Samples of Substantive Editing

Substantive editing (or developmental editing) ensures that your document is considered professional, coherent, and compelling by eliminating the following:
    Misspellings (including the ones overlooked by spell-checking programs)
    Grammatical errors
    Stylistic problems, such as capitalization and punctuation issues
    Problems of usage
    Problems of parallelism
    Awkward phrasing
    Problems with references
    Poor transitions
    Organization problems
    Retrievability problems
    Lack of directness
    Lack of concreteness
    Lack of emphasis

From the foregoing you might assume that a substantive editor merely attends to a longer list of problems than does a copyeditor. The actual difference, however, involves how each editor focuses on the editing task.

The substantive editor takes a global approach to text. For example, the substantive editor might ask how does a manuscript flow from Chapter 1 through Chapter 3? Is the sequence logical? Is a more detailed explanation of the topic of extraction conditions required, or should the explanation be less detailed? Is the material in Chapter 6 overly redundant? While considering such global issues, the substantive editor corrects grammatical errors and makes other copyediting changes.

The copyeditor, on the other hand, takes a much more focused approach to the text. Unconcerned with global issues, the copyeditor focuses on grammar, spelling, word choice, sentence structure, and similar matters. (See Copyediting samples for a more complete definition of copyediting.)

To analogize, the substantive editor is like the president of a company, whereas the copyeditor is like the local branch manager.

The copyeditor’s job is to “decide which kinks or knots in someone else’s writing seems likely to disrupt communication with the intended readers and then to revise those patches as unobtrusively as possible” (Amy Einsohn, The Copyeditor’s Handbook: A Guide for Book Publishing and Corporate Communications). As a substantive editor, I satisfy these job criteria and go beyond them: I handle wildly inconsistent style, deal with factual errors, fix disorganized structure, identify fuzzy conclusions and incomplete references and then request clarification--all while observing the Hippocratic Oath, “First, do no harm.” I continually recognize that what I am editing is not my book; my job is to preserve the author’s voice while making the work readable, accurate, and consistent with whatever style is appropriate.

Much of the problem of unclear writing has to do with what cognitive scientist, linguist, and excellent writer Steven Pinker calls the curse of knowledge, “the difficulty in imagining what it is like for someone else not to know something that you know.” He explains further:

The curse of knowledge is the single best explanation I know of why good people write bad prose. It simply doesn’t occur to the writer that her readers don’t know what she knows—that they haven’t mastered the patois of her guild, can’t divine the missing steps that seem too obvious to mention, have no way to visualize a scene that to her is as clear as day. And so she doesn’t bother to explain the jargon, or spell out the logic, or supply the necessary detail.… To escape the curse of knowledge, we have to go beyond our own powers of divination. We have to close the loop, as the engineers say, and get a feedback signal from the world of readers—that is, show a draft to some people who are similar to our intended audience and find out whether they can follow it. This sounds banal but is in fact profound. Social psychologists have found that we are overconfident, sometimes to the point of delusion, about our ability to infer what other people think, even the people who are closest to us. Only when we ask those people do we discover that what’s obvious to us isn’t obvious to them. That’s why professional writers have editors.…

The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person's Guide to Writing in the 21st Century,
(New York: Viking, 2014), pp. 59, 61, 75.

That’s why you need an editor. (And that’s why I myself need an editor whenever I write.)

You can see a series of substantive editing samples, or you can examine any specific one from the following list of problems that substantive editing resolved:

    Online samples

  1. A patriotic teenager (problems with ambiguity and modifiers) Fiction
  2. May and June 1970 (problems with time) Fiction
  3. Elaine is not human (problems with dialogue, internal contradiction, and emphasis) Fiction
  4. My father (problems with narrative flow, point of view, and accuracy of citations) Memoir
  5. Apocalypse themes (problems with scriptural citations, format and figure placement, word choice, and readability) Religious (Christian)
  6. Light upon light (problems with scriptural citations, transliteration, and U.S. conventions) Religious (Muslim)
  7. Shari‘a law in China (issues of transliteration of both Chinese and Arabic, historical accuracy, word choice, and citations) Academic (ethnography)
  8. Dispute resolution in China (problems with inconsistent focus, extraneous verbiage, and flat “academese” language) Academic (ethnography and law)
  9. Social insurance in India (problems with redundancies, lack of precision, and confusing syntax) Academic (economics)
  10. Introduction to Your Story Told (problems with emphasis, coherence, structure, style, terminology, and accuracy of quotations) Creative-writing how-to
  11. What do agents and casting directors look for? (poorly organized text) Popular how-to
  12. OK for 1966? (anachronistic language and other problems) Screen play
  13. Out of character (characterization problems) Screen play
  14. A nondisclosure agreement (a light-handed edit of "legalese") Legal
  15. Hard-copy samples

  16. Boilerplate information (one strange word) Technical
  17. Concerning the readers of this manual (lack of directness and other problems) Technical
  18. Inserting the diskette (how many times?) Technical
  19. Connecting the video interface cable (an apparent contradiction in the instructions) Technical
  20. Handling a diskette (a nonnative writer's malaprops) Technical
  21. What is a macro? (more malaprops) Technical
  22. Checking for matches (lack of concreteness, wordiness, and other problems) Technical
  23. Limitations with the refresh rate (ambiguity, awkward phrasing, and other problems) Technical
  24. Making the content fit (blather) Technical
  25. Serving your digital needs (wordiness and many other problems) Technical


Copyediting samples

Résumé: Web version or PDF (printable) version