Copy Editing and Substantive


Copy Editing and Substantive

Okay, I’m not exactly saying that this will be a boring post but we do need to make sure we are using the terms in the same way. So grit your teeth and read on.


There are various definitions of these terms, all very similar but with enough differences to murk things up. So here are my interpretations:

Copy editing: Fact checking, spell check, punctuation, grammar, tense consistency, missing words, etc. It is the more mechanical of the two but still valuable to avoid kicking your reader out of the continuous dream. I don’t want to be caught up short in my reading by affect? Shouldn’t that be effect?

Substantive editing: looks at the whole sweep of the novel. Themes, character growth, forward action, plausibility, even missed opportunities. All the big things which make your novel unique.

Copy editing example

This is pretty easy although time consuming. Here’s the original piece, followed by the copy editing in BOLD.

I turned quickly. “What are you doing here?” I ask.

She shrugs. “You know I compliment you, Tom.

“Helen, being with you is like living on top of an earthquake.”

Copy edit

I turned [rest of passage in present tense] quickly. “What are you doing here?” I ask.

She shrugs. “You know I compliment [complement or complete] you, Tom.”

“Helen [wasn’t her name Jennifer?], being with you is like living on top of an earthquake [volcano].”

You might think that getting the name wrong of the love (sic) interest wouldn’t happen but it can if half-way though you decide to change her name and don’t catch all the switches.

See, useful and necessary.

Substantive editing example

As the whole novel is covered in a substantive edit, you’ll need to take my word for it that the comments make sense.

Original passage

“No, I won’t do it!” Bryan brought his fist down on the table.

“Hon, you’ve got to! Please, for my sake.” Hannah said.

“Not even for you, Hannah. No.”

Editor’s comments

We have seen this argument a couple of times before. I think Bryan’s intransigence has already been established. Is anything going to change? If so, it is an opportunity for Bryan’s growth as a character. If not, then somebody needs to do something to move the action forward. It might be realistic in real life for couples to be stuck in repetitive fighting but in a novel, some resolution or movement is necessary to keep the reader reading.

A substantive edit is focused on making the novel the best it can be. Its intent should not be to change its direction or theme (unless of course, you are doing your own editing, in which case, go for it).

When to edit

This is probably the most important bit. As I discussed in the previous post on editing as you go, I think it helps the quality of your writing and makes it less likely that you will be stalled or taken off track to do all editing after you have finished a first draft.

Naturally, I’m not saying you should continue down a path you’re convinced isn’t working, but if it is just a suspicion or worry, I’d stick with the course you’re on and see how you feel once you read the whole thing.

So, hope you’re still awake. Now onto the event more exciting: How copywriting can help the quality of your writing. Stick with this—you do actually need to know this stuff.