What is structural editing? Editing step 1
Updated: Jun 4
In this ‘what is’ mini-series we’re diving a little deeper into the different types of editing you’ll find at Ellipsis Editing and elsewhere. It’s worth noting that different services take different approaches to their editing work, so you should always talk with your editor to find out exactly what services they provide and how they approach it.
In this article, we’re looking at Step One of an ideal editing process: structural editing.
Sometimes referred to as ‘substantive editing’, a structural edit of your work takes the broadest view of how to improve your text as a whole. This is ideally the first step in an editorial process. S˜ince suggested changes can be broad and require large sections of re-writing, it doesn’t make sense to do more fine-grained types of editing (like copy editing or proofreading) before you’ve finished developing the structure of your work.
What does a structural edit consider?
The first questions asked in a structural edit are the broadest: what type of text is being edited, who is the intended audience for the text, and what purpose or outcome does the author intend for the audience? It might be a novel intended purely to tell an engaging story to a young adult audience, or an academic article that is conveying some argument or outlining the results of an experiment. Each text must take its intended context into careful consideration. A structural editor should consider where and how the text will be read and where it’s going to be published. They should also reflect on the audience itself; how much are they likely to know about the subject and what are they supposed to take away from the experience of reading the text?
In thinking through these questions, the structural editor’s role is then to read the whole text closely but, rather than focus on specific words or errors, they read in reference to those broader questions. Is the text, as it’s currently written, achieving the goals set out by the author? Does the text assume too much knowledge or too little? Do the ideas and arguments flow in a way that are likely to convince a reader, or do they confuse? Is the tone appropriate for the age of the audience, or appropriate for the type of publisher?
In short, a structural editor is an aid to the author to help answer some of the big questions about whether or not a drafted text is ready to be published. They bring a fresh view to the text, and advise on what changes to make so that your writing is as strong as possible.
What type of changes does a structural editor make?
Since structural editors work at the broadest level, they will comment on the flow of the whole piece of writing. For example, they might suggest moving entire chapters from one place in the text to another, or cutting entire chapters from a book. If an ending is not working well, or the introduction is unclear, they’ll recommend rewriting those sections (possibly from scratch) and offer some suggestions to make sure your next version is better.
They might also suggest moving large amounts of text within chapters. A paragraph written toward the end of a chapter might, for example, be better placed at the start. Or they might request an author write new paragraphs to further explain a concept, or delete paragraphs that are repetitious. It’s unlikely they’ll get too lost in the weeds at this level, though, since a structural editor should be taking a broad view.
Structural editors usually discuss more than just the words on the page, though. If you’ve written a novel and there are issues with your character development, for example, a good structural editor can suggest ways to make your characters more realistic, more compelling, or more sympathetic. The same can be said of other foundational elements of a story: themes, settings, plot, dialogue, and so on.
How does a structural editor communicate their changes?
Don’t expect to see large re-writes of your text. In fact, a structural editor might not make any changes to your writing on the page. Instead of doing the work for you, a structural editor is more likely to point out sections that need work and make suggestions about what you might do to improve the text as a whole.
Usually, a structural editor will provide a report after they've read the text as a whole. The length of the report will depend on the length of your text, the quality of the editor, and just how much work there is still to do to polish it up. But for a full, novel-length work expect to see something reasonably long, maybe 10 pages or more. It should include detailed commentary on what is working and what needs development in your text, justification for the claims it’s making, examples taken from the text, and it might even have a breakdown of what to focus on in each chapter or section.
Accompanying the report, the structural editor might leave comments in your text so that you can more easily locate sections they’ve identified that need development or changing. This will depend on the editor. Importantly, though, it should be clear and easy for you to identify where in the document as a whole you need to focus your efforts in further drafts.
Academic structural editing
The specifics of academic structural editing depend on the type of text being published. It is generally advised, for instance, that doctoral candidates do not get their thesis structurally edited by a professional editor (find out why here). Anyone publishing in an academic journal or publisher should be mindful of the importance of the text being their own original contribution and check with the publisher before getting additional edits done. When a structural editor suggests broad changes to a book or essay, it’s important that the writer maintains a strong sense of authorial control of the ideas being put forward (and new ideas or contributions from others, including an editor, should be acknowledged in some way).
If an academic writer wants structural editing, it’s important to get someone who understands the field and its publishing requirements, at least to a certain degree. Finding an academic editor who has only ever worked in the social sciences will not be very helpful for a physics paper (unless the author is trying to write for a non-physics educated audience). On the other hand, an editor who understands the requirements for publishing for a history journal is more likely to understand the requirements writing for sociology.
Business structural editing
The key to effective business writing is often clarity and brevity. Clients, funders, colleagues and managers are time-poor, so an important email, an annual report, or a grant application are not made more powerful by being longer or more complicated.
Since many business documents are written by multiple people, a structural editor can also help to streamline the document, make sure it flows logically, and achieves its intended outcomes. For this to work best, businesses should be very specific and intentional about the intended audience for the text and its intended outcomes. Businesses are diverse and so are the documents they produce. An internal policy is very different from a marketing campaign. A small not-for-profit is different from a major corporation. Be clear about what you need so your editor can provide the best possible advice.
Creative structural editing
As discussed above, a structural edit for a piece of creative writing is not just about the flow of the plot (although, it’s about that too). A structural editor should be considering what works well in a published story, and applying that thinking to your work. Are the characters two-dimensional, or does the plot have gaping holes? Is it lacking a sense of place? It can be confronting to have your work interrogated so closely but, just remember, these are exactly the kinds of criticisms many readers might have after publication so it’s best to get them resolved first.