Substantive Editing vs. Copyediting: What's the Difference?

    When you’ve finished the first draft of your paper, and you need someone else to review it, what kind of editing do you need? Now, imagine you’ve finished your final draft. Will you need the same kind of editing? What about your manuscript right before it goes to print? Experienced academics and writers will know that your editing needs differ at various stages of the writing process. But many people, don’t know the difference between the types of editing or what to expect from an editor when they submit their paper for revision. In this article, we will clearly break down the distinctions to learn about substantive editing vs. copyediting and how both of them differ from proofreading. Knowing these differences will help you as you do more professional writing and gain more experience working with different types of editors.

    What is Substantive Editing? Let’s begin by considering the first scenario: you’ve just finished the first draft of your paper or manuscript, and you need someone to edit it. At this stage of writing, you’ve gotten your thoughts on the paper and included important data. But perhaps your article is missing details like proper citation and figures. More importantly, what if the structure of your argument could be refined, and you missed key links between sections of your paper? In the earlier stages of your writing, you need substantive editing. But what does substantive editing mean? Substantive editing focuses on the overall structure, content, and flow of a manuscript. When you engage an editor to perform substantive editing, they will make or suggest changes to the title, language, and style. But they will also make or suggest bigger changes to the organization of your paper. Substantive editors closely read your paper to ensure that it makes sense, your argument doesn’t have any obvious holes, and it reads well. However, don’t rely on a substantive editor to do all the hard work for you. With substantive editing, your editor doesn’t actually change your argument. Instead, the editor may leave comments for you to consider or requests for clarification or big changes. As a writer, you may find it difficult to accept all of the changes proposed by substantive editors. The good news is, you don’t have to accept those changes if you don’t want to (although in some cases, it may impact whether your paper is published). The majority of editors who perform substantive editing are subject matter experts. Academic editing services only hire people with a background in political science to substantively edit political science papers or people who are highly qualified in Neurology to review neurology papers. Because substantive editing requires a real understanding of the material and specialized language used, academic editing services provide experts to do the job. So, even if you do not like all of the changes your editor suggests, it is recommended that you consider them.

    What is Copyediting? Copyediting ensures that your document is consistent, clear, and accurate by spellchecking and fixing all grammatical errors. It usually happens later in the editing stages because it is a way to polish your writing. Good copyeditors will strive to ensure that your document maintains the same tone and clarity throughout. They will make suggestions for how you can revise any parts of your paper that sound awkward or may be inappropriate for your audience. For example, if you are writing a paper for a presentation to the general public, a copyeditor will highlight any technical or specialized terms that haven’t been clearly explained. Academic copy editing will also try to make your writing better. This usually means exchanging passive voice for active voice and shortening or lengthening sentences for clarity. Copy editing services are generally cheaper than substantive editing services because the changes they make are less comprehensive and require less work and expertise for the editor. Most academic copy editors will try not to make or suggest big changes. But if you hire a professional copy editing service, the editor may still suggest changes to the content of your paper that they think will make it easier to read and understand. Many copy editors are also subject matter experts, especially those who work for academic copy editing services. Copy editing services can be particularly valuable for non-native English speakers who want to polish their paper and improve the quality of writing. Enago’s substantive editing services include copyediting – you can also opt for copyediting independently.

    Substantive Editing vs. Copyediting: A Simple Guide The following is a table that lists the tasks most commonly performed by substantive editors and copyeditors. While there is some overlap, generally, the two are distinct.

    Substantive Editing vs. Copyediting

    TasksSubstantive EditingCopyediting
    Examines styleYesSometimes, to ensure wording is appropriate for the intended audience
    Examines content for consistency and accuracyYesSometimes, if a typographical error makes an argument inconsistent (for example, use of “not” where it doesn’t belong)
    Suggests changes to organizationYesNo
    Suggests ways to strengthen your argumentYesNo
    Checks for consistent capitalization, punctuation, and spellingNoYes
    Fixes awkward phrasing/use of passive voiceSometimes, to clarify an argument or explanationYes
    Corrects grammarNoYes

    Substantive Editing vs. Copyediting vs. Proofreading Now that you know the difference between substantive editing vs. copyediting, you may be wondering where proofreading fits in. Proofreading is the final stage before publication. The goal of a proofreader is to carefully review a document for spelling, grammar, punctuation, and capitalization errors. They make sure that a document looks perfect before it is submitted for publication. Whether you need substantive editing or copy editing, it is best to engage a professional to do the work for you. This will ensure optimal results. There are many copyediting services and academic copy editing services available, so don’t hesitate to look one up the next time you are planning to publish an article or book.