Editing 101: What is a Structural Edit?

By Melissa Burnham

In his book on developmental editing, Scott Norton compares fiction to a dream. The goal is to be able to read the whole book without waking up from the dream. A structural edit starts smoothing out those speedbumps that would wake your readers up.

Another analogy we use is to think of the editing process like building a house. There’s no use straightening the pictures if the whole house is about to collapse around you. You start with the foundation and end with straightening pictures.

The terms structural edit, developmental edit, and substantive edit are often used interchangeably (depending on who you ask, the terms may have subtle differences). A foundational edit (sometimes called manuscript critique) is similar to a structural edit, so we’re going to talk about both.

To make sure a story has a solid foundation and structure, we start with (as I’m sure you’ve guessed!) either a foundational edit or a structural edit (or both). Both are high-level edits, meaning we’re looking at the story from above as a whole. The elements we’re looking at include character, plot, point of view (POV), setting, genre, and overall structure (e.g., timeline, pacing, section/chapter breaks, and summary versus in-scene writing).

We look at things like whether the characters are believable and if they have physical descriptions; if there are any plot holes and if the conflict is evident; if the POV is consistent; whether there are enough setting details for the reader to imagine themselves in that place; if the story complies with genre rules or not and if it doesn’t, whether it’s effective; if the timeline of the story make sense, the scene breaks are logical, and if there’s a good balance between in-scene versus summary writing.

Complex wooden construction frame.
Image by kiwi from Pixabay

The differences between a foundational edit and a structural edit are how in-depth the edit is and what is provided to you, the author. Depending on your editor, what is provided to you will differ, but the standard for these will still be high-level editing of the structure. For a foundational edit, we at Embers provide a written report with strengths and opportunities for improvement divided into each of the categories above; no comments or changes are made in the manuscript itself. For a structural edit, we make comments within the manuscript that include strengths and opportunities for improvement, with each comment labeled for which story element it is addressing.

To see the types of editing we offer, check out our Services page.

“The best long-form fiction plunges us into the bracing river of a dream. It has the texture of reality but without the tedium…If we make it from first page to last without waking from the dream—that is, if no bad writing sets off a car alarm to disturb us—then we’re likely to recommend the book to others. ‘I couldn’t put it down’ is our highest form of praise.” – Developmental Editing by Scott Norton

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