In this video, Steve Kanter, Editor-in-Chief of Academic Medicine, interviews Albert Bradford, his director of editing. While the interview gets a moment to get going, once it does, it’s worth watching because Bradford explains the value of substantive editing quite well, and how it differs from copyediting or proofreading. In my experience, the editors who do this work are often the most valuable part of an editorial team, providing wisdom, insight, continuity, and support for authors, editors, and brands over many years.

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Kent Anderson

Kent Anderson

Kent Anderson is the CEO of RedLink and RedLink Network, a past-President of SSP, and the founder of the Scholarly Kitchen. He has worked as Publisher at AAAS/Science, CEO/Publisher of JBJS, Inc., a publishing executive at the Massachusetts Medical Society, Publishing Director of the New England Journal of Medicine, and Director of Medical Journals at the American Academy of Pediatrics. Opinions on social media or blogs are his own.


3 Thoughts on "The Importance of Substantive Editing"

I disagree with your characterization of substantive editing as something different from copyediting. Practically everything that Kanter talks about here–making sure meaning is clear, working to help the author communicate to others beyond his specialty, smoothing out transitions in the argument, etc.–are all types of editing that copyeditors do. Copyeditors routinely do both stylistic and substantive editing. What they do not do is developmental editing, which is done at a much earlier stage in the writing process and concerns itself with large-scale issues like structure and organization, the relationship between evidence and argument, and the like. Sometimes development editing is done by acquiring editors; sometimes it is done by editors who specialize in developmental editing. It is that type of editing, not substantive editing, that goes beyond the bailiwick of a copyeditor. (I started my career as a copyeditor and then became an acquiring editor who did developmental editing.)

You’re right, there is a gray zone as far as function and titles go. Often, very good copyeditors do substantive editors. But the copyediting function is set apart in some organizations as something separated from the author-editor interface, and somewhere between substantive editors and proofreaders. There are a lot of ways to skin this particular cat from a function/title standpoint. The point here is that the function matters. I was also a copyeditor who did substantive editing, but the title “copyeditor” was more a reflection of how the organization worked and handed out titles.

I have always like this quote from a very insightful article written 17 years ago. I think they have a point. Moving to a digital system for disseminating journals has been tremendously beneficial to scholarly communication but something is (was) lost with everything that has been gained.

“On the other hand, the care and precision of proofreading, revision, editing, designing, and typesetting manuscripts to create an authoritative (and aesthetically appealing) version of an author or authors’ document has traditionally been linked with the finality of creating a printed, bound version that will be archived as such for posterity. Both the producer of the text and its editor and publisher have a common interest in seeing it be as complete, persuasive, and carefully written as possible, since there is a sense in which, once published, there is no taking it back. The printed medium, therefore, also has distinct benefits.”

Burbules NC, Bruce BC. This is not a paper, Educational Researcher 1995;24(8):12-8.

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