An Introduction to Editing: Structural Editing

Photo of notecards covered in writing.
Notecards can be a great way to map a story.
reboot8: Notes Day 1 vs. Day 2,” by Peter Lindberg, CC BY 2.0

It’s been quite a while since my last Introduction to Editing post, so if you haven’t seen the first two, check them out!

My last post went through the things you have to do before you make any changes: reading your first draft and taking notes. At this point, you’ve transformed that reading into a to-do list, and identified the changes that mean you need to delete, create, or completely rewrite scenes.

And now it’s time for your first edit: the structural edit.

First thing’s first. What the heck is a structural edit?

A structural edit is the highest of the high-level of edits. During a structural edit, you’re concerned about big, conceptual, 30,000-foot questions, like:

  • What is the pacing like in this story? Are there long, boring sections where nothing happens or places where too much happens in too little time?
  • What is the characterization like? Do characters gradually grow and change over time?
  • Are big events foreshadowed?
  • Will the worldbuilding elements in your story be sufficiently understood before they become important to the plot?

“But, Ellie!” You might say. “In the last step, you only told me to identify content that I needed to rewrite! Now you’re telling me to look for big problems! Those aren’t the same, are they?” And they actually are! …In a roundabout way!

This is why you read your novel first. By reading like a reader, you got to experience the pacing, worldbuilding, character development, and plotting firsthand. And the biggest problems–the ones that make your skin itch and your brain go, “I should have never ever written that”–are the ones that require complete rewriting.

And structural issues can only be fixed by deleting, creating, reorganizing, or rewriting big chunks of content. A story that sags terribly in the middle may need several chapters deleted and replaced with something faster, more active, more engaging. A character arc where a character never grows may need new scenes that develop that character. Very rarely can a big, gaping problem like “I never really showed how my magic system worked” be fixed with one or two well-placed sentences–usually, it requires moving stuff around, adding new content, and deleting stuff that doesn’t work.

So that’s what we’re doing.

But the whole point of this series is that you’re not going to edit everything in the story at once. So what are we not doing? We’re not:

  • Editing any scene that you want to keep fundamentally the same. In fact, you’re not going to touch anything unless you need to delete it and write something else in its place. This means that most of your story will be left alone.
  • Editing for word choice or grammar.
  • Worrying about whether a scene could be “better” (unless we intend to throw it away and write something else instead.)

In fact, we’re ignoring ALL of the content that fundamentally works. We’re only concerned with three things:

  • Deleting content that doesn’t work
  • Creating content that was missing
  • Rewriting content where a scene should be done in a totally different way. (Although this is sometimes just the same as deleting a scene and creating something totally new. Whatever. Semantics!)

How do you know if something needs to be rewritten?

This is something I went through rather quickly in my last post, but it’s worth covering again.

The difference between “I can force this scene to say what I want it to by editing it” and “I have to rewrite this scene and do something else with it” is a deeply personal choice, and that decision is up to you. It’s up to you to figure out which scenes you should rewrite (which means you’ll do it now) and which ones you want to just edit (which means you’ll do it in the next phase.)

But if you aren’t sure, take a look at your story arcs.

A “story arc” is any plotline that runs through the story. Every important character has a character arc. Your main plotline has a plot arc, as do your subplots.

And if you aren’t sure if something’s kind of working or really not working, try mapping your scenes. For example, you can:

  1. Choose a story arc.
  2. Use your story map to find every scene related to that arc. Write them down.
  3. Use index cards (or any other system you like). Number your cards. Each scene gets one card.
  4. Write a brief summary of what happens in that scene.
  5. Now you can see this plot arc–and just this plot arc, by itself–in order. Evaluate it.
    1. Do the scenes occur in a logical order?
    2. Did you explain everything that needed to be explained?
    3. Are the scenes close enough together that the reader will remember what’s going on?
    4. Does every scene do an effective job of showing what it should to keep this arc going?
    5. Are there too many scenes to explain this arc? (Is it slow or repetitive?) Too few? (Is it confusing or easy to forget?)

If a scene does what it needs to do–it’s necessary, it introduces the things you want it to, and what you generally want to happen does–then leave it alone. You can edit it later. If it doesn’t fit into its arc, then maybe you need to throw away that scene and have something else happen–a different event, at a different time, with different characters. Whatever introduces the elements that need to be explained, in order, in a way that makes sense.

So let’s get started.

You’ve read your story. You’ve seen which sections aren’t working. You’ve identified chapters to delete, create, and rewrite. Now you’ve just got a ton of writing to do.

Step #1: Delete.

Delete the scenes and/or chapters that you want to get rid of.

Step #2: Re-outline.

You already made a map of what your first draft looks like. That is now your outline.

Identify what new content you need to write and where it’ll go. If you need to move scenes around, do it now. Otherwise, Step #1 probably left you with some holes–what’s going to fill them?

Scrivener Tip: Scrivener is a pretty useful tool for this. Since you probably have one file for every scene, you can easily move your scenes where you want them and put in empty scenes where you’re going to write new content.

Step #2: Write all that new content.

Now it’s time to write. And write. And write! You’re going to write all the new scenes you identified in step #2. This is where you create totally new scenes or rewrite scenes that weren’t working.

Step #3: Reevaluate.

Now your story is complete…. again. You now have draft #2 of your novel.

It might be helpful to quickly skim the story again to see how everything feels. Does the story flow better now? Did you fix the big, gaping holes you identified in your pre-edit reading?

And now you have… a whole new rough draft.

So now you’ve written a few new chapters. You’ve deleted a few. You haven’t touched most of your story. But you have what is, essentially, draft #2.

The frustrating thing about this step is that, in essence, you’re not really fixing most of the story. By focusing on deleting, creating, and rewriting, you’re essentially only creating brand new content that still needs to be edited. This means that your draft #2 will be just as messy as draft #1.

But if you did this right, this should be the story you want to tell.

And if you did this step super right, you will have only worked on a few sections of the story. These are really important sections, yes–they’re the ones that need the biggest changes–but they’re still only a fraction of the entire novel. Your structural edit shouldn’t feel like you sat down and rewrote the entire story (usually, hopefully). You should have just fixed the largest, most gaping holes.

The words aren’t pretty yet. That’s fine. What’s important is that everything that everything is stuff you want to keep. Because the next step is real editing–and we just made sure we didn’t spend our time editing content that wasn’t worth keeping. (And also, we wrote all the new stuff, so we can now edit that stuff.)

So breathe a sigh of relief. This is, by far, the hardest step in the process. From here on out, the changes will be smaller and more local. Because while you might overhaul a scene to make it more effective, at least you won’t have to say “Should I delete it and do something else?”

And that sets us up for the next phase: the scene-by-scene edit.

Hope you’re looking forward to it!


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