Monday, January 13, 2014

Editor's Notes #4: Do I Need a Substantive Editor?

When a writer sits down to put words on a page, he usually has some sort of idea of what he wants to write about. 

There are exceptions, to be sure, but as a general rule, the idea comes first when writing a book. Many authors describe a story as "knocking around" in their heads, or having characters wanting to tell their stories, not resting until the typing begins.

And as soon as it's on paper, it's off to the copy editor! Right?


The copy editor is at the end of the line, not the beginning. Think of the copy editor as frosting on a cake, with a final proofreader as the sprinkles. You need a good cake with a good recipe before you can use the frosting . . . unless you're my husband, who thinks cake is only there so you can hold your frosting easier. But my husband isn't writing this post, so we'll stick with needing a good cake for now.

The recipe and delicious cake come in the form of a substantive editor, known in some publishing environments as a content editor because this type of editor checks the content you already have. 

How do you know if you need one? You can think of a substantive editor as your own writer's coach.

This editor is typically brought in during the earliest stages of writing, once you have a full text. If your chapters need re-ordered, or if facts just don't mesh, the editor will notice these things. If you're stuck with moving the plot from Point A to Point B smoothly, a content editor might point out a way to adjust some details so it can happen.

Some of the things a substantive editor looks for:

  • Plot holes
    • The reader should never be left wondering how something worked itself out, or how you connected the dots. It should be clear to all.
  • Does it get going right away, making the reader want to keep reading?
    • Some readers will only read the first few chapters before quitting if a book's beginning doesn't grab them; others won't go past the first chapter.
  • Book length—what can be trimmed?
    • If your debut novel is over 140k words, you may wish to split it into two books. Not only will the printing be cost-prohibitive, but many people don't want to invest that much time and money in an unknown author.
  • Too many characters
    • The reader can't remember why Walt the milkman is important, and perhaps he's . . . not.
  • Weak characters
    • Are they forgettable due to lack of personality? Are readers turning back pages to remind themselves of who someone is?
  • A main character/hero who's a bit "too" heroic
    • Perfect looks, chiseled abs, popular, billionaire, VIP job
  • Is a character's behavior inconsistent?
    • Does your tough-as-nails CIA agent turn into a puddle of goo when her personal space is invaded?
  • Does the teen boy in your novel sound like a teen boy, or the way a middle-aged female author thinks a teen boy should sound?
  • Do all your characters sound the same, or does each have a unique voice?  
    • The voice in your head may change, but it needs to translate well in the text. The reader should be able to tell Sally from Sandy by their attitude and speech habits. 
  • Is the dialogue believable? Can you picture yourself saying these things to someone and having it flow naturally?
    • "I shall not fail you, Mother," may work well in a Howard Pyle novel or a Regency Romance, but that same phrase would be completely out of place in a contemporary novel set in Texas, USA.
    • Contractions are fine. Really. Most people use them in everyday speech.
  • Are your verbs strong or weak?  
    • Using the proper verbs can help the reader to "see" the action better. "Racing out the door" is more specific than "leaving."
  • Are you overusing adverbs or clichés?
    • "Like a dog with a bone." "In a heartbeat." "With her heart in her throat."
  • Is your setting accurate?
    • People in the US don't refer to sweaters as "jumpers," nor sneakers as "trainers." Likewise, people in Australia don't say, "Y'all." Northern US people may refer to "barbeque" when cooking outdoors on a grill, but southern US people only use that word to describe seasoned pulled pork with tangy sauce added.
If you're writing historical fiction, your substantive editor may gently point out the obvious: that Julius Caesar could not possibly have been on the Mayflower. Or the subtle: the US Civil War began in 1861, not 1961. 

When I was in college, I had to write a short essay about a particular William Blake poem. At some point in the essay, I must have gotten pretty tired, because I began to refer to the poem's author as Henry Blake. Thankfully, my professor had a good sense of humor and gave me a good grade on the essay while laughingly pointing out that Henry Blake was on M*A*S*H. 



  1. Yes, Henry Blake was on MASH. Too funny.

    1. Perhaps he was a poet at heart, and somehow I just knew it...

  2. I love this type of editing most because it brings that story to life. I mean I love proofing the book too and I want it to distract as little as possible, but this is the meaty stuff.

    1. It's probably this that makes you such a great critique partner: the big-picture vision.

  3. There's that sneaky UK/US English thing again! That's always a problem for me - not to mention trimming. I LIKE all those words ;)

    1. It's amazing you can keep ANY language straight, considering how many places you've lived. And I can totally relate to wanting to keep all the words. I'm Italian. That's really my only excuse.


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