Substantive editing reduces the risk of big picture problems remaining in your work. As the writer, it can be easy to miss a major problem because you know your work so intimately. It’s a great idea to ask friends and family to read your work because they may notice some of these bigger problems, but an editor trained in substantive editing can give you an eagle eye and professional results.
What is substantive editing?
Substantive editing is much broader than a copyedit. It doesn’t highlight problems with spelling and punctuation. Instead, a substantive edit looks at how your work functions as a whole and how suited it is to your readership.
Do you want to check that your characters are consistent and useful? Do you want to check that you haven’t missed anything important in your message? Then, you need a substantive edit.
Once an editor has substantively edited your work, you can then move on to copyediting to fix sentence-level problems, like spelling and punctuation.
What does a substantive editor do?
A substantive editor focuses on your work as a whole, while keeping your target audience in mind. Your editor will focus on five key areas:
A substantive edit involves making judgements about the work, so it’s vital that the writer is involved in deciding which changes will work.
During a substantive edit, your editor will check whether the structure is logical:
- Does your work flow naturally or would it benefit from moving bits around?
- Does it confuse the reader at times? Will changing the structure make your content clearer?
- Should some bits be deleted completely or are there places where the reader needs more information?
A substantive editor will refine the structure of your work so your audience can enjoy the reading experience.
Good content is key for any successful writer. A substantive editor will check that your content is complete and that it’s appropriate for your audience. Your work might be missing important parts that help readers, like an index, or it might benefit from adding images.
A substantive edit highlights where content should be rewritten to improve the reading experience.
An editor will check that your language is appropriate and will then highlight problems with:
This is a key part of substantive editing because it makes your writing clearer, more engaging and easier to understand.
We all write in our own unique way, which helps to build our writer’s voice. Differences in style can be a good thing, but they can sometimes make the reading experience less enjoyable. Every writer will have ways that they can improve their style. A substantive edit will help you improve the style of your work so readers will be encouraged to read it to the end. Here’s an example:
Sarah writes well but often uses the passive voice:
‘The basket was filled with bright and colourful treats.’
Her substantive editor highlights this and suggests that, more often than not, Sarah should rewrite these parts in the active voice:
‘Before she set off, she filled a basket with bright and colourful treats.’
After making these changes, Sarah’s work retains her voice but is more engaging for her readers.
Different writers will present their ideas in different ways, which is a good thing. Substantive editing helps you fix any problems with how you present your ideas:
- Does the title match the content?
- Do your headings effectively lead into each section?
- Is your presentation simple or overly complicated?
- Do tables, figures and images make sense and effectively support the copy?
- Is your work referenced? If so, is it accurate and clear?
Are substantive and structural editing the same?
Yes. This type of editing is referred to under many names: content editing, substantive editing, structural editing – they’re all the same.
The Institute of Professional Editing (IPEd) broadly splits editing into three levels: substantive editing, copyediting and proofreading. You can think of these as big picture view, small picture view and microscopic view.
Substantive editing and copyediting: what’s the difference?
If you’re not yet sure what copyediting is, our Ultimate Editing Guide can help. Broadly, copyediting is what most people think of as editing. Your editor will read your work and highlight problems with:
- Spelling and punctuation
- Consistency (in word usage, capitalisation, punctuation, etc.)
Substantive editing doesn’t include this; it focuses on the overall structure, flow and clarity of your work, its completeness and its appropriateness for your audience.
When do I need a substantive editor?
You need a substantive editor when you have written the majority, if not all, of your work and you want an editor to check for big picture problems. At this point, you are not ready for a copyedit because an editor can’t effectively look for both big and small problems at the same time.
Substantive editing is not just for authors. Any writer can benefit from a substantive edit, including business writers, academics, script writers and many more.
If you’re ready for a substantive edit, ask us for a quote today. We can work with you to help your writing shine.