Structural Editing For Self-Publishers

Following on from last week’s very popular guest post, Why Hire An Editor?, Robert Doran, editorial director at Kazoo Independent Publishing Services, is back today to tell us about structural editing. While copyediting and proofreading are absolute musts, I don’t think a self-publisher’s money is always put to best use by getting a structural edit for their book. So today Robert gives us some tips on, first of all, what a structural edit is, and secondly, what we can do ourselves to ensure our book is structurally sound. Welcome back, Robert!


Structurally Sound

Structural editing (sometimes called developmental editing or substantive editing) is the most complex and time-consuming stage of the editorial process. As a result it’s also the most expensive. Nevertheless a structural edit is something that most manuscripts can benefit greatly from. So what’s a self-publisher to do?

I know you’re expecting me to say, ‘Hire an editor!’ and if you can afford to do that, it’s probably the best option. But if paying for a structural edit means you won’t be able to afford a copy-edit, you need to consider other solutions. A copy-edit, to my mind, really isn’t optional, and it will always be the most effective way to spend your budget.

We’ll come back to how you can best handle structural editing in a bit, but first let’s look at what it actually is. Structural editing is looking at the big picture. It’s evaluating a manuscript as a whole and analysing how well its constituent parts contribute to the central message or narrative. Whereas the copy-editor takes a micro view, drilling into the detail, the structural editor goes macro and asks, ‘Does this work as a book?’

In fiction, the main areas that a structural editor will address are:

  • Plot: Does the plot make sense? Is it believable? Is it satisfying or does it leave the reader frustrated?
  • Themes: Are the themes effectively handled? Are there so many that the book lacks focus? Do they interfere with the plot or complement it?
  • Characterisation: Are your characters well developed and believable? Are they cast in a role that fits their personality? Do they sometimes behave out of character?
  • Point of view/voice: Is the voice consistent or is it sometimes confused? Is the voice authentic? Are you using too many or too few POVs?
  • Pace: Does the plot move forward at an appropriate pace? Should you cut that preface? Should the action happen sooner or should the tension build more slowly?
  • Dialogue: Do your characters sound real when they speak? Is your dialogue cluttered with adverbs and beats? Do you use clunky dialogue to move the plot forward?
  • Flow: Is the narrative interrupted by dead-ends and tangents? Is there so much back story that the main plot is dwarfed? Are there missing plot points that would give the narrative greater integrity?

In non-fiction, the principle is the same, but the specific issues are slightly different:

  • Thesis: Is your thesis relevant? Is it clearly defined or is it lost among marginal issues?
  • Exposition: Are your arguments clear and cogent? Are they well researched and properly supported? Do they have a clear relationship with your thesis?
  • Content: Are all the necessary topics sufficiently dealt with? Are the chapters weighted correctly? Is there superfluous content?
  • Organisation: Is the information organised logically? Are tables and illustrations used appropriately? How many levels of subheads do you need and how should they be arranged?
  • Tone: Is the tone appropriate for the audience? Do you need to eliminate jargon? Is the text accessible?
  • Pace: Are there passages that are bogged down in detail? Do you spend too long on detail irrelevant to the main thesis? Are there areas that need further exposition lest they be skipped over?

Although a structural editor may do a little copy-editing as they work through your manuscript, that is not what they are being paid to do. Their focus is much broader, and they will return your manuscript marked up with constructive comments and suggested rewrites that will in any case render the corrections pointless.

So, if you’re saving your money for a copy-edit, what do you do about structure?

Leave it alone. Put your manuscript in a drawer for a few weeks and forget about it. When you come back to it you’ll see it with fresh eyes and you’ll be in a much better position to read it critically. Then cut ruthlessly. Strip it out. Spike anything that you think you might use later or rewrite. You’re likely to find that your cuts have resulted in a tighter, more readable, and more enjoyable book.

Join a writing group. Creative-writing groups provide a great forum in which to have your work critiqued by people who are as passionate about writing as you are. Some opinions may be more informed than others, and you may have to sift through some personal prejudices before you get to the useful pointers, but there are bound to be people whose opinion you value. Keep an open mind and always thank people for their feedback, even if it’s unjustified criticism. If you’re seen to react badly, people with a real talent for spotting problems might choose to keep their comments to themselves. Critiquing sites and internet author forums can also be a great source of feedback and support, especially if you’re the sort of writer who doesn’t like to leave the house. Harper Collins set up as a novel way of finding new talent, but it’s also a great place to connect with other writers. offers a similar service. You can read about Irish author Bob Burke’s experience with the site here.

Read books on writing. There are hundreds of books out there on writing. There are books on plot, dialogue, point of view, editing, and every other aspect of crafting a good book. The information is there for you to apply to your own manuscript if you’re prepared to spend fifty quid and a couple of weeks studying the texts. It might not be the same as having a fresh pair of eyes tackle your MS, but if you put a bit of distance between you and your work, you should be able to put your new skills to effective use.

Read the competition. It’s great to be original, but unless you’re Joyce or Kafka it’s best not to be too different. Your competition represents a good guide to what’s expected from you. You should aim to produce something better, extra or novel that adds to the canon, but don’t stray too far from the beaten track or your book won’t fit on any shelf. Read books published in your category in as critical a manner as possible. It helps if you’ve read a few books on writing first – you’ll find that issues to which you were previously oblivious suddenly come into sharp relief. Try to deconstruct the books and analyse how plot, characterisation, pace, etc., are handled, chapter by chapter. Many authors in your category will have faced similar dilemmas as you, and it helps to analyse their results.

It’s true that none of this entirely replaces a professional structural edit, but you can bring your manuscript a long way by investing just a few quid and some reading time. After you’ve done all this, it’s worth having a chat with your copy-editor to explain how you’ve edited. If you show them that you’ve put in the effort and, if you’re extra nice to them, they’ll be glad to watch out for any remaining structural issues. They may not deal with the problems in depth, but they’ll flag them, and, with all that reading under your belt, you’ll have no trouble sorting them out.

Robert Doran is Editorial Director at Kazoo Independent Publishing Services (, a one-stop shop for indie authors who want to publish industry-standard books. He has nearly twenty years’ experience in bringing books to market and has worked as an editor, project manager, sales manager, and bookseller in Ireland and in the UK. He is a big fan of the Oxford comma. Follow him on Twitter @RobertEdits.

[Catherine’s note: Back in February I got to listen to the lovely Sarah Savitt talk about editing at Faber Academy, and she said, ‘The editor’s job is to ask the questions.’ She gave us some editorial notes to look at, and they were things that would be going through a reader’s head in a few month’s time if Sarah hadn’t raised them. Like: Why would this character forgive him? She’s no reason to, and But two pages back he said he didn’t agree with that! and I don’t understand why she doesn’t leave the car there?? A structural edit means that these questions get asked—and answered—in private (among other improvements!), before the book hits the virtual shelves, and not on Goodreads and Amazon customer reviews. Haven’t we all seen reviews where readers said something like, ‘I just didn’t get why he/she did that’? It’s like an English essay I wrote when I was in Sixth Class (age 12). The teacher, who usually championed my attempts, made me read out my mysterious character-being-chased-through-the-woods-at-night story (I was big into The X-Files then), before saying in front of everyone, ‘Catherine, you are the only one who knows what’s happening in this story.’ It’s a lesson I never forgot!)

37 thoughts on “Structural Editing For Self-Publishers

  1. Alison Morton says:

    Excellent article, thank you, full of practical guidelines.
    Yes, read lots of books on writing technique, but critically – they don’t always agree with each other!
    And definitely put the ms in a drawer for at least 3 months. When you take it out again, any clunkiness or plot holes will leap out and smack you in the eye.

  2. Karen says:

    I totally agree about leaving it alone for a good while. My first-ever novel (a long time ago) was naively submitted the minute I’d spell-checked and printed it out. When I looked back at it later, everything that was wrong leapt out with bells on! A good lesson.

  3. Sean Walsh says:

    The thought struck me as I read this: what would a “structural” editor make of a MSS by an unknown James Joyce, say Ulysses?!
    The late J B Priestly was an established writer before he tried his hand at Drama. He knew nothing about stage craft so he fell to studying the published texts of established playwrights. Then he sat down and wrote his first play, Dangerous Corner. It was a winner, enjoyed a long run in the West End…

  4. catherinelumb says:

    Just what I need – I’m hoping to start a structural edit on my first draft novel this month and this information is gold dust! I haven’t had a clue where to start before, so am gathering resources to help me keep the edit clear and keep me on task! This page shall be bookmarked for printing out to go on the wall as I edit!
    Thanks! Cat

      • catherinelumb says:

        It’s my first ever novel, so I am pretty sure that there will be many more drafts to come. I have a lot of fixing to do on all of the points made in the post before I would ever let it see the light of day on anyone else’s desk!

        But, we’ll make it. We’re kick ass determined like that. 😉

  5. Jamie Clarke Chavez says:

    Excellent post. Good suggestions. And I truly do understand your stance on “if you only have enough money to pay for one, choose copyediting.” I do. Some folks are going to publish no matter what.

    But I’ll tell you this: I’ve been hired to copyedit many times and discovered the book was in such bad shape structurally that a copyedit was pointless. (Silk purse/sow’s ear, etc.) So many times, in fact, that I will no longer agree to do a copyedit unless the book has been through a dev edit, whether by me or someone else.

  6. Dan Harris says:

    Sound advice. Thanks, Robert (and Catherine)!

    The suggestion of a writing group almost covers this, but it’s worth explicitly mentioning beta readers – friends, family, colleagues, anyone who reads in your genre or reads voraciously. I’ve had invaluable feedback from mine; they help me knock out these structural issues before the book goes to my copy-editor.

    And the list above of “the main areas that a structural editor will address are…” is exactly the sort of briefing you should give your betas when you send them the book, so they know what kind of feedback you’re after.

  7. Irma says:

    Great comment on taking criticism well, be it constructive or not. You have to accept that many times the critiquer is in the process of learning themselves. If you get your back up, you might miss a true gold nugget that might make all the difference in your ms. Besides, every reader is valuable and If they don’t understand what you are trying to say, it just might be you and not them!

  8. Rhoda Baxter says:

    Excellent article. I’m sending a link to my beta reader (we beta read each other’s books). Sometimes you know all the theory, but it’s hard to apply to your own novel. That’s why a fresh pair of eyes will pick up mistakes that you wouldn’t pick up because you’re too close to the story.

  9. profesorbaker says:

    Reblogged this on Profesorbaker's Worldwide English Blog and commented:
    “Robert Doran, editorial director at Kazoo Independent Publishing Services, tells us about structural editing. While copyediting and proofreading are absolute musts… Robert gives us some tips on, first of all, what a structural edit is, and secondly, what we can do ourselves to ensure our book is structurally sound.”

  10. Anthony Chapman says:

    A lot of the structure can be taken care of by spending time getting to know the characters before you star writing he book. This will also take care of the plot, because once he characters are right they can only behave in certain ways, so when something happens you know how they will respond. I’m not saying to disregard plot, but that character is plot. It’s taken me ages to figure this out, but it does mean that most of the work is done before you start. Then when you do start the main work, just put down the first thing that comes into your head. I’ve found that this approach means there’s a lot less to cut out when it comes to editing.

    Also, cheers for your post about getting your ITIN, thanks to your experience, and others, I got mine on the first go!

    And now, in a shameless plug, you can read a sample of my first book, The Barbarians, at my blog.

  11. kalexander2 says:

    Just came out the laboratory (30+ books on writing), back at the drawing broad now dusting off “Chronicles of Black Urban Patriot” to throw back into ‘ProWritingAid.’ This post, especially Anthony Chapman’s input is something I intend to contemplate for the next 24 hours before I meet with my characters again.

    I think I’m ready for the tediousness now that the ‘headache’s’ subsided.

    Thank you

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