What is substantive editing? There are different levels of editing and most writers only concern themselves with the last level of editing – copy editing. This is the nitty-gritty one word at a time editing where you’re checking spelling and grammar. Substantive editing is the big picture editing. Does your story have an arc? Do your main characters arc? Are there plot holes or sagging middles? Do you have point of view issues?
These are big picture edits.
When I beta-read for people this is my strength. I could do copy editing, but I loathe grammar and punctuation. Better left to people who find that process enjoyable. I don’t. I can usually look at a sentence and tell you if it has a problem, but don’t ask me to identify the parts of speech or label the error.
I’m a pantser. There are two schools of methodology in fiction writing – planning and pantsing (or writing by the seat of your pants). Some famous pantsers include Stephen King.
Pantsers don’t know where the story is going to take us. We just sit down and write a first draft. The first draft is just blurting the story out and trying to capture the high points. We edit for the rest. Planners spend more time planning all those things pantsers have to edit for, in the hopes of only having to write it once. There’s no right or wrong, and you may find you incorporate aspects of both styles. Planners still need a substantive editor.
I’m deep into edits on an epic fantasy story I started ten years ago. I’ve rewritten the crazy thing three times. Each revision incorporated more of what I’d learned, but this is the last time I’m rewriting this story *slams fist on table* darn it!!! Smile.
Pantsing is ALWAYS more fun, in my opinion, but you have to really like revisions.
And I’m tired of revising this story.
So, I’ve spent a good deal of time working on substantive edits – a big picture edit. Here’s 5 things I’m concentrating on in this revision stage:
Characterization (motives, desires, flaws, ticks) I had to write the whole story three times before I think I really got to know my characters well enough to flesh this out the way it needed to be. The pantser’s bane. A small change in motivation at the beginning of a story can have huge ripple effects later on. Don’t be intimidated by the work from making these necessary changes.
Format. When I first wrote this story, I wrote it as a traditional full-length novel. My editing process has revealed to me that this isn’t the best fit for this story. So I’ve been researching serials and other options that the new publishing paradigm has made popular and viable again – which weren’t an option when I first wrote the story. Again, this will require extensive rewriting, but it will make the work a lot stronger.
Synopsis. Writing a synopsis is not fun. Not gonna lie. But this functions like a big-picture blueprint of sorts for your story. This maps out your story – who does what when with whom. I’m a visual person, so I’ve created several mind maps of this process in addition to a linear point by point outline.
Chapter Overview. This takes the synopsis a step further and examines the story chapter by chapter. For each chapter you’re going to record who does what when with whom — and answer the why question too. What does the POV character want in this chapter? I want to make sure either they don’t get what they want, they change what they want, or they get what they want but it leaves them with a new challenge.
Point of View. Who is the best one to tell this story? I’ve had to really examine whether the characters telling the story are the best ones to do that. This has required extensive rewriting in places. I’m also focusing on writing in a deep POV style instead of a 3rd person POV, something I’ve learned a lot about and have crafted my writer’s voice around.
Do you have a team of beta readers or a substantive editor?