Monday, August 2, 2010

The Substantive or Content Edit

Life is full of surprises, and there is nothing more filled with surprise than an author's first substantive edit. It bings in electronically to the author's in-box in an unassuming e-mail. Some editors still work on hard copy, but not many. Most of my work lives in a virtual world.

In a blog last week, I described in depth the purpose of a macro edit. After the author responds to the comments in a macro edit, the substantive or content edit is the next step in the editorial process. It can be a light edit if an author is experienced in self-editing, or it can be a heavy edit if the author has not had time or the experience to turn in a clean manuscript.

When an author opens the manuscript file, it can be a shock to the system. You see, editors use the "track changes" feature on the Word doc, and even the slightest of change will show up in a sea of red.

Experienced authors take a deep breath and read through the manuscript either accepting or deleting changes. If you find yourself deleting more changes than accepting them, you and the editor need to talk. You have a failure to communicate.

I've heard authors say, "I'm shocked. The last editor didn't touch a thing." That may be because the editor didn't have time to edit the manuscript because of his or her workload or the publisher has a policy of sending manuscripts out for copyedits only. That's sad, but it's an economic reality in publishing. Edits cost money: big money. If you've never had a true edit, you've missed out on a learning opportunity.

My hope is that you will tackle a substantive edit on your own manuscript. The following guidelines are what we send out to freelance editors when the in-house editor is buried with other projects:

Guidelines for Freelance Editors
Abingdon Press Fiction


Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition--specifically sections 2.47 through 2.68 to understand the various edits

Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, Unabridged

 Both of these resources are available online


CMS [Chicago Manual of Style] Definition-2.55: Substantive editing [Note: also called content editing]

"Substantive editing deals with the organization and presentation of existing content. It involves rephrasing for smoothness or to eliminate ambiguity, reorganizing or tightening, reducing or simplifying documentation, recasting tables, and other remedial activities. (It should not be confused with developmental editing, a more drastic process; see 2.48.)"


 This list contains general instruction but is not an exhaustive list of things to check. Use CMS as your guide.

 It is your job to correct errors by making changes in the electronic version of the manuscript.

 Use Microsoft Word or save the file in MS-Word format.

 Work with Word's Track Changes feature turned on. Every edit you make must be tracked.

 Look for places to tighten the description or dialogue. Remember, less is more.

 Look for pet words or phrases employed throughout the text. Look for clich├ęs or trite phrasing. Either make a simple substitution for overused vocabulary or make a note to the author in a comment box.

 Be aware of repetitive sentence constructions that can lead to boredom. Make changes that will add variety to sentence structure or make a note to the author in a comment box.

 Remove unnecessary modifiers and redundant words or phrases.

 Hunt for passive sentences and replace with active verbs. The use of helping verbs with present participles that end in “-ing” or past participles that need “was” creates a passive voice. Recast those sentences to eliminate as many of them as possible without affecting the tone, the point of view, or the voice of the story.

 Always keep the author’s voice in mind. Remember, the manuscript is the author’s work, not the editor’s.

 Avoid over editing.

Some authors are content with work that is "just good enough." You need to decide whether you want to settle for being an adequate writer or a writer who continues to grow. I do remember, however, a Scripture that says we should do our work as unto the Lord. Doesn't that mean that we should always do our best?


  1. The hardest thing about catching some of these things is when you've gone over your manuscript a million times and no matter what you do or even if you set it aside for a few months, you can't seem to come back to it fresh enough to catch all the errors. GRRR!!!!!

  2. I agree with B.K. I read over it many times, have my computer read it aloud, print it out since it looks different, and still my critique partners find something!

    But I agree with you, too, Barbara. The Lord deserves our very best work--and so do the readers.

  3. Christian authors should strive for excellence, and I think the majority do. Having an editor like you, Barbara, is a blessing to help us achieve that. I remember you told me that you would help polish 'Surrender the Wind' to a high sheen. Those words reflected what my heart desired for my novel. The editing process was a fantastic experience.

  4. Barbara, You're wonderful to share this information with your blog readers. I learned with my first novel that not every word appearing on the pages of a novel originated with the author. There's no doubt that editing and rewriting (even when we thought the work was perfect) produces a better book. It takes a village, or at least an editor or two, to put out a good book.

  5. So interesting! I can't wait to get my first edit someday. Woot! :-)
    Hope you have a wonderful week, and thanks for sharing.

  6. Thanks for your comments, everyone. It's true. No matter how often you go through your manuscript, you will read over things that an editor will catch. God made authors, and then He made editors. LOL One of my goals is to write a self-editing book for inspirational authors that would have a chapter on global searches: a checklist that would make it easy to find and replace certain words or phrases. My "to do" list keeps growing!

  7. This is excellent material. I'm finding myself looking forward to this stage in the editing. I think it will be a real learning experience. :)

  8. Great list. You would think that after years of writing we wouldn't do those things anymore! I'd rather do this stage of editing than rewrites. :)

  9. In writing we do want to strive for excellence and having an editor like Barbara has to be the finest blessing for those authors who benefit from her fine eye and ear.

    In self-editing, one of the frustrations is the tendency for the "eye" to fill in a mistake so it looks correct -- that's from overfamiliarity with out own work. I remember on one of our magazine covers, everyone from publisher, sales people, designer, editors down to the traffic manager never caught the misspelling of a word on the cover of an annual publication -- which was pinned on the bulletin board for everyone to see and contribute comments -- missed a mistake in the title, and that was because we all knew how to spell "transportation" and mentally filled in the missing letter rather than saw the mistake. We had to live with that published error for a whole year too. Everyone needs editing, even the best.

  10. Nicely said, Barbara. Love your encouraging words. I remember my first edit. I nearly wilted at all the comments, but as I picked apart each one, it made the story that much better!

    We should always have a teachable heart.

    "As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another." Proverbs 27:17

  11. I was so thrilled when I got my edits back and loved the red ink. It was just so cool to know the editor had read it and thought it worth improving. (And boy did she help me improve!) Now I'm watching for all my catch-phrase words... and my eBook's out, with edits, with improvements... Me, I'm over the moon.

  12. I've stumbled across a cave full of secret scrolls. I'm just getting caught up with your last few posts and they're all packed with insight and inspiration. Perhaps Santa lives in Nashville during the summer time?

  13. This is great stuff, Barbara. Learning so much from your blog. Can't wait to meet you at the ACFW conference this September. :)

  14. Authors have been kept in the dark for far too long. Editors rarely teach workshops on the nitty-gritty aspects of publishing, but I think it can only help us all.

    I'm glad to hear from authors who have experienced a substantive edit. See everyone? It's not so bad. It's only the first one that seems intimidating . . . sort of like that first trip to the dentist. :)

    Uh, Michael, that would be MRS. Santa. LOL

    And I look forward to meeting you as well, Katie. Now onward and upward!

  15. Barbara, thank you so much for this series of posts. It is encouraging to read about how much editing and work those books I read have gone through. It helps me realize that all the work can truly be worth it.