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What is Structural Editing

March 15, 2010

Wainright Building, via Flickr and Remiss63

Being edited, for many new writers, is the great unknown area between first draft and publication.

The unknown evokes fear or anxiety in many people. Add to that the fact many emerging writers have been subjected to poorly thought-out critiques of their work, or blatantly malicious ones. All this can make the prospect of being edited a truly terrifying experience. But it doesn’t have to be. The process of editing can be one of the most rewarding and enriching experiences of writing.

Understanding the process is the key of getting the most out of any edit of your work. Across the next couple of weeks I’m going to break down the editing process in the hope it will demystify and make it something of a known quantity for writers embarking on the process of editing for the first time.

What the Hell Would I Know?

For the past five and a bit years I’ve been working as an editor, first as a non-fiction editor of a magazine and more recently editing fiction, in parallel to honing my craft as a writer.

I’ve come to understand that many new writers don’t totally understand the process of editing or the fact that editing is about helping a writer create the best possible piece of writing – whether it be a short story or a novel. Getting to know the steps can help demystify the process

There are three separate steps to a thorough edit, that often happen at different intervals in the life time of a story. They are:

  • Structural editing (also know as substantive editing)
  • Copy editing
  • Proof reading

All three steps are essential and are best applied in the order listed.

This week I will look at the first step – structural editing.

Structural Editing

Abigail Nathan of Bothersome Words Editing and Writing Services succinctly sums up the process off structural editing as “(checking) content, structure, flow, style, clarity and consistency.”

In a nutshell structural editing for fiction writing concerns the story at hand, identifying the strengths and weaknesses in it. This should not be confused with ‘strong’ or ‘weak’ writing. At this first point of contact, an editor is only looking at the narrative as it plays out on the page, asking questions such as:

  • does the story flow?
  • do I care about the characters?
  • is the story accessible?
  • does it make sense?

Moving on an editor will look at many other areas in a structural edit such as:

  • Story elements
  • Theme
  • Flow
  • Tense and Voice

Some editors will also dig deeper to bring out currently unseen elements of the story.

Story Elements

An editor will look at individual elements of the story, especially but not confined to: plot, characterisation, dialogue, setting and the interaction between them.

Some of the questions editors ask themselves as they are reading (and may possibly ask the writer in turn):

  • Would this really happen (this way)?
  • Is it the right setting for it to happen?
  • Would this character really react (this way)?
  • How else might the character behave?
  • What is the basis for this character making this decision?
  • Is this authentic/believable?
  • Would this character talk like this?
  • Is each character a good fit for his/her role?
  • Is this the most logical sequence of events?
  • What is missing?

An editor will look for and point out inconsistencies and inaccuracies as they appear – especially in timeline, dialogue, characterisation, setting and voice. The best example of a character inconsistency I’ve seen lately is a character opening an empty packet of cigarettes towards the end of the story when at no point prior had the character made mention of smoking.

The balance of dialogue and exposition in any story is important – an editor will look to see if there too much dialogue and not enough in between, or not enough dialogue.  Maybe there is no need for dialogue? They’ll also look at how the story is being told – is there too much telling rather than showing? An editor can make suggestions on alternate or more subtle ways of getting your point across and making the most productive use of dialogue and exposition.

A structural edit may also look at other landscapes which are travelled in a story, including, but not exclusive of:

  • the sensory landscape – is the narrative geared too much to auditory or visual experiences of the world, when additional application of the other senses may give the reader a richer reading experience/better understanding.
  • the emotional landscape – does the reader experience an authentic range of emotions via the characters and their interactions.


Writers may begin with one theme in mind and deviate as they explore the world of their characters creating discord or inconsistenciesin the way a story is told. Or they may not even have a theme in mind and one may emerge unconsciously as they write. There is nothing wrong with this – it is a natural course of narrative development (a bit like character development above) but it is not what you want in your final piece of writing. If your story has a theme you want it to be consistent from start to finish.

A structural edit which incorporates thematic deconstruction can help to clarify and iron out any irregularities which arise in a story. When the writer is clear about the themes in their work they are better able to incorporate them or to utilise them to greater benefit in subsequent rewrites. A good thematic understanding of a story can clarify narrative points, character actions and reactions and lend an authenticity to the story which may not have originally been there.


Working out what are the important parts of a story and what aren’t when you are intimately attached to a story is tough and this is where any writer is grateful for a third party point of view of a structural editor.

“Does this progress the story?”

For me as an editor, this is the most important question to work with when looking objectively at a piece of writing. It is especially important when trying to cut sections to bring a story in on the word count. Of course every editor (and writer)  has to weigh up the value and beauty of prose against the need to progress the story, so as not to strip away what makes a story unique in pursuit of a tight flow.

Knowing where the actual story start is a skill. Often too much backstory is included at the start of the story – an artefact of the writer having written their way into the plot and the characters. Cleaving superfluous sections or sentences at the start of a story frees up space further on  for a plot point or relationship interaction to be explored at a deeper level or in more detail.

Sometimes a story doesn’t gel because too many details are given, other times too few. Sometimes important information is skipped over or missed out all together. A character my be emotionally distant making it difficult for the reader to connect with.

Editors will point out/highligh places where the narrative is stalling – where the readers becomes distracted or no longer care what happens, or sections (beyond the introduction) which don’t serve the story. They will also point out any places where the story doesn’t gel with the reader. An editor can give solid suggestions on what should be cut and what might be extended. They may also make suggestions on what they believe to be missing from the current draft – small links which would help the narrative move effortlessly.

Going deeper

A structural edit can also involve digging below the surface of the current story to find what is below. Rather than looking at what is happening, an editor might ask a writer: why is it happening? This can move the story to places previously unchartered.

If you have the luck to work with an intuitive editor, they may be able to reveal sections of the story you hadn’t been obvious or their comments might spark new ways of looking at the story as a whole, or individual sections – depending on the comments and what they are in relation to.

POV and Tense

Point of view and tense are cross over points between structural and copy editing. Some editors in the structural stage may suggest a different tense or POV to the ones currently employed in the story. Other editors will wait until the copy editing stage, when the story has been finalised – though I have found that POV and tense are seminal to the way in which a story unfolds for a reader and is, as of itself, a structuring technique.

For fast paced stories with lots of tension  a first person, present tense writing style, might afford the outcome the writer is looking for, better than a style with more distance.

Summing up Structural Editing

What all writers need to remember is that edits are suggestions or recommendations. They are one person’s opinions, ideas, reflections and insights. The common come back at editors from writers is, “If I do this, it won’t be my words or my story any more.”

At the end of the day it is always the writer’s work – the writer’s story. No editor wants to hijack a writer’s work… they only ever want to help develop it into the best possible story.

As a writer you have the right to decline suggestions and recommendations, but do so in a way that means you get the most out of any edit of your work. Honour the knee jerk reaction to protect your creativity integrity but understand it is a primal reaction and not always a logical one. Edits, especially substantial onces, are best read and re-read, and then stewed on before embarking on any rewrite.

At the end of the day, it is the writer’s name, not the editor’s which will appear when a story/novel is published.

Jodi Cleghorn once slammed her fist on the kitchen table and said: “I am not taking out Pearl Jam.” A day later she got over it and understood the reference was best removed from the story. As an editor she’s never totally removed from the shoes of a writer. You can find more of Jodi’s musings at Writing in Black and White.
  1. cascadelily permalink
    March 15, 2010 5:43 am

    Excellent, excellent post. Have bookmarked and vow to come back and check all the elements you’ve mentioned above against future writing!

  2. wolfmama permalink
    March 15, 2010 5:54 am

    Thanks for that! Very illuminating!

  3. March 15, 2010 6:13 am

    As always a fantastic post, plenty for people to think about and to fill in the blanks on areas we ( certainly I) was a bit fuzzy on.

  4. March 15, 2010 11:41 am

    Can you imagine anyone making such a stupid mistake as the one described above. All I can plead in my defence is that as a non-smoker, I know nothing about the habits of smokers.

    But I also found the post very useful and have printed it out and copied it into my workbook. Hope you don’t mind.

  5. March 15, 2010 11:54 am

    Printing it out and putting it in your workbook – what a GREAT idea, Paul!! I don’t know why I never thought of doing that as there are so many articles that I read and think, “Oh, I must remember that,” and of course, never do.

    I found this great print-friendly site that will print out posts, with or without images, if you’re interested.

    You can print some of the Write Anything articles beginning with this link. If you want a specific article and you know the permalink, you can enter it on the home page:

  6. March 15, 2010 6:47 pm

    Nice article (and thanks for the mention!). I do think it’s important for writers to understand where editors are coming from. We’re there to make the story the best that it can be. Ideally, we’re there to make sure that what’s in the writer’s head comes out on the page. We’re really not trying to hurt anyone’s feelings or make life difficult! And absolutely, all editorial suggestion are just that: suggestions. My philosophy is that by marking things up in any way, I have essentially flagged them as a potential issue. The writer is then free to either ignore the change if they really think I am wrong or if they have a reason that the work must be just “so”; they can make the change I have suggested; or alternatively, if they agree there is some sort of issue, they can make their own, completely different, adjustment.

    I think structural editing is such an important point of the process but, as we discussed before, J, it’s interesting to see how this process is changing. Often I find it is subsumed into the copy editing stage. I am often given a manuscript at copy editing stage and it’s the first time it’s being properly edited, so I end up doing a structural edit at the same time.
    I am interested to see how these terms and their definitions change over time. I know that copy editing today is a little different than it was 20-30 years ago for this reason.

    My favourite moment of inconsistency in a manuscript was when a character died in a truly gripping and emotional scene; only to reappear quite calmly a couple of chapters later with no explanation and continue on his merry way to the end of the book.

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