‘Substance’ is defined as the most important part or the real or essential meaning of something, which, in my opinion, pretty much sums up the essence of a substantive edit. (Just to muddy the waters, for some editors, substantive editing is similar to copy-editing, but for me, it is a synonym for structural or content editing.) It deals with a book’s characters, plot, themes, structure, pace and meaning. It deals with all those things an author knows instinctively are not working as well as they should be, but can’t quite put their finger on, and it deals with some of the things that authors feel are working wonderfully, but which are not being communicated properly to a reader.
In the first instance, a substantive editor will use their professional skills to identify and articulate any problems with the content, substance or structure of your manuscript. Are the characters believable? Why did a character do x instead of y? Why didn’t they do z? Why does that plot twist feel contrived? Is the pace too slow, too fast or just right? Is the structure of the book enhancing or hindering the storytelling? Is the narrative holding the reader’s interest through to the end? Is your thriller thrilling? Is your fantasy fantastic? Does your romance sparkle?
Which leads us to the other essential function of a substantive editor: not simply to critique or review a manuscript, but to assist an author to resolve any problems arising from the review. By asking pertinent questions, challenging assumptions and using their skills and experience to suggest possible solutions, a substantive editor can open the discussion for a writer. The right comment can illuminate blind spots and send an author along a fresh path of discovery, revealing new and exciting possibilities for a novel or short story.
In summary, a good substantive editor can be a wonderful resource. She or he can help you to a better understanding of exactly how your book is communicating with readers (which is often not the way you think it is!). Of course, you are at liberty to accept or reject editorial suggestions or comments at all times, but you should remember that your editor is on your side. If he or she challenges you as a writer, it is only to inspire you to find the best solutions to your manuscript problems.
For more details on substantive (structural) editing, copy-editing and manuscript critiques, check out Book Nanny’s website at www.booknannyfictioneditor.com.