Substantive editing: the all-too-often missing ingredient

As more and more books are published by individuals or by companies who want the manuscript to be near-perfect when it arrives, the one thing that is less likely to happen is good editing.open book

I’m talking about the kind of editing where someone who is an expert in the genre takes apart the manuscript and points out every single flaw and potential problem so that the author can hone it and mold it. It’s called crafting.

In my opinion, writing has four aspects: art, craft, business, and ministry.

It’s very easy to focus on only one of those aspects. But the really great book will have all four in balance.

  • You need the art – the concepts and nuances that make it unique.
  • You need the crafting – the refining, tine-tuning, checks and balances that make it great.
  • Then you need the business side – the marketing, distribution, and everything that ensures the book has its own place and that it reaches the people you want to reach.
  • Finally, there is the ministry – where the book leaves the reader entertained, enriched, challenged, and satisfied.

What is most likely to be missing these days – especially when the book is published independently by the author, but even in some books that are royalty published, is the crafting. Fewer and fewer books I read have been edited as well as they might have been. And I don’t simply mean making sure there aren’t any mistakes in spelling or punctuation.

Many writers don’t realize that editing is more than one thing.

You have concept editing. Does this idea work? Is there an audience looking for it? How can it find a niche?

Then there is substantive editing. This is the big picture stuff. Does the plot work? Do the ideas flow? Should there be major changes in the structure of the book?

Only after the substantive editing (which can feel like major surgery to the author) should the copy-editing and fact-checking come in to ensure that every detail is accurate and every subtle nuance is perfected, and there is flow, and the tension builds or ideas grow into a resounding climax.

And then there is the final proof-reading that catches every little misplaced comma and out-of-place word.

Unfortunately, as authors are given total control of their work, and royalty publishers employ fewer editors, expecting the authors to send them near-perfect manuscripts, the role of the really great editor – especially the substantive editor – is gradually being phased out.

Which means the role of freelance editors becomes more and more important. But that is a difficulty in itself – how does the author know which editor will be the right one for his or her particular manuscript? What isn’t needed is a “yes” editoreditor who will basically just tell you what you want to hear. You want and need an expert who knows the genre you are writing in backwards and forward and can really direct and guide you – even tear apart your work so you can rebuild it from a stronger foundation.

Unfortunately, especially in Christian circles, there are too many authors who either don’t want their work touched or who don’t want to pay for substantive editing.

The ones who want their ideas untouched apparently believe they are God-given, and refuse to even look at the possibility that the ideas themselves or the way the ideas are presented might need some more work. I think some writers feel that the editor will cloud their writing with other ideas or overshadow it with another voice.

In reality, a good editor will actually make the author’s ideas more substantial and his or her voice stronger.

As to paying for quality substantive editing, that’s a decision each person has to make. But the old saw that you get what you pay for is frequently true.

Think about this quotation from “The Joy of Writing” by Pierre Berton, one of Canada’s most successful authors. He had hired a free-lance editor to go over his book before he sent it to the publisher. But after writing the book, he felt “My book didn’t need an editor; it was perfect as it was! She’d hardly have to take a pencil to it. As a courtesy, I sent it along to her…. Her assessment came back a week or so later in an eight-page letter, accompanied by notes throughout the manuscript.” Yes, much more work was required.

And then Berton says, “I should have been devastated, but in fact I was grateful. She had brought me up short. I had been too close to the book, and had needed an outsider’s view to sober me up.”

I was speaking recently with a long-time Canadian publisher who said, “The more professional the writer, the more they value the editing process, and the easier they are to work with.”

To close with Berton. “A writer can get too close to his material, so that it becomes like a brick wall blocking off the horizon. That is why editors are needed.”

Whether you publish you’re own book or look for a royalty publisher, your book will benefit greatly from quality editing by a person who knows that particular genre well, and is also adept at knowing what to look for and how to advise you to make the changes that will ramp up the quality of your book.

Leave a Comment:

Marcy says

NJ you reminded me of what I need to make my work as good as it can be. I am a newbie and destined for being published (it takes confidence too, right?) so I appreciate this site you’ve created so that we can be better informed and educated in the art of writing.

Reply
    njlindquist says

    HI Marcy,

    Thanks for your comment.

    Yes, I think it’s very important to keep learning and never assume we know it all. When I read some of the things I had published years ago, I want to rewrite them. No, they weren’t terrible. But I see subtle things that would have made them stronger.

    And you’re absolutely right. Writers really need confidence, because it’s hard to keep putting ourselves out there where we can be rejected or criticized.

    Reply
Robert McEwen says

Nancy, I agree with your comments regarding good editing prior to publication is the golden key for successful writing. rgm

Reply
    njlindquist says

    Hi Robert.

    Thanks for your comment.

    Reply
njlindquist says

No writer can be completely objective about his or her writing, no matter how many times you read it and how careful you are. You can never read it objectively from the reader’s point-of-view. No one should be frustrated or embarrassed that someone else finds things that can be made better.

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Jenny Burr says

Thank you N.J. for your post. It’s true that we become very attached to our words and we may over look a number of errors. I also appreciated reading Pierre Berton’s response to some edits. It really is to our benefit to have an editor go over our manuscript to make it as perfect as possible before submitting to a publisher or self publishing.

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Rev Ed Hird says

Well put, NJ. I fully agree. It is true that writers can become so close to their writing that they lack critical perspective. If a person has access to other gifted writers or academic friends, it is helpful to receive their critiques as well. I invited and received around 30 serious critiques of my book ‘Battle for the Soul of Canada’ by academics, writers, and theologians in the process of the last few drafts of my book.

Some of these also ended up writing endorsements that were included in the front of the book. Dr JI Packer, who gave a helpful critique, also agreed to write the foreword which has really helped.

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