Everything you need to know about a substantive editor

A substantive editor is critical in refining manuscript content, structure and coherence. Unlike other editing services focusing on sentence-level details, a substantive editor adopts a holistic approach, ensuring narrative flow, character or argument development and reader engagement. Therefore, collaborating with a substantive editor may bridge the gap between a creative vision and a polished manuscript. In turn, it will elevate your storytelling prowess, connecting you to your target audience. This post explores every aspect of a substantive editor and their role in improving your manuscript, including components of substantive editing, rates of pay and how to find a professional substantive editor.

Who is a substantive editor?

A substantive editor is a professional who plays a crucial role in the editorial process, focusing on refining a manuscript’s structure, content and flow to align it with its intended purpose and target readership. For instance, according to the Institute of Professional Editors, a professional association for Australian and New Zealand editors, a substantive editor works to enhance a manuscript’s overall quality. During this process, the substantive editor analyses important aspects of the text. They may ask:

  • For what purpose was this text written? Who is going to read it?
  • What will the readers understand after reading it?
  • How much do the readers already know about the topic?
  • Will the readers go through the whole text or just parts of it?
  • Does this text meet its objectives?

The components of substantive editor’s work

A substantive editor’s work comprises the following aspects: structural review, language and style editing, and ensuring the clarity of presentation. Let us look at these components in more detail.

Structural review

  • A substantive editor ensures the completeness and suitability of information within the text, making it purposeful.
  • They decide if supplementary elements like illustrations, glossaries, or indexes are necessary to enhance reader understanding.
  • A substantive editor identifies the need for major rewriting, ensuring the text’s coherence and effectiveness.
  • They assess whether section reorganisation, expansion or summarisation is necessary for optimal flow.
  • A substantive editor determines if content should be moved to or from appendixes to improve the overall structure.
  • They confirm the presence of effective navigation tools such as headings and internal links.

Language and style editing

  • A substantive editor ensures that the language and form align with the intended readership, enhancing engagement.
  • They oversee discussions’ logical flow and balance, optimising the text’s coherence.
  • They ensure that information and arguments are communicated with clarity and precision.
  • Furthermore, they remove needless repetitions, redundancies, contradictions and irrelevant content.
  • Editors adeptly eliminate excessive words, clichés, jargon, biased language and other unsuitable terms.
  • Their efforts result in improved language quality and a heightened impact on readers.

Clarity of presentation

  • A substantive editor confirms that the structure effectively supports the content’s intended message.
  • They ensure that the manuscript’s title and headings accurately reflect the content they represent.
  • A substantive editor assesses the suitability, arrangement and clarity of visual aids, enhancing overall presentation.
  • Finally, through their attention to presentation, substantive editors enhance reader comprehension and engagement.

What are the substantive editor’s hourly rates of pay?

When it comes to the compensation of a substantive editor, it is essential to understand that substantive editing is a specialised subset of developmental editing. Consequently, these terms are often used interchangeably. This also applies to their hourly rates. For instance, the Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading, a professional organisation for UK editors, suggests that the hourly rates for substantive/developmental editing typically start at £39.90. On the other hand, the Editing Freelancers Association provides a more comprehensive pricing range for this editing category, with rates varying from $50.0 to $82.5 per hour.

 Rate per wordRate per hourPace of work per hour

However, the rates quoted by proficient editors in this field encompass more than just monetary value. They mirror the skills, training and qualifications these professionals bring. Encountering a considerably lower quote for substantive editing might raise a red flag, hinting at a potential compromise in editing quality. Recognising that a substantive editor’s compensation involves far more than meets the eye is crucial. For instance, substantive/developmental editors often dedicate considerable time to thoroughly reading the entire manuscript before they start editing. This meticulous approach diagnoses high-level issues within the text, ensuring the final output is refined and polished. As you navigate the landscape of substantive editing services, considering the intricate relationship between rates, expertise and the thoroughness of the editing process is paramount.

How do you find a substantive editor?

Now that you are familiar with a substantive editor’s distinctive role and tasks, the next step is to find the right professional for your project. Discovering a substantive editor who aligns with your needs, style and goals requires a strategic approach. In the following sections, we will explore practical steps to guide you in locating the ideal substantive editor to elevate your manuscript to its full potential.

Define your needs and goals

First, before you dive into the search, take a moment to clarify your manuscript’s needs. Are you looking for a substantive editor to refine your storyline’s development or someone to enhance the clarity of arguments and evidence in your non-fiction text? Determine your goals, whether enhancing narrative flow, strengthening character development or aligning with a specific genre. This clarity will guide you toward a substantive editor specialising in your manuscript’s genre or topic.

Seek expertise and experience

Next, when seeking a substantive editor, expertise is paramount. Look for professionals with a background in substantive editing and a track record of refining manuscripts similar to yours. An editor well-versed in substantive editing will provide insights that harmonise with your creative vision while upholding industry standards.

Request samples and portfolio review

Request samples of their past work to evaluate a substantive editor’s suitability. Reviewing their portfolio offers a glimpse into their editing style and the potential value they can bring to your manuscript. Consistency, clarity and the ability to enhance narrative or argument should be evident as you peruse their work.

Check references and testimonials

Additionally, reaching out to authors who have worked with potential editors provides valuable first-hand insights into their professionalism, communication skills and the impact of their work. Testimonials and recommendations are powerful indicators of a substantive editor’s reliability and effectiveness, guiding your decision.

Discuss rates and terms

Moreover, transparent communication about rates and agreement terms is pivotal to avoid any future misunderstandings. Gain an understanding of the pricing structure for substantive editing and assess whether it aligns with your budget and timeline. A reputable substantive editor will be upfront about their fees and the scope of their services.

Consult professional organisations

Lastly, begin your search for proficient substantive editing services by exploring recognised editorial associations. These organisations ensure their members undergo ongoing training and adhere to a code of ethics, making them reliable sources for top-notch and appropriately priced services. Here is a list of recommended professional editing associations to get you started searching for the perfect substantive editor.

Final thoughts

In sum, the role of a substantive editor is multifaceted, encompassing structural refinement, language mastery and clarity of presentation. These skilled professionals may help bridge the gap between your vision and readers’ experience, ensuring your manuscript resonates and has a lasting impact. From defining your manuscript’s needs and goals to consulting professional organisations, these factors are vital when embarking on a transformative partnership with a substantive editor. Together, you will refine your manuscript into a masterpiece that captivates readers’ minds. Contact me for a free sample edit to get more insights on substantive editing (and remember to use my early bird discount). If you want to hear more from me, including self-editing and writing tips, follow me on Mastodon, Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn or join my newsletter.

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I am an editor, indexer and a lifelong lover of literature with a PhD in literary history. I am an Intermediate Member of the Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading, a student member of the Society of Indexers and a vetted partner of the Alliance of Independent Authors.