Various editorial job titles abound — editorial director, managing editor, senior editor, for starters — but one you probably won’t see on a business card is “substantive editor.” Yet it’s the most important responsibility in the editorial process. Why, then, is it so obscure? The answer is simple: Substantive editing is a function undertaken by people identified by any of an array of other job titles (including senior editor).
The substantive editor is often the first point of contact for a writer seeking to be published. At a periodical, the person assigning or accepting articles or essays — known as a senior editor, a features editor, or the like — does the substantive editing. In a book-publishing company, an acquisitions editor may negotiate a book deal with the writer and/or the writer’s literary agent, but it is the substantive editor — often, in that environment, called a developmental editor — who actually helps the writer polish the manuscript that earned them the publishing contract. (Sometimes the acquisitions editor is also the substantive editor.)
This significant step in the editorial process involves at least one intensive reading of the content, followed by correspondence and an exchange of drafts that is more or less extensive depending on the publication, the timeline, and the condition of each successive draft.
The substantive editor helps the writer tighten a manuscript’s scope, helping them focus on what works and what doesn’t by either revising or directing revisions of, or deleting or suggesting deletion of, passages or even entire chapters. The editor recommends reordering of chapters in nonfiction, or adding of scenes or dropping of subplots in fiction, and asks questions and makes comments that help clarify the writer’s objective or express their message.
Substantive editing includes ensuring that writing is well organized and flows easily, and coaching the writer on sentence structure and word choice. For a fiction manuscript, the substantive editor works with the writer on plot, tone, character, setting, and other components of a novel or short story. Moreover, the editor helps the writer express a thesis or set the stage for a story, and reach a conclusion or bring a tale to a close — and everything in between. The editor will make sure that nonfiction conveys authority and fiction supports character motivation.
In sum, the substantive editor is the writer’s collaborator and their greatest ally. The editor shares the writer’s desire to succeed in crafting the best possible content. Writers –even talented, established writers — must remind themselves that whenever an editor suggests a course contrary to the writer’s wishes, the advice is generally sound.
Some self-publishers — essay writers, for the most part — can get away without participating in this type of relationship, but the work of authors who produce a print or online book without such collaboration almost invariably suffer. Call me biased, but if something is worth publishing, it’s worth publishing well. Make sure a substantive editor is part of your team.