Substantive Editing or Structural Editing - The Reality Check
Substantive editing, also known as structural editing, focuses on the content, organization and presentation of an entire text, from the title through to the ending. Substantive editors help writers define and refine their goals, identify their intended audience/readers, and shape the manuscript in the best possible way. They clarify the argument and its development, establish the pacing, suggest improvements, and draw missing pieces from the author. These essential skills apply to fiction and non-fiction alike, to books, magazines, reports, legal , corporate and government writing of all kinds. They are equally useful for writers, too, as they revise their final drafts to submit to literary agents or publishers, or to self-publish through Amazon, Google, or some other platforms on the web.
Substantive editing is sometimes the first step in the editing or revising process, and some editors and publishers agree that there is no point in basic editing a manuscript for the mechanical part of language and syntax when the text needs a lot of substantive work.
Other writers and editors, concentrate on the mechanical form (grammar, punctuation, syntax) first and leave the substantial structural editing last. Not all manuscripts can and should be edited this way. Each manuscript is different and require a specific set of editing parameters.
A manuscript that is in good developmental shape may only need a proofreading but this is rarely the case. A good editor will know at first glance what your manuscript needs and you should trust their expertise and knowledge.
Little has been written about this type of editing. This complex step is meant to provide a reality check for the writer and illicit stimulating exchanges between the Editor and the Writer for the benefit of the manuscript.
Most authors do not know how their manuscript looks from "the outside" , it's impact on the reader, how fluently it reads or if it conveys the exact meaning the author intended. The author's work is usually a hard creative process of putting into words what inspires them. From the author's point of view, everything seems perfectly explicit.
I had many authors approach me with the following: "The book is complete, I revised it several times. It just needs a final proofreading, you know, grammar, punctuation and such". Nothing could be further from the truth.
What is wrong with this view? Almost everything; the manuscript is completely ready to meet the audience when it has gone through a thorough process of refinement to bring it to that stage; also, the editorial work that deals with language level is the editing (or copy editing); proofreading is the final "eye" through the text to catch last minute observation on FORM before the manuscript goes to print. A publishing house will ALWAYS first and foremost send your manuscript to an Editor for Substantive Editing.
To simplify, the Editorial work on the road to publishing has three stages: taking care of the FORM (Substantive Editing), the LANGUAGE (Editing or Copy Editing) and the final overview (Proofreading). Any and all manuscripts (should) go through these stages more or less and the need for this "quality control" does not affect, infringe upon or otherwise criticize the quality of the writing or the author's competence.
Substantive editing requires a whole range of editing skills that go far beyond grammar and punctuation. I am usually educating the author about the types of editing and the time and effort involved and hope the author will understand (and accept) my editorial authority and advice. The process of substantive editing, as mentioned is complex and time consuming, it requires thoroughly evaluating the coherence and organization of information in the manuscript and working with the author on revisions.
Substantive editing is hard work which require utmost editorial objectivity and detachment from being seduced by a text, a style of writing or a topic. Who knew that editing could be so complex, right?
What does a Substantive Editor actually do?
Substantive editors, also called structural editors, are the big picture people in the editing world. They have to
- read the whole text,
- ask as many questions as necessary to thoroughly understand the writer's intent,
- and then decide the best possible structure for the material.
The substantive editor will make sure the structure the writer uses will make it easy for the reader to understand the message.
This is more than just an outline, although an outline may be part of the editor's work. If there are gaps in the information, the editor will let the writer know. Many times the editor will suggest the writer cut parts that do not add to the message or are redundant.
In a work of fiction, the substantive editor may comment on setting, characters, plot, and theme.
This is basic work and it gives the manuscript the best structure to convey the message, to be explicit and as compelling as the author envisioned it .