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Substantive Editing: The Editing Step You’re Forgetting that Could Make or Break Your Next Book

  • Dana SitarDana Sitar

When you think of “editing,” where does your mind go first?

Most readers and writers think of editing as correcting grammar, punctuation, and word choice in a manuscript – but there’s a lot of work to do with your book’s first draft before it’s ready for that!

Don’t go straight from finishing your first draft to correcting grammar and punctuation. Before you can focus on these, you have to ensure that what you’ve written is even on the right track.

If your book’s content isn’t effective or interesting, the best grammar and mechanics in the world won’t matter – and you’ll waste time and money focusing on them. Make sure you’ve first included and organized all the stuff your book needs to achieve its goals.

How do you do that?

Start with Content Editing

Also known as “substantive editing”, content editing analyzes your draft to ensure it’s readable and aligns with the goals you set for the book. Once your book is planned and outlined, and you’ve written a first draft, this is your first stage of editing.

Many new authors overlook substantive editing, believing that once their first draft is finished, it just needs a run of copyediting for grammar and punctuation (and maybe a few wording adjustments here and there). You may not understand the purpose of this step, and don’t think you can justify the cost of a content editor.

To help assuage that concern, realize that content editing doesn’t have to come from high-priced pro editor. It just has to come from someone who understands your genre or message. This could mean beta readers, fellow authors, critique partners, or editor friends you can barter with. If you can swing it, try for all of these! The more eyes that look over your work in the early stages, the better.

Your manuscript may go through a few rounds of content editing to ensure it conveys your intended message and will reach your intended audience.  After each round of content editing, you’ll likely have to do some major revisions — rewriting entire sections, dropping parts, and adding content you didn’t originally include.

Don’t become distracted with grammar and word choice at this stage. While those are important to be aware of throughout the writing process, making tons of sentence-level edits during content editing will be useless, because you’re likely going to be rewriting a lot of those sentences.

As you, your editors, and your readers go through your book’s content at this stage, consider:

Your Tone and Voice

The tone of your writing will have a major impact on how readers perceive your brand. For example, if you run a coaching practice like a drill sergeant, your e-book probably shouldn’t be written with whimsical, made-up words like “awesomesauce” and “totes.”

If, on the other hand, you like to have fun with clients, maybe one of your signature exercises is something like drawing a vision for the future in crayons. In this case, an e-book written like a college paper is going to bore your ideal clients into creative death.

A content editor can read your manuscript to ensure that the voice and tone are consistent with the voice of your brand, your other books, and the goals for this book.

Consistency and Continuity

Your content editor will help ensure both the consistency and continuity of the message your book and brand are meant to convey.

Share your outline and other materials that will help an editor understand your vision and message. This will help her go beyond the sentence-level grammar-and-punctuation stuff and get more intimate with your book and its goals to help it shine.

Effectiveness of Your Message

When you’re writing non-fiction, especially a message-driven book (like a manifesto or self-help book), content editing is where you’ll check that the book is conveying your brand’s core message to the reader.

Does your book tackle the goals you set out to achieve? When you and your editor look at your draft, take a gut check to see if this is the book you set out to write. If not, what needs to change to make it so?

Ask yourself and your editor(s):

  • Does it share your brand’s core message?
  • How does it help you serve your community?
  • Does it reflect what is truly unique about you and the work you do?
  • Does it include clear goals and imperative action steps for your readers?
  • Is this a book you’d love to read?

Whatever You Do, Don’t Skip This Step!

Whether your book is fiction or non-fiction, a one-page worksheet or a 100,000-word tome, it will benefit from substantive editing and content-level feedback.

Your manuscript needs fresh eyes and – more importantly – a perspective outside of your own head that can tell you honestly whether it’s making sense and whether it’s leading to your stated goals. Only once these are clear can you move onto grammar and punctuation.

Is Your Manuscript Ready for Editing?

The Edit + Polish Your Manuscript course by DIY Writing will walk you through all four stages of editing – Developmental, Content, Copyediting, and Proofreading – to ensure your book is the best it can be before you’re ready to publish and share it with the world.

Are you ready to have someone content edit your piece? If you’ve gone through this process, how helpful was it in the overall success of your book? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

6 thoughts on Substantive Editing: The Editing Step You’re Forgetting that Could Make or Break Your Next Book

Marcy McKay

Excellent points on all accounts, Dana. To me, voice is the #1 things that catches me or loses me with any writing — fiction or non-fiction. You clearly know your stuff and I’m sure you serve your clients well.



substantive editing is necessary for the continues break through for the book and take it to a new level. I guess you’ve shared some awesome points on smooth writing of an ebook.

Debra L. Butterfield

Dana, an excellent article. Great advice to guide me through revisions on my book. I am enlisting the aid of writer friends and beta readers to help me with this step.


Justine Tal Goldberg

Thanks for this, Dana. Editing can be confusing, especially since there are so many different kinds and no real consensus for terminology in the field: what one person means by “substantive editing,” for example, doesn’t necessarily jibe with the next.

When embarking upon edits, I always advise my clients to define their manuscripts’ needs with crystal clarity. This way, there’s no confusion about expectations from a professional editor, beta reader, or peer.

This post will help first-time authors go in with eyes wide open–so important!


I have to admit the temptation to go through any draught and correct wording,grammer etc is more than just an urge..
With anything of more substance than an email, I think this is a sensible formula..
I’m really getting into the ‘just let it flow’ method, so this makes perfect sense for the next stage of editing.

Nice post really enjoyed it Dana!


This most helpful. All writers must see this.

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