Once a manuscript has been written, possibly rewritten, and self-edited by the author to the stage where they feel they can't improve it any more themselves, it needs to be edited by a professional editor.
Structural editing, also called developmental or substantive editing, is often the first stage of the editing process. Not always, because if an author is very good at self-editing and has put great effort into obtaining feedback from beta readers, rewriting and self-editing their manuscript, it may already be structurally sound and of a high enough standard it can be given straight to a copy editor.
For the sake of this article, let's suppose that like most draft manuscripts, a manuscript has some structural problems the author hasn't noticed or been able to fix themselves. This manuscript needs to be handed to an editor to be edited structurally before moving on to the copy editing stage.
To read and review the document as a whole with the target audience in mind, looking at the 'big picture' issues such as 1) fiction: themes, plot, point of view, dialogue, character and other issues, or 2) non-fiction: organisation - how well the information is presented, clarity of argument, consistency and whether everything is covered.
To consult with the client to advise them of any structural editing they think necessary and explain the reasons for those changes. If they think the manuscript is structurally sound or needs very little structural editing, they will advise the client it can skip the structural editing stage and go straight to the copy editor.
Depending on the relationship with the author (or client), it may have been agreed that the structural editor make any editing decisions and changes necessary including changing the order or length or chapters, or changing point of view. Or it may have been agreed that the structural editor's role is to comment on and make suggestions about any major editing decisions but seek the approval of the author/client before making those changes or corrections. Or it may have been agreed the structural editor make all the corrections necessary and submit the draft to the client with the corrections visible via Track Changes, so the client can review the editor's suggestions and corrections before approving them, on the understanding that if the client doesn't agree with some of the editor's suggestions they don't have to accept them.
The structural editor may delete sentences or paragraphs, or move them to different positions, but only where doing so improves the publication. They may move chapters or sections to different locations, create extra chapter sections, create or change tables of contents. If necessary, they will request the writer to write new chapters or other sections such as appendices or introductions or they may write those sections themselves.
While their focus is on editing the manuscript structurally, the structural editor will correct grammar, spelling and punctuation, although because they are wearing their 'bigger picture' structural editing glasses - and know the manuscript is going to be edited by a copy and/or line editor - they may choose to not correct those minor errors.
The above is a very brief summary of what is meant by structural editing. For more detailed information about structural editing go to: So what is structural editing exactly?
For a brief overview of the three stages of editing go to: The three stages of editing
This article is based on my own experience since 1994, editing and proofreading reports, policy documents and my own and others' publications; self-publishing mainly non-fiction hardcopy publications; and publishing my website and articles online. Keep posted for future articles about editors and editing, proofreaders and proofreading.