Writing Wednesday: Structural Edits

Writing Wednesday

Welcome back to Writing Wednesday, a biweekly feature where I try to troubleshoot an aspect of writing. This week I will be covering STRUCTURAL EDITS.

All right, so this week we move beyond the writing of a book to the editing of it. Some people disagree with me, but I think writing and editing require two different parts of the creative brain, or at least it requires two different parts of my creative brain. I worked as an editor at the Big 5, and I find it easier to edit other people’s writing than my own.

I’ve mentioned before that I’m a Pantser, and I don’t know what story I’ve written until I’ve actually finished it. Perhaps that’s why I hate revising/editing my own work—it feels like work while drafting feels like discovery. I have to take all those words from the first draft and polish and pretty them up into something resembling a coherent plot. This “big picture” revision is something we call “structural edits” when you go through that process with your editor.

The thing is, while your editor will send you an editorial letter with a road map, it’s up to you to forge the actual path. Structural edits on a book can vary: from very light (e.g. tightening tension here, trimming the fat there) or intensive almost to the point of a complete rewrite. A good editor will point out the places where pacing lags or characterization or internal logic or worldbuilding doesn’t make sense, but they will also leave it up to the author to address those issues. A good editor will tell you there are problems in your manuscript; a bad editor will tell you how to fix these problems.

That’s all well and good; your novel is your creative baby, so you should have the most artistic control. But sometimes, the big picture revision is so big in scope, you don’t know where to begin.

For me, the first thing I need is time away from the manuscript. I’m not particularly attached to my words or characters or stories as they are; they often change drastically by the time the book is finished. But everyone has a knee-jerk reaction to criticism (however constructive), and time away from your work gives you emotional distance.

Once a sufficient amount of time has passed and you no longer feel the urge to defend every little thing about your work, then it’s time to take your editor’s road map and plan your route.

Back when I was still working in publishing, I wrote a post for PubCrawl about how I edit manuscripts, which is essentially from the Outside-In. I do the same to my own book, wherein I more or less reverse outline in order to figure out how to move the pieces I’ve created into a tighter, more emotionally resonant whole.

How to reverse outline? Break your book up into scenes, not chapters.

This is easiest to do in a program like Scrivener, where you’re able to separate scenes into discrete “notecards” and then rearrange as necessary.1 If you don’t have Scrivener, then using old fashioned pen and paper and actual notecards can work as well. Once you’ve broken up your book into scenes, write a line or two about what happens in the scene, and the emotional point.

Scenes need to function in two ways: they need to further plot and character. What happens furthers plot while the emotional point develops character. Ideally, you want both in every scene. If you have a scene that furthers plot and another that furthers character, then why not see if there’s a way you can combine both? But more than editing a book into a tighter, more emotionally resonant whole, looking at your book laid out in scenes gives you a different picture of your novel. You start to see how this one scene in the beginning affects something in the middle, and how that change in the middle creates a large change in the ending.

And sometimes? Sometimes that means you have rewrite SIGNIFICANT portions of the book. In my case, during structural edits for Wintersong, I more or less had to throw out the ending and start over. The actual ending of the book was the same in terms of plot, but how it happened was so different that I had to rewrite the last 32,000 words from scratch.

For me, if drafting is discovering the story, then structural edits are shaping the story. I’m taking the raw clay of my words and shaping it into a recognizable object.

That’s all for this week! Next we’ll be discussing the next stage of edits: LINE EDITS. As always, if you have any questions, sound off in the comments or feel free to ask me on Tumblr!

  1. Seriously, I don’t know how I managed to edit before Scrivener. Again, they’re not sponsoring me or anything, but, honest to God, they changed my life.

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