferably in an entirely different genre. You’ve probably read every sentence in your book a dozen times at this point, and it can be difficult to sort out what seems out of place when you’ve been shuffling the pieces around like you’re playing literary musical chairs. So take a break, and when you feel ready, start from the very beginning. Read until the end, resisting the urge to make changes as you go. You may flag or mark things for changing later, but do not get sidetracked from your mission. Your goal is to read it all the way through like it’s your first time. Let the story unfold. Note where it snags. Once you’ve reached the end, go back and smooth it out. Rinse and repeat. Once you’re happy with it, or simply don’t know what else to change, it’s ready for the editor.

About Britny:

Britny is a freelance editor and technical writer from Southern California. She interned with Future House Publishing and briefly served as the house publicist before settling into her home office in Utah. She never misses a chance to roll up her sleeves, whether it’s to refurbish furniture or restructure fiction, and is an old lady in training. She loves knitting, plants, pets, and corduroys.

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