A Structural Edit Is Your Book’s BFF

One of the hardest things to see in your own manuscript is where it is its own worst enemy—where it encourages your reader to stop reading. 

Whether it’s nonfiction or fiction, a book’s success hangs on pulling the reader from sentence to sentence, paragraph to paragraph, page to page. 

Such a book most likely went through a good structural edit when it was still a young manuscript.

A manuscript’s first draft is its infancy and growth period—it forms a rough idea that struggles to stand on its own feet, full of brand new or repurposed information inside a unique body. 

The various edits a manuscript needs are like its teenage years—they define its identity by deciding how to present information because, like most teenagers, a first draft can be disjointed, lack follow-through, or leave out pertinent information. 

Edits are like parents helping their teen mature by asking for clearer details and a complete story. They develop a rough first draft into a mature, polished book. 

A structural edit is also called a developmental, substantive, or content edit.

This critical first step creates a smooth flow of information or plot that takes your reader on a progressive journey. 

And like an aunt or cousin or grandparent can often elicit details from a teenager that a parent cannot, the structural edit is best done by someone other than the author. 

It requires skimming skills rather than the precise word-by-word attention of a line edit.

Structural edits look at content interruptions that: 

  • Repeat
    – Where does the information mimic itself? The structural edit gathers these passages together it to coherently state the thought, once…maybe twice. Repetitions bore readers and encourage them to skim—or worse, put the book down.
  • Digress
    – Where does the information suddenly turn left without warning, leaving the reader confused, searching for explanation? The structural edit finds these and creates explanatory segues or transitions. 
  • Over-include
    – Where does the information go on and on like a Southern preacher on a hot day, putting the reader to sleep with stuff that could have been said in a few sentences? Structural edits eliminate unnecessary information that could be collected into appendices or simply saved for another book.
  • Forget
    – Where does the information or plot not fully explain? Experts in a field or authors absorbed in their sci-fi world can forget how readers may need basic definitions, process delineations, or backstories in order to grasp the book’s conceptual flow.  
  • Parrot
    – Where does the information over-speak in another expert’s voice by using long quotes? With so much importance given to another author, lengthy block quotes encourage the reader to stop and go in search of that author’s expertise.
  • Promise 
    – Where does the information say, “We’ll talk about that later”? Promising a more complete explanation later sends readers looking for that instead of moving page by page into the full understanding or plot resolution. 
    – Though it’s a common mistake in nonfiction material, even fiction can fall into promising to really get into a character’s motives later on, which often leaves the reader feeling they’re just hanging on, not quite understanding a character’s complexity. 
  • Lecture
    – Where does the information need to be broken up? Subtitles or headings give the reader breathing space in which to absorb the author’s message. Breaking up long passages with headings creates white space on the page that relaxes the reader’s eye and tantalizes them by heralding something related, but new.
  • Impede
    – Where does the information need to be simplified? Complex explanations or details packed tightly together act like a mudslide on a book’s path, forcing the reader to find a simpler route. Important as it may be, weighty material is much more digestible to new readers when it is in smaller sections, charts, or simpler wording. 
    – This can also signal where the author needs to clarify who their audience is: are they other experts in the field or people the author wants to educate?

A good structural edit is an investment that matures a book’s message, leaving it (like an evolving teenager) better prepared for the fine-tuning decisions ahead. Your reader’s satisfaction—and probably your book sales—depends on it. 

Sabriga Turgon, Certified Ghostwriter


Cite: Suzanne, Claudia. This Business of Books (2016), chapter 14.