Looseleaf Substantive Editing

This week I’m going to look at each of Looseleaf’s editorial services and tell you what they are, when you need them, and some tricks you can use to do some editing yourself before you hire it out. Today is substantive editing day.

Railway TrackWhat Is Substantive Editing?

Substantive editing is also called line editing. That’s because for a substantive edit I go through a manuscript line by line and consider how each line could be better. This means it’s a lot more sentence- and word-based that developmental editing, but it’s still focusing on how the manuscript works as a whole. It can go as big as reordering paragraphs and as fine as tweaking a word to sustain your tone. When I do a substantive edit, I look at how the little pieces work together to strengthen your plot or argument, your character development, your theme, your structure, and your ability to reach your audience.

Substantive editing with me often involves some ghostwriting. By that I don’t mean that I insert sentences you have to include. What I mean is that sometimes the suggestions I make in a substantive edit are best communicated through examples. If you need a transition between two paragraphs, I may write one. Then I’ll leave a comment explaining why I did what I did and asking you to look over the change. I may pull a sentence from the end of a paragraph and put it somewhere else, but I’ll want you to make sure I didn’t change the meaning from what you intended.

This means that substantive editing involves a lot of tweaking, reordering, and decision-making from the author—which means that even though a substantive edit may involve grammar-related changes, it can’t stand in for a true copyedit. By the time the edit is done you’ll have changed a lot of text, and any time you make lots of changes you need to go back and make sure the details of those changes are clear and consistent.

When Does a Manuscript Need Substantive Editing?

Your manuscript needs a substantive edit when you think your story or argument is solid, but you want help with the details. A substantive edit won’t overhaul chapters, scenes, and arcs the way a developmental edit will; it will make sure every line is serving the structure you’ve already set up and keeping your ideas on track. So if you’re satisfied with your setup, but you want something more in-depth than an error-hunt (i.e., a copyedit), you should be looking for a substantive editor.

How Can You Do Some Substantive Editing Yourself?

Before you can do a substantive edit, it’s important that you have a concrete vision for your book. If you aren’t sure whether you want a dark tone or a darkly humorous one, you’re going to have trouble doing the fine-tuning the book needs (some of you won’t have any trouble with this, but some discovery writers may need to think about it). After you feel that you understand your structure, you can ask yourself questions. The more you do on your own before hiring an editor, the more that editor’s feedback will help your writing, because the editor won’t be telling you things you already knew.

  • Does this line communicate my purpose to my audience?
  • Would this sentence be more effective earlier or later?
  • Does this word suit the tone/character/viewpoint? Is there a better word?
  • Does this dialogue match the character’s purpose in the book?
  • Does this sentence contribute to my argument, or is it distracting from my main point?
  • Is this action consistent with the character I’ve created? Is it stereotypical or cliché?
  • Is this bit of dialogue didactic or stilted?
  • Does this transition show the logical progression of the plot or argument? Does it leave a gap the reader has to bridge? How can I transition better?
  • Does this element of the book support or erode my theme?

Some of these questions are similar to those you ask in a developmental edit. The difference is that in a substantive edit you’re focusing on smaller things—smaller errors and smaller opportunities. These small things are the ones that take your manuscript from being good to being excellent.

Other Editorial Services

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