Recently a writer friend of mine asked if I could read through his manuscript and provide him with some feedback.
On taking on this task, I decided it was time for me to really try to understand what is involved in a structural edit. I figured looking at the overall structure of my friend’s work would be the best way I could help him.
I knew deep down it would also be a good exercise for me, because when I try to edit my own work I invariably get stuck at the level of the sentence rather than standing back to consider the big picture, the overall narrative of the story.
And I’ve read many times that once you’ve finished a first draft, the next thing you should do is a structural edit. It’s no use finely editing sentences that may never see the light of day in the final edit.
For what it’s worth, this is how I am approaching my first attempt at a structural edit of another writer’s manuscript:
- Print out the whole manuscript and bind it (if I edit on a computer screen the tendency to copy-edit every second sentence becomes too tempting)
- Find a nice place, away from my usual writing workspace, to sit down and read the manuscript, just as I would with any book I was looking forward to reading
- Read through the manuscript as fast as I can to get sense of the flow of the work (this is really important for a reader such as me, who generally likes to read slowly and carefully)
- Keep a pencil handy to make notes in the margin (but in my case I keep the pencil just out of reach so I only bother to note stuff that really matters; otherwise I have a tendency to over-edit)
- Give myself a few pages to settle into the writer’s world. I often find, even with the best books, it takes me a few pages to get my bearings and get used to their way of telling their story. Having said that, in these days of shortish attention spans and competition with social media and click-bait, it is important that the opening pages are engaging, fresh and free of clunky grammar and typographical errors.
- The most important thing of all for me is to read the manuscript as a reader rather than as a writer. I take note of when I am being drawn into the story, when I’m hurriedly turning pages and when I’m feeling totally immersed in the world the author has created. I also note when my attention lags, and when things don’t feel natural. If I suddenly become aware of the presence of the writer, that’s usually a bad sign. In the best writing (except for some literary and avant-garde works), the writer is invisible.
I’m sure professional editors would have a much longer list of what to consider when doing a structural edit. Even though I’m only part way through the one I’m doing, I can already tell it will have immeasurable benefits when I return to editing my own manuscript. The manuscript that sits patiently in my drawer waiting for me to return to it.
I’d love to hear your thoughts about structural editing.