Substantive Editing: The Secondary Elements

When you finish your developmental edit, I won’t make you do a fast read-through again, unless vast whacking chunks of your book have changed. If that’s the case, another read-through may be warranted, as well as another examination of primary elements. A new writer may have to do several cycles of developmental edits before the story really gets into shape.

Once all the primary elements are in place, you’re ready for the next phase.

red pen
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That said, this is a good time to take a break and write a synopsis. Even if you’re not seeking traditional publication, summarizing your novel will help you understand the story better. That will improve your ability to write your back cover copy, your product description, and other marketing materials.

The next editing phase is often called substantive or line editing. At this stage, we examine the secondary elements:

  • Dialog
  • Description
  • Voice
  • Mechanics

A substantive edit may entail rewriting large segments, for example to make dialog sound realistic or to increase the descriptive details. But at this stage we will not make any major changes to the primary elements. If at this point you discover a plot hole that needs filling or some other primary element error that must be addressed, consider yourself as leaving substantive mode and returning to developmental mode. Once the major element is fixed, then you can return to substantive editing mode.

Let me give an example. If we’re editing a historical novel, and one of the plot points involves taking the train from Orlando to Tampa, and you discover there was no such train at the time, you have to solve that problem first. If you change the train trip to a wagon ride, all the scenes on the train will have to be rewritten with new dialog and descriptions.

So first do the rewrite, and then come back to do the substantive edit.

As with the developmental edit, your substantive edit can be done in one pass or four or some combination.
I can’t stress this part enough: save Mechanics for dead last. Seriously. There is no point making sure your grammar is perfect and your commas are in the right places if any of the other elements are lacking.

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