What is a structural edit, and will it improve your book?
A professional editor approaches a manuscript in two stages. The first stage – the structural edit – focuses on big-picture elements such as narrative voice and point of view, characterisation, plot, story structure, pace. The second stage – the copy edit – is all about the details of the text, looking at sentence structure, writing style, vocabulary, spelling, grammar and punctuation, and fact-checking.
So what does a structural edit look like? While copy editing takes place within the body of the manuscript, with the editor suggesting changes to the text on a word-by-word level, a structural edit usually comes to the author in the form of a letter.
In that letter, the editor identifies the work’s strengths and weaknesses, and offers suggestions about how the author might address any problem areas.
Depending on how developed the manuscript is, the editor might also offer feedback on each chapter or scene, suggesting places where the author might add or cut material.
It’s then up to the author to think through the editor’s feedback and decide whether or not to implement any of their suggested changes.
The structural editing process can sound quite abstract until you’ve experienced it first-hand, but there are always common elements that shape the feedback: a series of questions the editor asks about each manuscript.
You could use these questions yourself to think through the shape and structure of your story, the depth of your characterisation, the mechanics of your plot, before you send your manuscript to a professional reader or editor.
- Do you know what genre you’re writing in?
- Do you understand the conventions of the genre and the expectations of your readers?
- Do you know who your readers are?
- Have you chosen to write in first person, third person or second person? Or a mix of POVs?
- Does the POV jump around between characters (‘head-hopping’)?
- Does your story have a clear main character?
- Does your main character have a developed story arc?
- Do your characters do things? Or are they static or passive?
- Do you have a clear, strong main plot that forms the backbone of the book?
- Do all the pieces of the plot fit together smoothly?
- Is there anything left unresolved at the end of the book?
- Does your opening scene set up your main character and the purpose of their story in an engaging, compelling way?
- Does your novel come to a satisfying, powerful ending?
- How long are your chapters? (Ideally, they should be fairly consistent in length.)
- Does each chapter move the story forward in a meaningful, active way?
- Are there places where the story drags? (e.g. a character spends too much time thinking instead of acting)
- Or places where it races along too quickly?
- Is there background information about characters or research material (info dumps) that could be removed, or broken up and worked in gradually?
- Do main events and/or plot twists happen in narrative summary or in actual scenes?
- Do you have a good balance between narrative text and dialogue?
- Does the work have a strong sense of place?
- Have you included sensual descriptions (sight, smell, sound)?
A useful tool for structural editing is the scene breakdown: a list of the key events in each scene and the characters involved in them.
Use your scene breakdown to follow each main plot line through the novel. Look out for gaps, or for where a story line fades away without resolution. Check that the different story lines are well-balanced, that one isn’t taking over from the others. Trace your main characters’ story arcs through the novel and pinpoint areas that could be developed further.
Will a structural edit improve your novel?
Receiving professional editorial feedback can be a confronting process. Most authors find it difficult to hear criticism of their work, no matter how tactfully it’s presented. Despite that, I’ve never heard an author say that getting feedback from an editor has been a waste of their time or resources. And once you’ve got past your initial response to your editor’s feedback, you’ll likely find that the scenes she’s highlighted for further consideration are those you weren’t happy with yourself.
You may not agree with everything your editor suggests, but even disagreeing with her can help you find your own way to resolve a problem in the manuscript. In fact, for an editor the very best outcome of a structural edit is when the author finds his or her own way to fix problems the editor has identified. This type of solution is usually more organic and pleasing – which can only be good for the book and its readers.
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