what is a structural edit anyway?

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The regular reader will know from my post last week that I have recently received the structural edit for my third novel from Emily, my editor at HQ/Harper Collins. And some of you may be wondering what on earth a structural edit is! 

Writing a book is just the tip of the iceberg. For me this means writing something that is between 70-80,000 words long that has a beginning a middle and an end to send to my agent and editor. I always do a first pass read through and edit before I send it to my agent, to check for plot holes and inconsistencies. My agent will often then suggest a few simple changes before I send it through to my editor.

And then I wait.

After a month or so (and my editor always gives me a date to expect this) my edit letter will come through. The edit letter is several pages (8 in the case of Book 3 – Good God) explaining how much my editor loves my book and also all the ways I need to change it.

At first this is horribly daunting. Often I want to cry. I wonder why I am so truly terrible at writing books and why I bother at all. Then I’ll have a little sleep and read the edit letter again.

At that point I realise that my editor is right yet again and the book will be infinitely better if I make these changes. I will often have a phone call with my editor at this point too so we can talk through changes I’m not happy with and work out points I’m stuck on.

For my third book we decided to change the main time line, add a secret diary subplot (I’m so excited about this) and move a major event from the middle to the end. As you can imagine, this requires a lot of major surgery to my manuscript.

So where do I start?

Firstly this is the way I do it. Every author has a different way of working – some use clever tech like Scrivener (I’m afraid my tiny and somewhat ancient brain can’t wrap itself around this at all) and others do the whole thing on their laptops. I am the kind of person who thinks best with a pen and paper. My first drafts are often handwritten (but we’ll look at that in another post – when I’m writing Book 4) for the same reason and so, my structural edit begins with pen in hand.

  1. Break it down – Once I have read through my edit letter, spoken to my editor and generally mulled over what I’m going to do, I print out my manuscript, sharpen my pencils and invest in new purple and red pens (different colours for different story strands). I then read through the manuscript, editing by hand as I go, breaking down the story and weaving in all the changes that my editor and I have agreed to make. I tend to write in a three act structure so I will also break the manuscript down into three parts here too (see picture). I try to do this stage quite quickly so the story, characters and changes are very fresh in my mind. I did the breakdown stage for Book Three in four days last week.
  2. Type it up – This is the stage I’m at now. I take a few days off in between each stage to let my brain think about other things and then off I go again. The typing up stage is quite laborious and I give myself plenty of time for it. Because I have chronic illness/pain, there is a limit to how much time I’m able to sit at my laptop and as you may know, my health hasn’t been great lately so I’m giving myself 3-4 weeks for this stage. As I type up the changes I’ve made I will also be adding chapters, refining characters, playing around with dialogue and sometimes something unexpected might happen – I’ll keep you posted!
  3. Read it through – Once I’ve finished typing and I’ve taken a few days away from the manuscript, I send it through to my Kindle to read through. This is really helpful because I finally get to see it in a different format and one that is not too dissimilar to the format my readers will see it in. This is where I pick up on plotholes, mistakes, missing dialogue and so on. I take notes as I read and then update any changes on the manuscript before sending it off to my agent and editor again.

And then I wait. Again.

My second book went straight to copy edits at this point (more on them soon), my first book needed another round of structural edits first. I’ll let you know what happens with this one!

I hope that wasn’t too confusing – if you have any questions, just ask!

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