3 tips for surviving a structural edit

3 tips for surviving a structural editI remember the first time I received the structural edit notes on a novel from an editor: I cried. I had edited the manuscript myself. Of course I had. Two or three times. But nothing prepares you for that feedback from a professional, who might say one or more of the following:

• You’ve started in the wrong place (This could just be me…)

• This character is not working, do you really need him/her? (Chances are you do not, which requires a substantial rethink of every scene)

• I’m not really sure where this sub-plot is going.

• Would your hero really do this?

• Do you really need this pivotal scene? Or could you delete and insert the information elsewhere?

• [Insert crushing comment or question of choice]

Given that I am currently knee-deep in the structural edit of The Mapmaker Chronicles #4 (which, as an aside, requires a new title as part of the structural edit], I thought now was as good a time as any to bring out my top three tips for surviving a structural edit.

Particularly if it’s your first, when it feels as though you’re attacking an insurmountable pile of words, shifting handfuls here and spadefuls there.

  1. Think before you write. While your instincts might be screaming at you to dive in and fix the manuscript, the absolute best thing you can do after you read your editor’s notes is to put them aside and go for a long walk (Procrastipup optional). I spent four weeks thinking about the edit I am currently doing, and will spend about two weeks with fingers on keyboard. All the heavy lifting has been done in my head, the connections made, the new scenes envisioned.The best way to see the whole picture is to think it through first – otherwise you’re just working in pieces and, like any puzzle, some bits might be hard to find.
  2. Write fast, edit slow. I’ve written before about my first draft process – which can be pretty much summed up as ‘get the story down at great speed in whatever time you can make to write’. Editing is a whole different kettle of fish.Every layer of editing – structural, copy, proofreading – requires a different approach, but one thing they all need is time. With a structural edit, you’re concentrating on the story, and that takes care and consideration. Give yourself room to move.

    I can write an novel in 10- and 15-minute fragments, but I cannot edit that way, particularly at the structural level. Put aside a chunk of time. You’re going to need it.

  3. Use an outline. Writing a novel is a huge challenge. Learning to edit one is a whole different ball game. If I’ve learnt nothing else from going through the process six or seven times now, it’s this: use an outline. If you’re moving your story around in any way, shape or form, write an outline of the new plot to help keep you on track. That way, you’ll won’t get sidetracked as you wade through the words.It doesn’t need to be a work of art. Just a brief sketch of the new plot, with the new scenes scoped out and the ‘as per current book’ sections marked as such.

    I don’t write with a plan, but I sure as heck edit with one.

And now, back to the edit.

Comments 13

  1. Ah, see I had the opposite problem. My first structural edit was very light. Less than two pages and only minor changes at that. IT RUINED ME FOREVER. I thought they would all be like that!

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  2. Thanks for the tips! I like “write fast, edit slow”. I try and remember that whomever is providing the feedback truly cares about the story, if not as much, but near as much, as I do. Allowing his or her thoughts and questions to marinate, evoking new ideas, invariably results in a better story. I love your walk idea!

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  3. Ah, I so hear you about being able to write in 10-15 minutes bits but needing chunks of time to edit. The latter is my nemesis at the moment. I only seem to sit down, get my head around what needs to be done, and whoosh – time’s up.

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  4. Perfectly timed post thanks Al. I’m doing the first structural edit of my first novel and it’s so hard to see the forest for the trees! An outline could be the key. Great tip, thank you!
    Still feel too close to see if the overall narrative arc works though. Might have to bring my beta reader in after this edit to get some perspective.
    Such a tricky business this editing thing!! (Loving the stationery aspect though – trips to Officeworks for coloured pens and sticky notes!)

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  5. When ‘wading through the words’ – sometimes it feels like I’m wearing gumboots. Also as I was working through the YA and Children’s course, I found I had started in the wrong, yet I thought it was the right place at the time. How can that be? Great tips! Thank you.

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  6. This sounds like very solid advice.
    Write quickly and edit slowly. Make an editing plan, whereas the writing can be more spasmodic and seat of the pants.
    Thanks Allison!

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