What is substantive editing?

Substantive editing and developmental editing complement each other seamlessly within the editorial process. Substantive editing, focusing on immediate narrative clarity and coherence, lays the foundation by refining the manuscript’s structure and content, ensuring it engages readers effectively. Developmental editing builds upon this foundation, broadening its scope to encompass character development, plot intricacies and thematic resonance, resulting in a more comprehensive and polished storytelling experience. The synergy between substantive and developmental editing ensures that the manuscript’s micro and macro aspects are refined, ultimately leading to a cohesive and impactful final work. Let us now explore substantive editing to its core and examine how developmental editing fits in.

What is substantive editing?

The Institute of Professional Editors (IPED), a professional association for Australian and New Zealand editors, defines substantive editing as an editorial process that fixes the manuscript’s structure, content, language, style and presentation, making it suitable for its intended purpose and readership. During substantive editing, the editor considers:

  • What is the text’s purpose and function?
  • Who are the target readers?
  • What should readers grasp or accomplish?
  • What is the readers’ knowledge?
  • Will the readers read the full text or specific sections?

Moreover, substantive editing may be seen as a subset of developmental editing, focusing primarily on the structural and content-related aspects of the manuscript. Some editors and publishers may refer to it as content editing, manuscript assessment or developmental editing. The differences between substantive editing and developmental editing are discussed later in this post.

The components of substantive editing

Substantive editing analyses three aspects of the text. It conducts the structural review, edits language and style and implements clarity of presentation.

Structural review

  • Ensures information adequacy and suitability and decides if supplementary content or reader supports (like illustrations, glossary or index) are necessary.
  • Identifies if substantial rewriting is needed.
  • Assesses if reorganisation, elaboration or summarisation of sections is necessary for optimal coherence and if content should move to or from an appendix.
  • Validates the presence of suitable navigation tools, such as headings or internal links.

Language and style editing

  • Ensures language and form match the intended readership.
  • Oversees a logical flow and appropriate balancing of discussion.
  • Ensures information and arguments are communicated clearly.
  • Removes needless repetitions, along with redundancies, contradictions and irrelevant content.
  • Eliminates excessive words, clichés, jargon, biased language and other unsuitable terminologies.

Clarity of presentation

  • Ensures that the structure is effective and supports the content.
  • Confirms that the manuscript title and all headings accurately mirror the content they represent.
  • Reviews the suitability, arrangement and clarity of tables, figures and other visual aids.

What are the hourly rates of pay for substantive editing?

Substantive editing is a subset of developmental editing and, hence, often applied as the same process. This also applies to the hourly rates of pay. The current hourly rates suggested by the Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading for substantive/developmental editing start from £39.90. According to the Editing Freelancers Association, prices for a substantive/developmental editing range as follows:

 Rate per wordRate per hourPace of work per hour

Hourly rates in this region will be quoted by proficient editors who can substantiate their rates with their skills, training and background. If you encounter a notably lower quote for substantive editing, it could potentially indicate a compromise in editing quality. However, what goes into the editor’s pay exceeds what meets the eye. For instance, substantive/developmental editors may first read the entire manuscript more than once to be able to diagnose the high-level issues in the text.

How to find a substantive editor?

While self-publishing offers creative freedom, the role of a substantive editor cannot be overlooked. The right substantive editor can make all the difference in the quality and impact of your writing. Here are the guiding factors when looking for a substantive editor.

Define your needs and goals

Before venturing into the search, clarify the needs of your manuscript. Are you seeking a professional editor to fine-tune the development of your storyline or someone to enhance the clarity of the argument and evidence in your non-fiction work? Determine your goals, whether refining the narrative flow, strengthening character development or aligning with a specific genre. This will help you find the editor who specialises in the genre or topic relevant to your text.

Seek expertise and experience

When searching for a substantive editor, expertise is paramount. Look for professionals with a background in substantive editing and a track record of refining manuscripts like yours. A knowledgeable editor will provide insights that align with your vision while ensuring industry standards are met.

Request samples and portfolio review

Ask potential substantive editors for samples of their previous work. Moreover, reviewing their portfolio gives you a glimpse into their editing style and the value they can bring to your manuscript. Look for consistency, clarity and the ability to enhance the narrative or argument.

Check references and testimonials

Reach out to authors who have previously worked with the editors you are considering. Their first-hand experiences may provide valuable insights into the editor’s professionalism, communication skills and impact of their work. Testimonials and recommendations are powerful indicators of an editor’s reliability and effectiveness.

Discuss rates and agreement terms

Transparent communication about rates and terms is essential to avoid misunderstandings later. Understand the pricing structure of substantive editing and whether it aligns with your budget and timeline. A reputable substantive editor will provide transparent information about their fees and what is included in their services.

Consult professional organisations

Begin your search for proficient substantive/developmental editing services with recognised editor associations. These organisations ensure their members receive ongoing training and adhere to a code of ethics. The commitment set forth by these organisations makes their members to be reliable sources for top-notch and appropriately priced services. Here is a list of the professional editing associations:

Trust your instincts

Lastly, trust your instincts. A substantive editor is a professional collaborator who understands your vision and contributes to its enhancement. Choose an editor with whom you feel connected to foster a productive working relationship.

What is developmental editing?

Substantive editing is a subset of developmental editing, so it is important to understand what developmental editing is. Developmental editing is an editorial process that enhances the manuscript’s storytelling, ensuring the narrative is engaging, well-paced and resonates with the intended purpose and readership.

What does developmental editing include?

Goals of the manuscript

Developmental editing pinpoints significant concerns like structure, clarity, tone and flow. It checks if the manuscript achieves its goals, for example, if:

  • it fits within the chosen genre.
  • genre-specific aspects engage readers.
  • readers’ expectations are met.
  • it is appropriately structured for the argument or message.
  • the argument/message is clear, and supporting ideas flow logically.
  • the theme is evident throughout the book.
  • consistency in style, voice and viewpoint convey points effectively.
  • no apparent gaps or repetitions occur.

In-depth analysis

Developmental editing pays close attention to the argument and its supporting elements for non-fiction, primarily academic and professional works. Relevant questions include:

  • What is the main idea?
  • Does the author support the argument with enough research-based evidence?
  • Do peripheral points and arguments align with or contradict the main idea?
  • Are all parts of the text in clear support, avoiding confusion?
  • Are there gaps or repetitions in the argument?
  • Is enough contextual information provided for relevance?
  • What assumptions does the author make about readers’ background knowledge?

Editorial report

Ultimately, having completed developmental editing, the editor produces an editorial report with their notes, comments and suggestions. The information consists of three parts: summary, main advice and detailed feedback.

  • The summary outlines the text’s aims, main argument and the intended reader.
  • The primary advice highlights more generally what works well and points needing the author’s further attention.
  • Detailed feedback offers chapter discussions, noting overall flow, organisation and areas for improvement or awareness.

Substantive editing vs developmental editing: Are they the same?

Developmental editing is sometimes called content, structural substantive, or comprehensive editing. More confusion arises when some editors use the term ‘substantive editing’ to convey line editing. While substantive editing is a subset of developmental editing, here is a comprehensive table highlighting their differences.

AspectSubstantive editingDevelopmental editing
FocusStructural and content-related aspects of the manuscript.The overall structure, coherence and content of the manuscript.
ScopeNarrower in scope, concentrating on improving flow, clarity and coherence.Broader in scope, addressing plot, character development, pacing and thematic consistency.
GoalEnhance clarity, coherence and overall impact of the writing.Refine storytelling elements to create a compelling and engaging narrative.
Content changesInvolves reorganising paragraphs, optimising sentence structure and ensuring logical progression.It may require substantial plot reworking, character adjustments and thematic enhancements.
Voice preservationPreserves the author’s voice while enhancing clarity and effectiveness.Balances maintaining the author’s voice with strategic changes to improve narrative impact.
Editing intensityIn-depth analysis of content, focusing on the manuscript’s essence.Analyses both content and structural elements to create a harmonious narrative flow.
Primary aimSuitable for refining content and organisation without significant plot or character alterations.Ideal for addressing broader narrative issues and shaping the manuscript’s core elements.
Final outcomeProduces a more coherent, clear and impactful manuscript.Creates a refined, well-structured and compelling narrative that resonates with readers.


Substantive editing forms the cornerstone of refining a manuscript’s structure, content and immediate clarity, ensuring that the narrative flows coherently and engages the reader effectively. However, the role of developmental editing is equally pivotal, as it expands upon the foundation laid by substantive editing. Developmental editing broadens the horizon to encompass character depth, plot intricacies and thematic resonance, resulting in a comprehensive and enriched storytelling experience. Together, these editing tools create a harmonious blend, where substantive editing sets the stage and developmental editing elevates the manuscript to its full potential. The synergy between the two enhances the immediate impact and infuses depth, making the final work resonate with readers on multiple levels.

Contact me for a free sample edit to get more insights on substantive and developmental 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.