Definitions Of Editing: Structural Editing


It’s useful for any writer to understand different editorial terms. They can bring clarity to what your writing needs or is ready for at any stage of creating a book.

The definitions of editing I describe in this series of posts are not hard and fast descriptions. Not all of the tasks they explain are necessary to every book that’s written, and sometimes these processes are merged or in some way going on simultaneously. These terms can be used interchangeably, or in different ways by different editors or in different fields or territories. If in doubt, ask for clarification.

I tend to see editorial production as three broad stages: structural editing; copyediting; and proofreading. In this post I’m looking at structural editing, which, using my gardening analogy, is like redesigning and landscaping your garden.

Structural editing refers to the editorial work that deals with aspects of the bigger picture of a manuscript, addressing matters of content, organisation, and pacing. Does it take too long to get to the essence of the story, in which case should we cut all the background in the first two chapters and open with that scene from the middle of Chapter Three? Do key revelations in the plot create the most effective narrative tension: might they need staggering throughout rather than being loaded into a big reveal at the end? Is the conclusion sufficiently rewarding, or is it too rushed, or overly protracted? Are characters’ motivations clear? Are settings distinct enough? Could some slow-moving sections be tightened or cut, and might other scenes warrant expansion?

Structural editing often also takes account of the telling of the story. Is the voice persuasive? Does the point of view do justice to the outcome, or could it be deployed in a way that commands greater dramatic tension? Is present tense really serving this story well? Might extended sequences of dialogue be more effectively summarised in reported speech?

Sometimes structural editing is done by professional editors, who’ll actually carry out the work of cutting and pasting and even rewriting the text, knowing that it can be shown to the author for approval and for dealing with any queries. Sometimes (often, for many freelancers …) structural editing is combined with line editing and copyediting, particularly when the publisher is in a rush (often, for many freelancers …).

(And long gone seem those days of publishers’ ‘rush rates’, it seems, in which case maybe freelancers should set the rates themselves.)

Structural editing is the term you tend to hear describing the primary stages of editing in a publishing house, and this work usually takes place when a first or at least an early draft has been completed; the fundamental elements of the book will have been decided upon and bedded down, even if there is still some shaping and tweaking to bring out a desired emphasis.

Other terms introduce slightly different shades of meaning, and perhaps subtly different tasks for writer or editor.

Developmental editing often covers some of the ground of a structural edit (cutting, expanding, clarifying motivation, changing point of view, and so on). But it can also refer to types of editorial work that occur even before structural editing is needed, specifically at the conception of a book and frequently with particular markets or contexts in mind. Broadly speaking, writers who’re serious about publishing can be helped in directing their energies; writers determined to write and publish a vampire novel might need thoughtful input about the sort of vampire fiction that might succeed in a popular but still saturated market, or at least get supportive advice from an agent or literary consultant about what is strong or fresh within their writing, and also where they might gain from doing further work, or experimenting with a new approach, or developing topical themes.

The term developmental editing is often used in educational and scholarly publishing, where, for example, acquisition editors might be actively developing content for new textbooks, taking into consideration particular specialisms within fields of studies or even curricula.

It’s not a term that you encounter often in trade publishing houses, but then this is not always the sort of work that nowadays takes place between first novelists and editors at publishing companies: usually an editor buying a first novel today is pretty much committed to the story idea as well as its style and execution; there might be some structural editing, but if a book needed serious attention to voice or character in the first place, an editor might not take it on, as it could be something of a risk to commission a novel whose final execution remains uncertain. And editors need to be able to get their marketing colleagues on board, and there are lots of books out there, and editors can afford to be fussy, and they don’t have the hours in the day to invest in this sort of time-consuming work.

Developmental editing can often come with subsequent novels though, by which time editorial relationships have a surer footing and a publisher has a long-term commitment to a writer that justifies going back and forth, bouncing around story ideas and thinking about other aspects of the creation of a book and planning a writer’s career.

Developmental editing often takes place between writers and literary agents, as agents are nowadays frequently the professionals who’re working on what might, in other industries, be called talent scouting, nurturing creative professionals towards completing and then publishing a book.

Developmental editing is also relevant to much of the work that goes on within and around what might be called the creative writing industry: manuscript critiques from literary consultancies, meetings with professionals at writers’ conferences, writing courses at universities or within commercial organisations. It also borders on a lot of the activity that can take place in writing groups or among beta readers. In all of these instances, feedback is usually given on writing that is at an early stage of drafting, and in the knowledge that a project could change significantly.

I find developmental editing the most apt description for much of the work I do as a book doctor or writing teacher in fiction and general nonfiction – helping writers sift through their narrative content to work out the best focus or direction for a story and the best way to tell it. Sometimes I might even be helping a writer figure out where to place the work in terms of genre: does a writer want to develop this autobiographical content as a memoir, and if so might it gain from a briefer timeframe that creates a more intense story? Or does it make sense to allow for the more imaginative spin of fiction, which can often free a writer to be truthful in other ways?

Though developmental editing often deals with aspects of the concept or bigger picture, an editor or book doctor sometimes goes into more detailed or granular aspects of writing too. Sometimes I find myself helping a writer who wishes to develop a stronger voice – for example, highlighting the use of verbs in sentences in a sample of writing as a means of illustrating ways to achieve a tighter prose style, or suggesting other ways that syntax could be made tauter, or more pointed, or more moody. Performed more extensively, in a comprehensive edit of a whole manuscript, this would amount to what I call line editing (to be discussed in another post), but in my role as a tutor rather than an editor I like the idea that a few sample edits can model what writers could do themselves with their own words, so that they learn to hone their voices as they take books through different drafts. In many ways, developmental editing has much in common with teaching and coaching.

A further difference between developmental and structural editing is that with developmental editing a writer might solicit feedback on a partial draft rather than the whole book, getting the voice and tone right in the opening chapters, for example, before launching ahead into the rest.

Developmental Editing, a guide by Scott Norton that is published by the University of Chicago Press (one of the leading publishers of books on publishing), offers this clarification, which recaps some of the above:

For our purposes, developmental editing denotes significant structuring or restructuring of a manuscript’s discourse. The [developmental editor’s] role can manifest in a number of ways. Some ‘big picture’ editors provide broad direction by helping the author to form a vision for the book, then coaching the author chapter by chapter to ensure that the vision is successfully executed. Others get their hands dirty with the prose itself, suggesting rewrites at the chapter, section, paragraph, and sentence levels. This hands-on approach is sometimes called substantive editing or line editing.

From this perspective, stylistic intervention alone is not ‘developmental’. To be sure, there are cases in which a manuscript’s organization is sound but the tone so pervasively wrong that virtually every sentence must be recast. Severe as these problems of tone may be, they can usually be handled by a high-powered copyeditor—and those that can’t are beyond the reach of editing, requiring instead the hand of a ghostwriter or coauthor.

I’ll talk about line editing, substantive editing and copyediting in a future post.

Content editing is a related term. I tend to think of this as focusing on the internal logic of a work, and it often involves many of the tasks in developmental and structural editing, as well as more detailed aspects that usually come up in line editing or copyediting, such as fact-checking, flagging inconsistencies, or smoothing out the pace. Basically, content editing spans both the bigger picture of a structural edit as well as more detailed work. You often encounter this term in the editing of nonfiction.

Macro editing is a useful idea too. I borrow it from Susan Bell’s The Artful Edit, a fantastic book on revising and self-editing, and I think it is a good way to describe the work writers do themselves, particularly at early stages of drafting. Bell relates it to aspects of the bigger picture of a manuscript: intention; character; structure; foreshadowing; theme; and continuity of tone.

With any of these types of editing, it’s hoped that the process is dynamic and engaged for all parties involved. If you’re a writer, the most important developmental and structural editing is probably that that you do yourself during stages of drafting, revising, and self-editing, of course. But perhaps you can be clear about what you want from an editorial relationship: go in with your eyes open, and also be ready for feedback that can improve your work or even take it in a new direction. Ask a book doctor for a critique that focuses on developmental editing, tell beta readers you’re working on a macro edit, know what to expect from a structural edit from a publisher – or be sure to have taken yourself through some of these stages before self-publishing.

(And definitely, if you’re self-publishing, don’t neglect copyediting – more on that next time, and proofreading after that.)

And a reminder: I’ll be discussing these and related matters in a Writers’ Workshop Literary Salon held at Waterstones Piccadilly on 31 July 2015: Self-Editing: Revising Your Words. Debi Alper and I will be holding specific sessions on revising and prose style, and in breakout sessions we’ll also work through some examples of editing.

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