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Resources for Writers

So What Is a Structural Edit Exactly?

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Article by Robert Doran ©.
Posted in Resources (, ).

Structural editing (sometimes called developmental editing or substantive editing) is the most complex and time-consuming stage of the editorial process. It is also the most expensive, and that’s why many publishers are now reluctant to take on books that need structural work. This reluctance to invest in developing manuscripts means that authors and their agents are often left to do the work themselves or to hire editors to do it. For the self-publisher this represents a welcome levelling of the playing field in at least one aspect of the process. So how do you take advantage of this?

I know you’re expecting me to say, ‘Hire an editor!’ and if you can afford to do that, it’s probably the best option. But if paying for a structural edit means you won’t be able to afford a copy-edit, you need to consider other solutions. A copy-edit, to my mind, really isn’t optional, and it will always be the most effective way to spend your budget.

We’ll come back to how you can best handle structural editing in a bit, but first let’s look at what it actually is. Structural editing is looking at the big picture. It’s evaluating a manuscript as a whole and analysing how well its constituent parts contribute to the central message or narrative. Whereas the copy-editor takes a micro view, drilling into the detail, the structural editor goes macro and asks, ‘Does this work as a book?’

In fiction, the main areas that a structural editor will address are:

  • Plot: Does the plot make sense? Is it believable? Is it satisfying or does it leave the reader frustrated?
  • Themes: Are the themes effectively handled? Are there so many that the book lacks focus? Do they interfere with the plot or complement it?
  • Characterisation: Are your characters well developed and believable? Are they cast in a role that fits their personality? Do they sometimes behave out of character?
  • Point of view/voice: Is the voice consistent or is it sometimes confused? Is the voice authentic? Are you using too many or too few POVs?
  • Pace: Does the plot move forward at an appropriate pace? Should you cut that preface? Should the action happen sooner or should the tension build more slowly?
  • Dialogue: Do your characters sound real when they speak? Is your dialogue cluttered with adverbs and beats? Do you use clunky dialogue to move the plot forward?
  • Flow: Is the narrative interrupted by dead-ends and tangents? Is there so much back story that the main plot is dwarfed? Are there missing plot points that would give the narrative greater integrity?

In non-fiction, the principle is the same, but the specific issues are slightly different:

  • Thesis: Is your thesis relevant? Is it clearly defined or is it lost among marginal issues?
  • Exposition: Are your arguments clear and cogent? Are they well researched and properly supported? Do they have a clear relationship with your thesis?
  • Content: Are all the necessary topics sufficiently dealt with? Are the chapters weighted correctly? Is there superfluous content?
  • Organisation: Is the information organised logically? Are tables and illustrations used appropriately? How many levels of subheads do you need and how should they be arranged?
  • Tone: Is the tone appropriate for the audience? Do you need to eliminate jargon? Is the text accessible?
  • Pace: Are there passages that are bogged down in detail? Do you spend too long on detail irrelevant to the main thesis? Are there areas that need further exposition lest they be skipped over?

Although a structural editor may do a little copy-editing as they work through your manuscript, that is not what they are being paid to do. Their focus is much broader, and they will return your manuscript marked up with constructive comments and suggested rewrites that will in any case render the corrections pointless.

So, if you’re saving your money for a copy-edit, what do you do about structure?

Leave it alone. Put your manuscript in a drawer for a few weeks and forget about it. When you come back to it you’ll see it with fresh eyes and you’ll be in a much better position to read it critically. Then cut ruthlessly. Strip it out. Spike anything that you think you might use later or rewrite. You’re likely to find that your cuts have resulted in a tighter, more readable, and more enjoyable book.

Join a writing group. Creative-writing groups provide a great forum in which to have your work critiqued by people who are as passionate about writing as you are. Some opinions may be more informed than others, and you may have to sift through some personal prejudices before you get to the useful pointers, but there are bound to be people whose opinion you value. Keep an open mind and always thank people for their feedback, even if it’s unjustified criticism. If you’re seen to react badly, people with a real talent for spotting problems might choose to keep their comments to themselves. Critiquing sites and internet author forums can also be a great source of feedback and support, especially if you’re the sort of writer who doesn’t like to leave the house. HarperCollins set up Authonomy.com as a novel way of finding new talent, but it’s also a great place to connect with other writers and have your work critiqued. YouWriteOn.com offers a similar service – you can read about Irish author Bob Burke’s experience with the site here. Irish publisher Blackstaff Press have recently launched SkyPen to spot new talent and provide support.

Read books on writing. There are hundreds of books out there on writing. There are books on plot, dialogue, point of view, editing, and every other aspect of crafting a good book. The information is there for you to apply to your own manuscript if you’re prepared to spend fifty quid and a couple of weeks studying the texts. It might not be the same as having a fresh pair of eyes tackle your MS, but if you put a bit of distance between you and your work, you should be able to put your new skills to effective use.

Read the competition. It’s great to be original, but unless you’re Joyce or Kafka it’s best not to be too different. Your competition represents a good guide to what’s expected from you. You should aim to produce something better, extra or novel that adds to the canon, but don’t stray too far from the beaten track or your book won’t fit on any shelf. Read books published in your category in as critical a manner as possible. It helps if you’ve read a few books on writing first – you’ll find that issues to which you were previously oblivious suddenly come into sharp relief. Try to deconstruct the books and analyse how plot, characterisation, pace, etc., are handled, chapter by chapter. Many authors in your category will have faced similar dilemmas as you, and it helps to analyse their results.

It’s true that none of this entirely replaces a professional structural edit, but you can bring your manuscript a long way by investing just a few quid and some reading time. After you’ve done all this, it’s worth having a chat with your copy-editor to explain how you’ve edited. If you show them that you’ve put in the effort and, if you’re extra nice to them, they’ll be glad to watch out for any remaining structural issues. They may not deal with the problems in depth, but they’ll flag them, and, with all that reading under your belt, you’ll have no trouble sorting them out.


kazoo large no shadowRobert Doran is Editorial Director at Kazoo Independent Publishing Services (www.kazoopublishing.com), a one-stop shop for indie authors who want to publish industry-standard books. He has nearly twenty years’ experience in bringing books to market and has worked as an editor, project manager, sales manager, and bookseller in Ireland and in the UK. He is a big fan of the Oxford comma. Follow him on Twitter @RobertEdits.

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