Substantive editing

Eventually, once you have satisfied the Style Nazi, editing of your manuscript can proceed.

Editing in fact is not one thing. Transformation of your manuscript calls on two very different types of editing: substantive editing of the initial (delivered) text focusing on its structure and argumentation, and copy-editing of the finalized (restructured) text focusing on its language and ensuring that it complies with the publisher’s house style

Substantive editing is the aristocrat of editing and, sadly, it is rare. For me, this has been epitomised by the editorial work of Joanne Sanstrom at Berkeley, now retired. As I understand it (though just how real this picture is, I don’t know), Joanne worked with each of her authors, line by line, ensuring that their text flowed logically, its argumentation structurally coherent, clear and consistent, all of this presented in language that was fresh and alive. In my mind, this is substantive editing (with a dash of copy-editing) at its greatest.

However, my understanding is also that Joanne only edited about four books a year and editing was pretty much all that she did. There is no way that this level of perfection makes economic sense in today’s publishing climate – indeed, I doubt that it ever did, even in the golden age of scholarly publishing a few decades ago. Each of these four books would have needed to sell tens of thousands of copies to cover Joanne’s salary and ancillary costs. Such levels of sales have rarely happened.

Any book will be the better for undergoing a mindful edit such as Joanne’s but sadly, in almost all cases today, it never happens. Because of the economic pressures on publishers, in recent years there has been a decline in the amount of structural revisions made to manuscripts after their final delivery. Instead, the tendency is for structure and content to receive feedback (not editing) before final delivery. Quite often publishers rely on any concerns regarding structure, argumentation and coherence being raised in the peer reviewers’ reports, and perhaps in additional comments from the commissioning editor (which may have been made after only a hasty skim-reading of the work). And that is about all the ‘substantive editing’ that a manuscript will get.

This degradation of the added value that publishers are supposed to offer their authors is one reason why some people argue the merits of self-publication and question if publishers have role to play in the dissemination of modern scholarship. (This is a complicated argument, one that I have explored elsewhere at great length.)

Mind you, I don’t hear too many authors complaining about this situation (though I dare say that’s because of ignorance not acceptance). Substantive editing is not what many authors think of when considering that their manuscript will be edited; rather, all that is in mind is a bit of ‘polishing’, the correction of the stray typo. After all, they are the ones that know their subject. (Unfortunately, knowing your subject and being about to communicate it effectively are quite different things.)

But what is your situation?

Hopefully, you received a detailed and coherent assessment of your text on such structural and content issues prior to final delivery but chances are you haven’t. If not, you might like to use this approach in the finalization of your manuscript.

Take the feedback that you have received from the readers’ reports and commissioning editor as your starting point, adding to this your own formal response to these evaluations. Thereafter, take the time to swiftly read through your manuscript one more time, briefly marking anything for follow-up but never really pausing. Doing this reading at speed reduces your unwillingness to read the wretched thing one more time. In fact, the faster you read, the easier it will be to keep a picture of the entire work in your head, and you will also notice anything that disturbs, distracts, bores or irritates you far more easily.

With all of this input, it should be fairly clear what revisions need to be done. Do them, but do not get bogged down with rewriting text that had nothing wrong with it in the first place. Speed is of the essence.

With luck, after delivering your final manuscript, your text may receive a minimum of substantive editing as part of the copy-edit. Just don’t count on it. As you will see in my next post, copy editors have enough to do already without straying into the byways of structure and argumentation.

(Post #3 of the Editorial section of a lengthy series on the book production process, the first post of which is here.)

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