What Is Structural (Substantive or Developmental) Editing?
The purpose of structural editing is to highlight to the author the strengths and weaknesses of their book so that they can revise and rewrite it to make it as good as it can be.
What Will Happen If You Hire Me For Structural (Substantive) Editing?
Every editor works slightly differently, and I can’t speak for anyone else. But for me the process usually happens something like this (note that the process is flexible, as different writers like to work with their editor in different ways):
1: After an initial enquiry, either by email or phone, the writer sends the manuscript to me. This is usually by email as a Microsoft Word document, but can be as a physical document.
2: I have a look at the manuscript and reply in a couple of days with some recommendations. Does the manuscript need structural editing, copy-editing (sometimes called sub-editing), proofreading, or is it ready to send to a publisher? I will include fixed price quotations for any options I suggest, so that even if it takes me longer than I estimated to complete the work the client won’t pay more than the quoted price.
3: I save the manuscript under a new name and read it. As I read I do two things. The first is that I make detailed notes in a separate file. The second is that, using Microsoft Word’s Comment feature, I add specific comments to the manuscript (or if it is a physical manuscript, in pencil in the margins).
3: Once I have finished reading the manuscript and commenting on it I take a break, coming back fresh the next day, having had time to consider the book in depth. That is when I write a detailed manuscript critique / assessment (and where the notes I took while reading are invaluable). This document will be anywhere between 2000 – 4000 words (sometimes longer) and will address every aspect of the book as appropriate.
4: I send the two documents to the writer – a version of the manuscript with my comments added, and the new in-depth manuscript critique / assessment document.
Of course Structural Editing is also an on-going processes, and the writer will often have further questions, with perhaps follow up phone calls or emails. And it may be that after revisions the writer will send the updated manuscript back for further Structural Editing.
Some Background and More Explanation of the Reasons For Structural Editing
I am sometimes contacted by people enquiring if I can proofread their book. Especially writers who are hoping to be published for the first time, or are planning to self-publish. The answer generally is that I could, but that they would be wasting their money. Because almost invariably the manuscript is not ready for proofreading.
There are three editing stages which any manuscript should go through.
1: Structural (sometimes called Substantive) Editing
2: Copy Editing
The truth is that unless you are one of those incredibly rare writers who turn in perfect manuscripts, the book as you have just finished is probably several stages of editing and revision away from being ready for proofreading. A stage which always comes towards the end of the publication process.
Misunderstanding of the editing process is one reason why many aspiring writers are disappointed when they find their book rejected by publishers or agents. ‘But I had it proofread!’ The fact is, there is more to preparing a book for publication than proofreading. Which is one reason why it usually takes a year or more from a writer having a book accepted to it being published.
If you are planning to self-publish then you will need to go thorough all the stages a publisher would traditionally handle you are to publish a professional-quality book.
And if you intend to go the traditional publishing route then to have the most chance of having your book accepted you need to submit the best possible manuscript. Which means a manuscript which has been structurally edited, copy edited and proofread. If your book is accepted your publisher will still put it through their own editing process, but the more professional a manuscript your submit the more seriously your work will be taken and the better chance of acceptance you will have.
What A Structural Edit Considers
The simplest way to get the idea of structural editing is to think of the big picture. Imagine you are going to have a house built. There is no point in thinking about the door handles until you have got the floor plan settled. Structural editing is like that. We leave spelling and punctuation for later and make sure the foundations are firmly in place, that the roof doesn’t leak, and that the walls aren’t going to fall down the first time someone leans against them.
Fiction Structural Editing Looks At:
- Story – does it make sense, is it satisfying, interesting and entertaining? Does it leave the reader satisfied, or is it full of plot holes? Does it add up to a coherent whole, or leave the reader frustrated? Is it sufficiently original, or is it a patchwork of cliches? Are the events believable? Fiction is held to higher standards of plausibility than real life – and if the events are believable, would they happen like this? Or are there changes which could be made which would make the story more convincing? Perhaps by an explanation which removes the need for implausible coincidences.
- Character & Dialogue – do the characters behave, think and talk like real people? Are they convincing? Do they develop in believable ways? Or do they sometimes do things out of character just to keep the story moving?
- Voice – does the voice of the narrator ring true to the sort of character they are? Would this person say, think and know these things?
- Point of view – Is the novel told from the best possible point, or points of view? Is it always clear what the point of view is? If not, is any ambiguity deliberate, or just confusing?
- Flow & Pace – does the story flow effortlessly, or are there irrelevant passages or chapters? Is key information given in the right place, or is there too much back story? Is there too much detail or too little – does the book rush ahead too quickly, or get stuck in cul-de-sacs? Is the novel consistently interesting, or are some parts far more gripping than others? Is material included which is not relevant to either the story or the underlying theme?
- Tone & Style – does the tone and style of the writing compliment or work against the story and characters? Do the tone and style enhance or distracts from the overall reading experience? Is the prose too complex for the intended readership, or too graphic or explicit? Is the writing too flowery or stark for the sort of book it is?
- Time & Place – does the novel present a convincing sense of the time and place appropriate to the setting? Are there anachronisms, either in the story or in the language used to tell it?
- Structure – has the author chosen the best structure for the novel? Is the structure too complex? Is it confusing? What might be done to make the structure clearer, or more interesting, or better compliment the theme of the novel? Would the book work better if the order of certain scenes or chapters were changed? Should the tense remain consistent throughout, or change for certain sections?
- Balance – depending on the sort of novel, has the writer struck the best balance between the various elements? Or is the book all character and no story, or so dominated by dialogue it reads more like a play or film script than novel? Or is it so plot driven that the characters are hollow stereotypes that the reader can’t care about?
- Theme(s) – what are the themes, the subtext, of the novel? Are they so subtle most readers will miss them, or so over-stated as to constantly hammer a message at the reader? Are the themes consistently developed, and do they support or run against the story and characters?
Non-Fiction Structural Editing Considers:
Subject – is the subject of the book clear and well focused, or does the manuscript go off on unnecessary tangents?
Level & Tone – is the writing at the right level of complexity and with an appropriate amount of detail for the target audience? For example an academic book about Shakespeare might spend several hundred pages exploring one aspect of his writing, while a general book for children would be much shorter, written in far simpler English and would probably concentrate on the most famous plays and key moments in Shakespeare’s life.
Content & Development – is the material developed appropriately for the audience in mind? Is it clear and well argued, with accurate research and (if required) references? Is there too little or too much emphasis on particular parts of the material? Has the most relevant material been included, and is the content easy to follow, or is additional content, perhaps background or contextual material, required to make the everything understandable?
Organization & Style – is the material well organized so that the chapters read like naturally self-contained sections? Does the book flow naturally? If there are tables, charts or photos, are these placed appropriately and are they designed or presented in a way that is understandable to the reader? If there are sections and subsections within chapters are these consistently designed and presented? Is the style of the book consistent and attractive to the potential audience?
More About Theme
A critique can if required explore in-depth the underlying theme or subtext of a novel. Sometimes the writer their self is not entirely clear about the deeper themes within their own work. And sometimes themes develop through the course of writing, taking a novel in directions originally never intended. This can lead to both inconsistencies and only partly developed ideas which could be successfully strengthened with further work on the part of the author. A good structural edit can bring this points out.
Stephen King, who has written extensively about the writing process – read his book On Writing if you haven’t already, it is one of the best on the subject ever written – has said that sometimes he begins a novel with only some characters and a rough outline of where the story will take them. He discovers the story as he writes it. Then he puts the manuscript away in a draw for several months. When he takes it out and reads it he is sufficiently far away from the material to look at it with fresh eyes and see things he wasn’t aware of at the time of writing. It is sometimes only then, King says, that he realizes what the book is ‘really’ about. What the theme is. Only then is he able to go back and rewrite, adding elements which strengthen the theme and removing those which now appear irrelevant or which even distract from the theme of the story.
It’s Your Work
Remember that the structural edit is in the end a series of suggestions and recommendations, some of which can be mutually exclusive, and on which it is up to the author to have the final say. To act upon or reject as they see fit. A good structural editor is there not to impose their own ideas on a manuscript, but to help the writer forge the best book they possibly can.
Finally – click here for more on the need for an expert opinion, and why your family and friends are not the best people to ask for writing advice.
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