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Alana Woods on editing: the substantive edit

Posted by Alana Woods on March 27, 2012 at 7:00 PM

Last week I started a series What editors do and gave an overview of the editing process.

This week I explain the first of the three levels of editing: the substantive edit.

This is the most involved edit you can undertake. It’s the full box and dice. Absolutely every aspect of a document is scrutinised.

It covers structure, content, context, language, style, readability, clarity, logic, consistency, standardisation, jargon, spelling, punctuation and grammar. If I’ve missed anything in that list assume that it’s included.

Citations are checked, as is the content of tables, figures, graphs, and diagrams. Figures are tallied to make sure totals are correct. Any mentions of all of these in the text are cross-checked for consistency.

If requested it includes formatting: generating templates and applying styles to all text and generating automated tables of content.

The purpose of applying styles is twofold: firstly, inconsistencies in such things as heading levels can be identified; secondly, it considerably speeds up the design and typesetting stage as text designated with a certain style can be changed throughout the document in moments.

Clients generally request that any restructuring or rewriting be done as part of the process, but if deficiencies are major it’s advisable to discuss options with them first.

If more than one author has contributed the editor’s job is to rewrite to ensure there is only one voice. Even documents with one author can be of variable quality and style and, again, the editor’s job is to standardise, to make the document a quality product.

It pays to have an ordered approach. Attack one aspect at a time. I leave checking the page order (title, imprint, dedication etc. pages), heading levels, headers, footers and page numbering until last, and I check them separately. That way I’m not trying to remember too much at once.

Editing is generally on screen nowadays, with changes tracked so the client can see exactly what has been done.

When returning the edited document to the client I include a detailed brief of what I’ve done, elaborating on any comments I’ve made in the document itself.

Style sheets are a must and I’ll explain what they are in another post.

But next week the copy edit.


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Categories: Tips on editing

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3 Comments

Reply Claude Nougat
1:24 PM on March 29, 2012 
The substantive edit is the most demanding there is, and potentially the most helpful if the editor is good and understands where the writer is headed. Also potentially harmful if there is disagreement or misunderstanding...I think Scott Fitzgerald probably had the best editor one could wish for: I've seen some ms pages of his, and boy, were they re-written! God only knows whether he would have ever become the writer he was without his editor!
So thanks, Alana, for reminding us how important the editor's job really is!
Reply Alana Woods
6:44 PM on March 28, 2012 
Hi Christina, the short answer is: when that feeling of satisfaction settles on you.

However, usually there's a deadline involved so you work like crazy to make the deadline and satisfaction level coincide :)
Reply Christina Carson
12:43 PM on March 28, 2012 
Yowee! I can sure see the wisdom of all that, but I'd be a bold-faced liar if I didn't own that it sounds really scary. Do you know yourself when it's over? Thanks for all that info, however, Alana, as I want to understand this editing process so I make right choices in the end.