Editing week, Level 2: Editing structure

Image: Adjiebrotot via Wikimedia Commons

You’ve got a decent idea, now write it! If only it were so easy. Poor, uneven, or murky structures can sink you before you’ve started. Today I describe how editors and writers can collaborate on the best structure for a 1,000-word-plus piece, before anybody actually begins writing.

What is structural editing?

The structural edit is the second stage of editing, which comes after the idea is settled but before the writer has created big hunks of a draft. If writing is a road-trip, idea development is choosing the destination, structural editing is picking a route, and writing is the actual driving. And as with a road trip, if you start driving before you’ve chosen a route, you’re going to waste time and effort. There is no GPS for writers.

Here’s my definition:

Structural editing means collaborating on the main ideas and sequence for a piece of writing, creating a plan that the writer can follow for the rest of the project.

What the writer brings to structural editing

Structural editing is built on a contradiction: how can you edit what hasn’t been written yet? The traditional solution is to write an outline. But traditional outlines suck. They’re too easy to write — they don’t require the writer to think very hard — and an editor reading a list of topics has no idea if the structure will actually work after the writer writes it.

The solution is to create a fat outline — an outline that includes lots of notes about content and promises about what the writer will write. Like a traditional outline, a fat outline shows the sequence of the writing. But fat outlines go further, giving the editor (and the writer) a flavor of what’s in each section, including examples, clever turns of phrase, graphics, statistics, and other juicy nuggets of content. Fat outlines require some thought, but they’re relatively easy to write, since the writer doesn’t need to worry about getting sentences and paragraphs to read well.

Some writers would rather write a patchy draft with a lot of holes in it than a fat outline, sort of a rehearsal for the actual writing. This works just as well, although it’s more work for the writer.

There’s no point in structural editing until you’ve created a substantial fat outline or early draft, at least 300 words long. The writer should submit the fat outline or draft at least one day prior to the writer and editor getting together to discuss it.

What the editor brings to structural editing

As a structural editor, your job is to make sure the story of the writing flows appropriately. There are three basic types of problems: parts that are missing, parts that are out of sequence, and parts that are redundant.

  • Finding and fixing missing parts. As you read the outline, flag the gaps that would make a reader stumble. Does the outline set out the main idea well, posing the problem clearly? Can you follow the logic? Are there things you expected to see that were missing? Don’t edit words here — instead, use comments to identify pieces that you expected and where they might go.
  • Fixing sequence. Obviously, if you can’t figure out why a piece is in the order the writer has chosen, you’ve got to point that out. But even if the sequence seems fine, recognize that there are always multiple ways to organize a piece. For example, you could structure it chronologically; according to some natural order (e.g., “Five stages of editing”); or as a logical sequence from problem to solution, like a mathematical proof. No matter which one the writer has chosen, consider alternates and evaluate if they might be better (shorter, simpler, clearer, more compelling).
  • Fixing redundancy. Problematic structures reveal themselves through redundancy. If some concept or example repeats throughout, consider moving it to the front, or using it to organize the whole piece. Gather similar concepts together, rather than repeating them. Long rambling pieces of writing stem from poor structures that the editor should have flagged at the structural stage.

How to actually do a structural edit

Structural editing demands dialogue. A meeting in the same place is great, but failing that, you need a phone or video call with a shared online space for collaborating.

Editors should ask these question: “Why did you write it this way? Why is this up front? Why is this last? Why is this missing?” And writers should be open to other structural possibilities (which is a lot easier if you haven’t written anything solid yet). As a writer, I never shy away from structural edits. Not only do they solve problems, but moving around chunks of prose is a lot easier than writing them in the first place.

Structural discussions inevitably drive people to draw diagrams on the whiteboard, which is an easy way for two or three people to communicate about a plan for the writing. If you’re not in the same location, you can share content structuring ideas in a shared Google Doc.

What to produce: a better fat outline

The writer’s job after this meeting is to produce a new fat outline that better fits the shared vision you came up with in the meeting. Even if you’re working from a patchy draft, a new outline will allow both of you to agree on what the next draft will look like.

Repeat as needed

Structural problems are pervasive. Even if the fat outline looks great, once you see the draft, you may find that the structure still has problems.

This means it’s time for another structural edit discussion. Don’t bother editing paragraphs and words if the structure is still messed up. Have the structural discussion, create a new outline, and send the writer back to revise things according to the complete structure you’ve now agreed upon.

Everybody wants to write, but writing without the right structure is pointless. Take the time for a structural edit or two, and then apply the writing effort to creating within that structure. A little pain up front will save you a lot of effort later on.

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