Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Editing Your Book, Part III—Substantive Editing: the 10,000 foot view

Each type of editing looks at something different.
by Sarah Sally Hamer @SarahSallyHamer

As I mentioned in the Part I of this blog, there are four basic types of editing:

Developmental Editing
Substantive Editing
Line Editing
Copy Editing

Each type of editing offers an opportunity to look at a manuscript from a different place. Today, we work with Substantive Editing (SE).
Starting with a caveat. I draw some pretty wide lines in the sand when I compare the different editing levels, as if there’s no overlap between types. So, let me be more specific for a moment. Editing of all four types inevitably takes place throughout the writing process. There’s really not an “Okay, I’m done with this one so I don’t have to mess with it again” moment. It does help to have a checklist for you to use at various places in the editing process—and that’s what I recommend. But don’t think you can only do Developmental Editing at the beginning or the end of the book, for instance. You will be making DE decisions all the way through, although they actually feel more like “ah-ha!” moments. Same with the rest of the editing levels. Just sayin’.

Substantive Editing usually addresses scenes, pages and paragraphs. Usually a story unfolds in our heads, with scenes and characters and plot points flowing along. But then comes the re-read and, to our great disappointment, some parts just don’t work. Maybe a scene needs to be moved or, for that matter, removed completely. Sometimes, we start the book in the wrong place. Or, maybe something just needs to be tweaked. SE is the level—at 10,000’—where we make a lot of those decisions.

I suggest that a writer hold off on SE until the story is done. Editing can destroy creativity and, if we’re trying to ‘fix’ everything as we go, we can get bogged down. Write the darned thing, THEN edit it. One of the great values of finishing the book is that you know what’s going to happen. This allows a much better perspective when you start deep edits.

So, here are some things to consider during SE:

Do you start the story in the right place?
Do you put too much back story in the beginning? Is the Inciting Incident no more than 1/8 of the way into the book? (400 page book, divided by 8 = the first 50 pages, sooner if you can.)

Is your protagonist real, believable, sympathetic?
Will readers identify and empathize with your main character? Does this main character grow and change throughout the story?

Does your protagonist have a goal? A reason to pursue that goal? Conflict which obstructs the path to that goal?

Tension, hooks and climaxes
Do you start the story with a hook? Do you start each scene and chapter with a hook? Do you end each scene and chapter with a climax that makes the reader want to turn the page? Do you have rising tension in the story that keeps the reader reading?

Is your story plausible? Do readers understand and believe your characters’ actions? Do you have any TDTL (Too Dumb To Live) moments?

Scene order
Do you need to move anything? Would the revelation that Darth Vader is Luke’s father work better in a different place? (NO! It’s perfect!) But maybe the fact that your heroine killed her mother in self-defense as an eight-year old shouldn’t go on the first page. Well, maybe it should! But this is where you make that decision depending on genre and target market.

Secondary characters
Are they real? Do they aid the protagonist in achieving a goal or, if they are a villain, obstruct the path? Do they fulfill their role? Do you have too many to keep track of? Enough to get the job done?

World building 
Is there an established continuity with a good set of rules? If vampires don’t turn to dust in the daytime, do you set that up early on and stick with it or have a good reason why you don’t? (Best world-building website ever!

Creating reader satisfaction through keeping a promise
Does your story follow through on the promise you made at the beginning? Did you make a promise? Does the end of the book mirror the beginning?

Head-hopping (POV)
Do you change point of view with good reasons? Do you reward the reader when you change POV by giving them something extra?

There are dozens – maybe even hundreds! – more points in Substantive Editing. So, add them all to your When-I’m-done-with-the-book editing list and check them off as you go.

SE is really more about everything making sense and flowing together than pretty words at this point. We’ll address that level next month in Line Editing.

How’s your editing going? Do you have any tips you can add to mine? Worst bug-a-boos?

Sarah (Sally) Hamer is a lover of books, a teacher of writers, and a believer in good stories. Most of all, she is eternally fascinated by people and how they 'tick'. She’s passionate about helping people tell their own stories, whether through fiction or through memoir. Writing in many genres - mystery, science fiction, fantasy, romance, medieval history, non-fiction – she has won awards at both local and national levels, including two Golden Heart finals.

A teacher of memoir, beginning and advanced creative fiction writing, and screenwriting at Louisiana State University in Shreveport for over twelve years, she also teaches online for Margie Lawson at Sally is a free-lance editor and book coach, with many of her students and clients becoming successful, award-winning authors.

You can find her at or on Twitter @sarahsallyhamer.


  1. Thanks for this. Enjoying your series and your breakdown of what is truly a challenging part of writing. Breaking it down helps. I've known many people who could ace English courses but really struggle in writing courses. This helps. Jay Wright, SC

    1. So glad you're getting good information out of the series, Jay! It helped me immensely to break down the pieces when I was trying to learn editing, too.

      Thanks so much!

  2. excellent explanation for the Substantive Edit.

    What a great series, Edie.

  3. So practical and helpful! Thank you for posting. I'll be hanging on to this one.

    1. Thank you, Beth! I'm pleased you're finding value in the series.
      I'm thinking about creating a check list and making it available - what do you think?

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  5. Thank you, Sarah.
    I truly enjoyed all the practical advice in these series.
    Editing seemed so hard but your posts shed light in the whole process.

    1. Thank you, Ingmar! I'm so glad it's helping you to see how editing works!

  6. Perfect recap. I pay to have this done - and so - it's interesting to see that indeed all of that is always covered in the deliverable. Oh, we writers. We know how to do it - but always need someone else to make sure we're on target. Aren't we lucky there are experts to help us.

    1. I agree that having a professional help with editing is good, but it helps immensely to see what we editors are looking for.
      Thanks for the comment, Brad!

  7. My gut has been telling me to write the dang book and stop worrying about anything else. (for now) Thanks for the confirmation.

    1. Hi, Jennifer! Good, good, good! Just write it - we'll worry about the editing later.

      Thanks, dear!