What is Substantive Editing?

Substantive Editing Ensures Promises Are Met!

Substantive Editing strengthens the foundations of a book, article, blog post, letter, or report. It considers the body of work as a whole and looks at the big picture and overarching narrative from beginning to end. 

A substantive editor will assess a text to identify incongruities that undermine the author’s intentions, like unnecessary characters, scenes that don’t advance the story, or areas where the writing is tangental or unfocused. It is usually very beneficial for the writer to have their manuscript substantively edited in the earlier drafts of the writing process. 

This heavier level of editing will further storylines, improve on the overall organisation and logic of the story arc, enhance strengths and clarify any weaknesses in the text. Editors ask questions like, is the story world believable? Do the actions of each character make sense based on who they’re portrayed to be through the characterisation? Is the text coherent and organised? Are the chapters in the correct order? Is the story’s structure logical and does it build to the appropriate climax or conclusion? What are the inconsistencies?

In fiction manuscripts, areas of assessment might include: 

  • promises made & kept, 
  • call to action or inciting incident, 
  • point of view,
  • narration,
  • characterisation,
  • dialogue, 
  • tone & style, 
  • plot, 
  • setting & sense of place, 
  • consistency between character and plot.

Non-fiction manuscripts, articles, letters and documents differ to the needs of a fiction manuscript, however, maintaining a structurally sound narrative flow remains. In non-fiction writing, factual accuracy is essential and a substantive editor will flag areas of concern to ensure information presented is correct and not fictional or plagiarised.

Substantive editing can also be helpful when a writer feels blocked or is struggling to flesh out their ideas. Although, this type of in-depth analysis can sometimes be unhelpful if the writer is still in the exciting stages of idea formulation and creative birthing.  Rather, if the writer feels blocked in the first draft stage, it’s much better to find some creative stimulation to provide the writer with energy to progress through the sometimes saggy middle. 

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