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The most important edits you’ll ever do come when you sit down to edit structure: your characters, the order of your scenes, the arrangement of your chapters. But what is a structure edit, and how can you make yourself better at this skill? Here’s how to start structural editing on a story or nonfiction piece that isn’t quite working yet.

What Is Structural Editing?

Structural editing is the revision process that focuses on big-picture problems with a piece of writing. Let’s put it this way: No one driving over a bridge would want to hear that the bridge was in serious need of “structural edits.”

Structure, after all, is the foundation of your work. In a book, that might mean the big questions, like:

  • Is this telling the story from the right character’s perspective?
  • Is a scene moving the plot forward at an appropriate place, or is the author dropping in unnecessary flashbacks?
  • Are the plot twists plausible?
  • Does the story engage the reader’s imagination and pull them toward the edge of their seat?

When Do You Need a Structural Edit?

The simple answer is that most writers don’t know. That’s why a writer might hire a freelance editor to come in and tell them.

The simplest tell? When you read a piece and don’t feel engaged. Even if you can’t put your finger on it, there’s clearly something missing.

Consider the original rough cut of Star Wars. Believe it or not, the rough cut suffered from all sorts of problems. For example, Luke Skywalker’s random visit to friends on Tatooine broke up the pacing of the first act.

There was a great movie in there somewhere. But it wasn’t until the structural editing process that the movie started to take shape. A video called “How Star Wars was saved in the edit” highlights how editor Marcia Lucas—eventual winner of the Academy Award for the category—turned a mediocre movie into a hit. One key change: she cut out every scene of Luke that occurred before Luke entered the story proper, which made the first act much more exciting.

Clearly Marcia Lucas had well-honed instincts for when structural edits were appropriate. But how are you supposed to tell?

A simple rule of thumb will suffice: If the overall story isn’t as compelling as you’d hoped, you need a structural edit. 

However, if you want gainful self-employment as a structural editor, you’ll need a second skill that goes beyond simply recognizing the need for edits.

Polish Your Own Editing Skills!

Writing Editing Masterclass—Content Editing, Copyediting, and Proofreading

How to Come Up With Structural Edits That Provide Value

“Kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings.”

-Stephen King

If you want to build a career in structural editing, it’s not enough to say something isn’t working. You’re not just offering a diagnosis here. You need to write up prescriptions that your clients can actually use. 

Here are some of the most popular types of structural edits:

  • Cutting something out entirely. In Stephen King’s book On Writing, he calls this “killing your darlings.” When your structure is getting in the way, the easiest way to edit yourself back on track is simply to cut out the offending section and see how it affects the overall piece. That means cutting scenes you love—your “darlings”—for the betterment of the finished work.
  • Changing your angle or point of view. In her book Then She Was Gone, Lisa Jewell waits almost halfway through before introducing a villain’s new point of view that elucidates the mysteries of the first half. Had she done that from the beginning, the twist would have lost all meaning.
  • Changing the position of a section or multiple sections. Does a conclusion feel more like an introduction? Tell the author that—and why they should move it.

Building a career as a structural editor means sharpening your own instincts for story structure. Learn all about the basic elements of storytelling until you start to develop a sixth sense about why some writing choices don’t work. 

Next, get started with your first editorial project. Over time, you’ll notice that you start to get a sense of what works, what doesn’t, and what writers need to hear to improve their work.

Learn the Art of the Structural Edit

Your job isn’t to proofread or even to provide line edits. It’s to look at the piece in big, primary colors and ask: What needs to change for this story to work? And you won’t be able to do that until you understand what makes stories work in the first place. 

Brush up on the art of storytelling and learn how to spot a compelling story when you don’t see it. Practice at home by streaming poorly-reviewed movies and jotting down ideas for restructuring. 

You may end up being the person “behind the scenes” who doesn’t get the glory, much as Marcia Lucas was the unsung hero of Star Wars. But hey—if you win an Oscar, that’s not so bad, either.

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