Gui
pathways to publishing > editing tips > the structural edit

 

The Structural Edit

There is something about it that almost demands capitalisation: The Structural Edit. Once you’ve got a complete manuscript, that’s what you do, isn’t it? Everyone does, right? The simple answer is yes, but although most writers understand the structural edit is a critical part of the manuscript development process, they don’t necessarily know exactly what it is or how to go about it, let alone how to survive it.

WHAT IT IS

Structural editing involves looking at the story as a whole and considering aspects such as story arc, expression of themes, character development, point of view, backstory, voice and pacing. These are elements that most writers have given considerable thought to as they are writing. However, it is an understanding of how all these aspects are working together to deliver the author’s intent – or not – that lies at the heart of the process. In other words, the structural edit concerns recognising what is working well in the manuscript and what isn’t.

Sounds simple, but as writers who have grappled with numerous drafts over numerous years know, it’s no easy thing to be able to step back from your work

HOW TO DO IT

One of the keys to recognising the strengths and weaknesses of your own work is to be able to read it with ‘fresh eyes’. Most writers are intricately entwined with their work; it is so much a part of them, the manifestation of their creative urge, that gaining distance feels impossible. While physically and mentally putting the work aside for a number of weeks or months is the best plan, it is not only time that helps create distance, it is perspective.

It is important to shift the way you read your work – to see it 'whole against a wide sky', to borrow from Rainer Maria Rilke – so that not only can you delight in the sections that crackle with energy and insight, but you can see the wrinkles in the narrative that may trip a reader up, hear the rhythm that goes on for a beat or five too long, and feel the slowing of the pace in scenes that don’t progress the storyline. You can cultivate this perspective a number of ways: through critical reading – paying attention to how other writers make their stories work; through diagnosing the strength of vital story elements – such as the underlying theme, the central event and the major dramatic question; and through the simple hard yakka of detailed scene outlines – getting clear on what you actually have on the page, not just what you think you have.

Bear in mind that editing your work, just like writing it, is a craft that requires specific skills, patience, commitment and practise. If you allow yourself the time to understand this part of the process and to develop your structural editing abilities, you will become a better writer.

HOW TO SURVIVE IT

While tips, tools and strategies can help you understand what you need to do to carry out a structural edit, it can be trickier to traverse the sometimes challenging inner terrain that underlies critical engagement with your own work. What if through the process you come to realise the whole second half of the book needs rewriting? Or that a new character is needed to bring to fruition one of the subplots? Or that you need to rethink what the book is actually about? Do these things mean you’re a failure as a writer? Not at all. All these things may happen, and have happened to writers I know. They have slumped, screamed, moaned and wanted to chuck it all in at various times. But after venting frustration, a few deep breaths, a few good nights’ sleep (and a few glasses of red wine) all got on with the task at hand. Understanding the separation between the self and the work allowed a renewed commitment to not just creating the best story they could, but to their development as a writer. The results have been stronger manuscripts, as well as a deepening appreciation of the creative process and the gems to be discovered within it.