Developmental vs. Substantive Editing: Is There a Difference? 

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There appears to be widespread confusion these days about the differences, if any, between substantive and developmental editing. Authors can take advantage of a plethora of editing services to unlock the full potential of their manuscripts, but it’s difficult to know which service you need and when. 

It’s particularly confusing when you have identical-sounding services like developmental and substantive editing, both rendered in the early stages of a finished manuscript. If you have a manuscript that could use the trained eye of a professional editor to make it shine, you might be wondering whether substantive and developmental editing are the same thing.

Most editors and editing services would say they are the same thing, but some call line editing substantive editing, which leads to this confusion. To avoid confusion, it’s best to say “developmental editing” and “line editing,” but it’s good to know that most of the time, when you encounter the phrase “substantive editing,” it probably means developmental editing.

These days, the terms “developmental editing” and “substantive editing” are commonly used interchangeably although that wasn’t always the case. Originally, developmental edits were done in the very early stages of writing or even just outlining a book, and they were rare. As technology revolutionized the publishing industry, what was always known as substantive editing—editing a completed manuscript with a focus on storytelling, message, and clarity—came to be rebranded (by some) as developmental editing. Nowadays, outlines typically aren’t edited by professionals; usually, the first professional edit a manuscript undergoes is the developmental edit, which is rendered after the completion of the first draft.

We’re in the camp that calls substantive editing developmental editing, which also happens to be known as big-picture editing. If you’re ready to start working with a developmental editor, check out our big-picture editing services for authors and get paired with the perfect editor for your manuscript. 

If you’re still not sure whether substantive editing is what you need, let’s look at what it entails. 

What is substantive editing? 

Substantive editing (also developmental or big-picture editing) focuses on the concept, content, organization, and style of a manuscript, offering the author suggestions on how to fix any issues that can spoil the reading experience and interfere with the commercial success of the book. This is a more subjective, analytical type of editing than, say, proofreading, which is entirely technical and objective and focuses on things like grammar, spelling, and punctuation. 

Substantive editing also differs from copy editing, which concerns itself with linguistic issues at the paragraph and sentence level—grammar and spelling, of course, but also style, flow, clarity, linguistic structure, and more. This sort of fine-tuning comes after a good round of substantive editing to polish your plot, character development, narrative arc, and other overarching aspects of your book. Since substantive editing generally results in a lot of rewriting and restructuring for the author, it doesn’t make sense to worry about the finer linguistic points just yet.

Substantive editing looks at the overall structure and cohesiveness of a manuscript, concentrating on aspects such as coherency, flow, logic, and clarity while also taking the genre and target audience into consideration. Editors pay special attention to plot holes, character motivations and arcs, themes, and continuity, identifying any issues that hold your manuscript back and offering suggestions to resolve them. 

For nonfiction books, they also make sure arguments are clear and convincing, the flow is logical, explanations are easy to understand, and contradictions are nowhere to be found. If you intend to market your nonfiction book to the general public, your substantive editor can help you determine whether your explanations are appropriate for laypeople.

What is line editing? 

Line editing, also labeled substantive editing by some, is the editing of a draft at the sentence level with a focus on the best use of language to convey the themes of the book. It’s not the same as proofreading, which only cares about typos, spelling, and grammatical mistakes—rather, line editing concentrates on style, flow, and other more abstract aspects of the art of writing.

We offer paragraph and sentence editing, which we also call combined proofreading and editing. This is a service for authors with completed drafts that combines line editing and copy editing, focusing on spelling, grammar, word choice, and sentence structure. Our editorial team will comb through your entire manuscript, line by line, to improve the style and correct smaller errors that distract a reader from the story. It’s not developmental editing—you should have already addressed overarching issues with your plot and characters before using our paragraph and sentence editing service.

Since there are different terms for the same services floating around the internet, it’s important to do your research before opting for one and make sure you’re getting what you need. It’s easy with us because we offer just about every service an author may want. To learn more about our substantive (developmental) editing services, check out our big-picture editing services. For more on line editing and copy editing, take a look at our paragraph and sentence editing services. If you’re not sure what you need, just reach out to us and we’ll help you work it out! 

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