IMPROVE YOUR WRITING
READY TO EDIT
At last! After months of work, I sent my novel-in-progress to my substantive editor. This is the editor who will delve into the overall story, characters, plot, and writing. She’ll point out places where I should dig deeper into my characters and flag scenes with ‘talking heads’ that would benefit from added description, gestures, and grounding in place. She’ll question plot developments that don’t make sense, suggest better word choices, and note awkward sentences. In a few weeks, I’ll get my manuscript back with her general comments and tons of track changes, which I’ll work with to produce my final draft.
Do you need to hire a substantive editor?
Not if you have a traditional publisher who provides this service or if you’re submitting novel queries to publishers and agents. In these cases, you’ll send them your second-to-last draft, written after your beta readers have critiqued the work.
I don’t know if every writer has beta readers, but I’ve found mine invaluable for my novels. Some have critiqued all five of my books. These are friends and relatives who like my writing. Other beta readers joined partway through my publishing career, including my writer partner, who lives in Ontario. We’ve never met in person and write different genres, but, somehow, we’ve clicked during our years of exchanging stories. A number of my beta readers have reviewed a book or two, but get busy after that. Beta reading takes time. Some of my dedicated readers have gone through my manuscripts twice. Overall, my beta reader comments range from few to many, harsh critique to mostly praise, easy fixes like missing words to comments that force me to me think, do more research, rearrange material, and repair plot holes. Some readers bring their special knowledge to the task. For my last novel, a reader who was a doctor married to a judge addressed my story’s medical and legal errors.
A substantive editor is, essentially, a highly skilled beta reader.
I recommend that self-published authors hire one if they can afford it, to bump their final drafts to a higher level. They’ll still need a proof reader after that. This should be someone other than the substantive editor, whose familiarity with the work will blind her to text mistakes. You will gloss over them even more since you know your story so well. An eagle-eyed friend might be good enough, but is still more likely to miss errors than an experienced proof reader and be less familiar with grammar rules and other proofreading matters, such as continuity.
Do I enjoy these stages of revision and editing? Yes and no. Proofread corrections are easy, since the novel is almost done. But I don’t find it fun juggling comments by a half-dozen beta readers. Sometimes they feel like criticism, which hurts even when it’s right. I don’t always do what my beta readers suggest—it’s my story in the end—but I consider each remark. Often my solution isn’t what they’d expect, but their focus on trouble spots helps me find what I want for my story.
I worked with the same substantive editor for my last two books and enjoyed that stage of the process. Thanks to my beta readers, the novels were in better shape when they reached this editor and required fewer major fixes. She still got me researching a few things. She prompted me to add drama to some scenes. Most importantly, she ‘got’ what I wanted to say with my stories and her suggestions were true to my voice. I hope it will be the same for this next novel.
Susan Calder grew up in Montreal and moved to Calgary in 1996. She is the author of four novels: A Deadly Fall, 2nd edition (BWL, 2019), Ten Days in Summer (BWL, 2017) and Winter’s Rage (BWL, 2021) books 1, 2 & 3 of the Paula Savard mystery series set in Calgary, and a standalone literary/suspense To Catch a Fox (BWL, 2019).