An Editor’s Guide to Substantive Editing

Authors can hire editors for a range of services, from editorial assessments to copy-editing and proofreading. On a spectrum from Basic to Complex, substantive editing would sit second closest to the complex end, just before ghost-writing.

Sometimes there is confusion within the editing community about what exactly substantive editing is. This piece will explore what the process involves and how editors can ensure their clients leave satisfied with their work.


Often also called structural editing, substantive editing is the process of working closely with an author to address all elements of their manuscript, including story, structure, plot, language, characterisation and theme. The editor takes a broad view of the manuscript and considers how the story can be developed further. This can involve rearranging chapters, suggesting additional material for the author to enhance the theme, restructuring the plot and thinking of ways to create a deeper resonance between characters and readers.

It is important to also note what substantive editing isn’t. An editor is not expected to rewrite large sections of the manuscript. They share their comments and thoughts, but it is then up to the author to decide what they want to take on board. For example, editors may suggest a sentence the author can then rework into their own words.

Whilst developing the story is central to substantive editing, copy-editing also falls under the umbrella of this form of editing. A substantive editor will also take a close look at the style of the narrative and complete a line edit, to improve clarity and consistency, a natural-sounding voice for each character and a consistent perspective for each narrator. The process will likely involve both the editor and author going through the manuscript several times, as the author gradually inserts new content for review.


This type of editing is suited for manuscripts where authors have a strong foundation of the story they want to tell, but are seeking assistance with bringing it to life.  As a hopeful writer myself, I understand the feeling when you reach the stage with your work where you simply don’t know where to go with your book next, and would benefit from an objective insight into the ways your story can be developed. A good copy-edit can work wonders for a manuscript, but it doesn’t alter the substance of the material on the page – hence the ‘substantive’ part.

Authors who are eager for their work to earn the serious attention of agents, publishers and ultimately readers will need to consider the marketability of their book. Part of a substantive editor’s job is to think like a reader and consider what a reader would enjoy and how to retain their attention.

Writing can sometimes be a solitary occupation, and one of the joys of substantive editing for authors is the opportunity to have a sounding board for their ideas, someone who is knowledgeable about what makes a strong story. After a substantive edit is completed, authors usually feel excited and energized about their project anew. They end the project with fresh ideas and new skills to hone their craft as a writer.

In the words of a client, ‘I feel I’ve undertaken a one-to-one writing masterclass.’


Substantive editing is not easy to master, as it involves both technical skills and soft skills, necessary in doing the job and communicating effectively with the client. Here are some elements to consider in relation to each new project.

Become familiar with the work

It is essential that editors don’t dive straight into the manuscript and begin copy-editing. Take the manuscript to familiarise yourself with the author’s work by reading carefully through the entire work over the course of several days. Take notes on any thoughts you have as you work your way through, or particular areas the author can develop. When working on stories with complicated plots such as thrillers, it can be exceedingly helpful to take notes on the plot, so when making story suggestions to the author you don’t get yourself into a muddle. Nailing down a chronology for the book is particularly important. This means that often substantive editors shouldn’t be working from a single document. You should be keeping notes, whether on a document or by hand. Substantive editing is a continual thought process throughout the project and you don’t want to have a brilliant idea only to later forget it.

Respect the author’s vision

It‘s very easy for a substantive editor to come to a manuscript brimming with ideas of how to maximise its potential. This is both good and bad, as there is a risk of imposing their own perspective and voice onto the author’s work. At all times you should be aware of the story the author is trying to tell and build a feel for their unique voice. It’s therefore essential before you begin editing to communicate with the author over the level of editing they’re comfortable with. Some authors will be happier for you to tear apart a manuscript than others. Therefore to get a feel for what exactly the author is looking for, it’s useful to complete a sample edit of several pages, giving the author the opportunity to come back to you with comments about what they did and didn’t like about your editing, so you can adjust your style accordingly. It is ultimately the client’s work and you are there to help them realise their vision.

Collaborate and communicate

Substantive editing is a highly collaborative process, so it’s essential to quickly build rapport with the author and establish an effective working relationship. I find it easiest to use Google Docs in order to work on the document in real time with the author; we can highlight and comment on specific sections of the manuscript through tracked changes.

Most communication with the author is likely to be over email, and you often go back and forth with thoughts and ideas for you both to consider. For a manuscript where many elements of the story are going to be developed, it can be useful to have several brainstorming sessions over Zoom to discuss the plot and character arcs. This conversation is often the most enjoyable aspect of the job, hence why sometimes it can go on for much longer than budgeted. Whilst it’s important to try and respond promptly to the author’s emails and attend Zoom meetings, be careful that brainstorming and discussion doesn’t prevent any actual editing from being done! Try and be passionate about the project you’re working on and imagine its potential. Authors love editors who show clear enthusiasm for their work and it can often be a confidence booster.

This type of editing is a brilliant learning process for editors, particularly those who are just starting out in their careers. Each project teaches you something different and gradually you build up a deeper understanding of the kind of things you should be looking out for in a manuscript. If you have a creative mind, are a passionate reader with an insight into what makes a good story and are keen to help talented authors realise their writing ambitions, then you should give substantive editing a try. It’s an immersive, satisfying experience that will really unlock your talent as an editor.

Looking for a substantive editor to work with? Check out our Services for Writers

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