Seven Ways to Incorporate Substantive Edits Into Your Novel

Writing your book is a tremendous accomplishment, one that you should be proud of. But that’s the fun part of being a writer. Now that you’ve sent your book off to a developmental editor or beta readers (preferably both), you likely have a lot of substantive changes to incorporate into your book.

That, unfortunately, is not the fun part. In fact, incorporating substantive changes is probably the worst and most painful part of being a writer. You have to take this thing that you spent weeks, months, or even years of your life on and tear it apart, change things, and then piece it back together again.

Luckily, this will be the best thing that you can do for your work. The book that comes out of a developmental or line edit and beta feedback is far better than the one that went into it. But getting through that process is difficult, defeating, and can take a long time.

Luckily, here are seven ways to incorporate substantive changes into your book.

Be open to criticisms and changes

Before you even look at your feedback or critiques, you need to be in the right mindset. You are about to tackle a big undertaking and will be faced with some flaws or shortcomings in your work.

Nobody likes to hear or read about their mistakes, nor do they like to be told that something they spent a long time on needs big changes. Resistance is natural.

But when you start the process of incorporating substantive changes, you need to keep an open mind. Get that thick skin ready and be willing to look at your work objectively. The feedback you received is not meant to be cruel or to diminish what you’ve done. It’s there to help improve your work and make it the best that it can be.

Keep that in mind when going through your changes.

Understand where you are and where you want to be

Hopefully you took a break between when you sent out your book and when you got your edits or feedback. It’s great for your mind, your creativity, and your objectivity to have that space from your work before diving back into it.

Now that you are about to take that dive, though, you want to be familiar and you want to have an idea of where you are going. Take a few days or a week to read through your book again. It doesn’t have to be in great detail, but be familiar with the individual scenes and plot points before you start reading about how to change it.

Also read through your feedback. Don’t take action on it just yet, but be aware of the general comments and what you are going to be looking out for when you make your changes. Also look for similar comments if you have feedback from multiple beta readers.

Get a thorough understanding of your book as is and a good grasp of what your feedback looks like before going and making those fixes.

Gather all feedback together

The seven ways to help incorporate your substantive edits

If you are getting your feedback from a developmental or line editor, odds are your feedback is already grouped together in terms of plot points, characterization, theme, etc. You should be getting a package back that has a detailed look at all these categories and more, plus detailed comments throughout your manuscript.

However, if you are getting your feedback from beta readers, then you have some grouping to do. Go through the feedback from each individual beta reader and group them together in a new document, keeping similar categories together.

Do four beta readers have comments about your main character? Keep them together.

Does everyone have comments about your theme or you’re a particular scene? Group those in one document.

By grouping similar ideas, it is easier to incorporate the changes into your work. There are some writers who only go through each reader’s feedback individually, and that can lead to muddled changes or valuing one piece of feedback over another.

A lot of your beta readers will use track changes or a similar feature to make comments throughout your book. These obviously can’t be grouped together, since they are at specific points in each document. Just make sure to keep all feedback in mind when you are making changes.

Map out your book

You might not be a fan of making visuals for your book, but this one is worth it, I promise. This saved my own work when I was incorporating feedback for Archangel.

Grab some index cards or scrap paper, and label one for each scene however you want. Spread them out in sequential order. Personally, I like to do columns to represent each chapter, and each scene is laid out chronologically in each chapter, with the earliest starting at the top.

When you’re done, you’ll have the entire plot of your book out in front of you. This is a great tool for incorporating big changes, like cutting out or moving scenes, or inserting new, hypothetical scenes.

When you are faced with a wall of text, it is tough to imagine what the story would look like if a scene were removed or re-positioned. This helps you visualize that.

As a developmental editor, it also helps me see if there are any inconsistencies in timelines. Even though it might make sense to you as your reading it, your different scenes might be out of time with one another. This is a great way to make sure they aren’t.

Make a schedule

Incorporating substantive edits is not enjoyable and you won’t look forward to it. You’re going to have to force yourself to do it.

Making a schedule and sticking to it is the easiest way to get into a routine of incorporating substantive edits. Make a time in your calendar app if you have to. Just get that routine going.

And when you do make your schedule, don’t try and tackle it all at once. Chunk it in to manageable pieces. Do one or two chapters (or more, depending on their size) at a time, then take a break or call it for the day. Do what you can without growing to hate your book.

You might think that you can set aside a day off and go through all of your substantive edits at once. You could, but doing so much of the same monotonous work will lead to glazed eyes and mistakes. You will inevitably miss a comment or skip over a change without noticing.

Make your work easier for yourself by taking it one step at a time.

Communication is key

A good number of the suggested edits you receive back from a developmental editor or beta reader might confuse you or be ones you disagree with at first. That’s totally normal, don’t worry.

When it comes to a developmental edit, it’s best to respond to comments as you go through (easy to do in MS Word track changes) or create a list of questions you want to ask the developmental editor. Make these questions specific, especially if they are referencing a certain line or section in the book.

Most developmental editors will be happy to go respond to your questions or comments responses. In fact, a developmental editor should be willing to communicate with you, otherwise their job is not complete. This doesn’t mean that they will go through and do a second developmental edit, but any editor worth their stuff will be happy to answer your questions and work with you to find the right solution.

If you are working with feedback from beta readers, then communication is a little more fluid. You can still summarize your thoughts and send them off at once, or—depending on who your beta readers are—you might be able to text or direct message them with questions as they come up.

No matter who you are working with, just keep in mind that their time is valuable. Whether you are working with a professional editor or beta readers, their time shouldn’t be treated like it is less important than your own, nor should you feel entitled to their attention whenever you want. Be polite and treat others as you want to be treated.

The last say is yours

Ultimately, no matter what edits you get back, the last say as to whether changes are made or not is yours. You decide what your final story looks like—minus copyedits, which are generally cut and dry.

When you are deciding whether or not to accept edits, just keep the following things in mind:

  • Developmental editors are suggesting fixes for timeline issues, plot holes, poor characterization and theme. They are making suggestions that will improve the marketability and overall quality of your work.

  • Line editors are suggesting fixes to the flow, tone, and word choice. These suggestions help you communicate the amazing story you’ve created.

  • Beta readers are making suggestions based off their own love of the genre or story. They are your target market and will recommend changes that they like. You can bet those desired changes are shared among other readers, but they might also be tinged with personal bias. If you see the same suggestions from multiple beta readers, then you should strongly take those into consideration.

When deciding to incorporate the changes or not, keep these in mind. All of your sources of substantive edits are trying to help you, and each is suggesting edits for different and extremely valid reasons.

Be open to these suggestions when going through your edits. Remember that you want what’s best for your novel, not your ego.

Making substantive changes to your book is difficult, both in terms of the work you have to do and the psychological fatigue of facing your mistakes and shortcomings. Worse, you have this book that you worked so hard on and you look at how someone wants you to change it.

Always keep the goal in mind: you are going to come out of this process with an amazing story, one that’s better than what you went in with. And once you have that, you’re one step closer to your bestseller hitting the market.

Is your novel in need of developmental or line editing? Do you have a good story, but need that extra polish to make it amazing? Big Red Pen offers editing from developmental to line to copyediting, all at affordable rates. Contact us to see how we can help your work.

We also created a printable reference sheet to help you incorporate your substantive edits. Get access to it and a number of other FREE reference sheets and worksheets by entering your email down below.

Good luck with your edits and happy writing!