Thompson Rivers University

A Brief Guide to Substantive Editing

  Posted on: March 7, 2016

by Danielle LaRocque

What is a substantive editor?

A substantive editor, in short, is someone who edits a piece of writing as a whole. In substantive editing, you do not worry about specifics, such as grammar and mechanics, but rather, the bigger picture including structure, meaning, and consistency. The best way to address substantive issues is to ask yourself questions as a reader, rather than to correct your errors as a writer. By shifting from writer to reader, you will pick up on certain issues that you may have otherwise missed. Although this exercise may seem unnatural and self-conscious at first, in time, you will both improve the quality of the essay, as well as enhance your understanding of your topic.

What kinds of questions should I ask?

Become curious about your topic and questions will arise! Eventually, you will create your own substantive editing questions. For example, when editing my own essays, I always ask myself if I have proven my thesis in the body paragraphs, or if I have gone off on eight different tangents by the time my essay concludes. Often, I’ve done the latter. This is a flaw I’ve discovered about my own writing from listening to my inner substantive editor. You will get to know your own writing, too – both its flaws and strengths – by asking yourself the right questions. Here is a list of possible questions to consider:

  1. Is your thesis clearly stated in the introduction, or is it vague and/or confusing?
  2. Does your thesis make you want to read on?
  3. Does each paragraph support your thesis? Or do you ever find yourself wondering, “what does this have to do with the thesis?”
  4. Similarly, does each sentence support your thesis? (Checking this can be a monotonous task, but it significantly helps with focusing your topic and clarifying your essay as a whole.)
  5. Is your essay a response to a certain question on an assignment? If so, does your essay answer this question, or at least attempt to?
  6. Does your intro paragraph prepare the reader for the body paragraphs?
  7. Do any of the body paragraphs come as a surprise because they are not previewed in the intro? If so, should the intro be changed, or should any paragraphs be removed?
  8. Does the intro over-explain the essay, leaving the body paragraphs as mere reiterations of what has been already explained in the first paragraph?
  9. When you begin a new body paragraph, does the change in topic seem abrupt?
  10. Are your ideas organized in clear groups? For example, if you are writing an English paper addressing theme, setting and characterization, is each topic explained in its own body paragraph?
  11. Is it clear which topic you are discussing in each body paragraph?
  12. Does your conclusion restate the body paragraphs in a fresh manner, but without introducing new information?
  13. Do you find yourself skimming over certain sections? Is there a reason you may find these sections uninteresting?
  14. Do you find yourself particularly engaged in a certain section? Is there a technique you used which makes this section engaging? Can you mimic this technique in other areas to make them more engaging?

Hopefully this guide to substantive editing helps, and remember to keep on questioning, even when you think your essay is done!

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