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Substantive vs. Mechanical Editing: What You Need to Know

What does editing involve? Well, that all depends on the type of editing and who you ask. But to keep things simple, we’ll focus on two main categories:

  • Substantive Editing – Focuses on the document as a whole, not the small details. It may involve making major changes to a text, including to its structure and content.
  • Mechanical Editing – Focuses on making sure text is clear, concise, and error free. It takes place at the end of the editing process and often involves following a style guide.

Different editors use these terms – as well as “copy editing” and “line editing” – in different ways. But we’ll set out how we use them below so you know what to expect from our courses.

Substantive Editing (The Big Picture)

Substantive editing (also known as developmental editing) is about the overall content, organization, and style of a document. During a substantive edit, you might need to:

  • Provide feedback on the concept or theme of a document.
  • Make sure a document is suitable for its intended audience.
  • Restructure a document so that it flows naturally between sections.
  • Identify content that should be cut, added, or expanded on.
  • Remove or fix inconsistencies in content or style.
  • Help authors craft a coherent narrative and characters.

The details of each job may vary – some authors may want your help throughout the process of developing their work, while others will simply want a manuscript review – so you’ll need to agree the scope of the substantive editing you offer with each client.

In all cases, substantive editing is about understanding what the author is trying to achieve and helping them do this as effectively as possible. It does not, however, tend to focus on the small details, such as correcting spelling, punctuation, and grammar. It is “big picture” editing, which usually takes places during the earlier stages of developing a document or manuscript.

Mechanical Editing (The Small Details)

When a client has a strong draft of their document – or after the first draft for shorter documents that don’t require substantive editing – you can start looking at the text in detail.

This may mean refining the writing (line editing and copy editing) or just fixing typos (proofreading). Typically, such “mechanical editing” focuses on factors like:

  • Checking all text is clear, concise, and at the right level for the intended reader.
  • Ensuring vocabulary is appropriate and refining word choice.
  • Identifying inconsistencies in style or formatting.
  • Applying a style guide as specified by the client.
  • Correcting spelling, grammar, capitalization, and punctuation.

As with substantive editing, the details may depend on the job at hand, so you will have to agree the scope of your services with the client. But it should always involve polishing a document and refining the text while leaving the overall content and structure untouched.

This is the type of editing we focus on in our Becoming A Proofreader course. So if you’d like to find out more about working as a freelance editor, why not give it a look today?

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