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What is substantive editing?

In substantive editing (also known as developmental editing and comprehensive editing), the editor considers a document’s concept and intended use, content, organization, design, and style. The purpose is to make the document functional for its readers, not just to make it correct and consistent.

Substantive editing is almost entirely analysis-based, whether at the document level or at the paragraph, sentence, or word level. Decisions require judgement, not just the application of rules, and therefore should be negotiable with the writer.

Contrast this work with copyediting, most of which is rules-based and concerned with grammar, spelling, punctuation, and other mechanics of style and the internal consistency of facts and presentation. Both types of edit are essential; they just focus on different issues. (See also my article on classifying editorial tasks.)

A substantive edit deals with the overall structure of the publication:

  • Does it all fit together into a coherent whole?
  • Is the order of presentation logical (from the target audience’s point of view)?
  • Is all the necessary information included, and unnecessary information deleted?
  • Are the retrieval aids (table of contents, internal headings, index) useful? Do they contain terms that are useful to the target audience?
  • For online materials (such as CD-ROM or Web sites), are the navigation aids logical and useful in context? Can users easily find the links they want?

Substantive editing may involve restructuring or rewriting part or all of a document.

A related edit is the language edit, which is concerned with how ideas are expressed. For example:

  • Sentence complexity and use of active or passive verbs
  • Conciseness
  • Clear, logical development of ideas
  • Use of jargon or technical terms appropriate for the intended audience

(Much of the language edit is a subset of work generally considered to be copy editing, but it may also be done as part of substantive editing.)


Questions about the difference between substantive editing (sometimes called developmental editing) and copy editing turn up frequently on various writing and editing discussion lists.

Here’s what Geoff Hart says:

“it appears that there is no broadly accepted definition of any of the various forms of editing: what a phrase means depends on who says it and the context, and you’d be wise to confirm with each client precisely what they mean by a given term. For example, one could say (glibly, but with some justice) that copyediting really involves issues of grammar, punctuation and style, whereas substantive editing focuses on organisational structure, logic, correctness, completeness, clarity, consistency with the established body of fact, and ethical implications.

“While I’d accept that as a first cut at a definition, there’s considerable overlap between the various forms of editing, and most editors do both copyediting and substantive editing at different times. For example, though I’m primarily a substantive editor, I also handle copyediting and proofreading duties—but I usually do them in separate passes through the manuscript.

“I usually make my first pass through the manuscript substantive (checking the logic and organisation, making sure the calculations are correct, looking for gaping holes in the contents, and massaging sentences to make them easy to understand). Along the way, I fix obvious typos, incorrect references to figures and tables, mismatches between numbers in the text and data in the
tables, and so on; where I’m not losing “the big picture”, I also fix the usual assortment of grammatical glitches.

“I take a second pass after these corrections have been made to clean up the copyediting chores I missed the first time through. I do a final pass through the proofs once those are ready to see what I missed the first two times.

“In reality, there can be multiple substantive passes, depending on how badly written the manuscript was and how extensively it has to be changed after peer review; ditto for copyediting passes and proofreading.”


Here’s some comments from Elena Westbrook

“You’ll get as many answers as there are editors. In my opinion, it becomes substantive editing when you start asking deep questions about meaning, organization, appropriateness, and so forth.

“Substantive editing often blurs into rewriting. For example, once I edited a self-published book that I completely reorganized, rewriting entire sections, deleting some self- serving passages, combining pieces from different chapters to create a narrative flow… well, you get the idea. The client asked me to do that because she recognized that the manuscript was in horrible shape. The finished product was still pretty banal, but at least it had a logical flow and an identifiable point.

“Right now, I do a lot of substantive editing/rewriting for high-tech “white papers”. I do try to retain the author’s voice as much as possible, while making sure that the document is clear and the point is well-argued.

“When I’m substantive editing, I may ask things like “Why is this important?” “How does this fact relate to the theory in Chapter 2?” “Doesn’t this passage contradict the argument on page 47?” I add a lot more connective tissue, when necessary, to smooth the logical flow. I rewrite explanations if they’re difficult to follow.

“On the other hand, when I’m copyediting I don’t nitpick the author’s logic. Even if I notice an inconsistency in the argument, it’s not my job to rewrite the paper. By the time the article gets to a copyeditor, it’s already been peer-reviewed by experts in the field, so I have to trust that the substance of the paper is accurate and well-supported.”

See also Classifying editorial tasks.

Last updated 10 September 2002