Structural editing explained

Once a manuscript has been written and self-edited by the writer 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 editing, and substantive editing, is the first stage of that editing process.

If an author has put a lot of effort into self-editing the manuscript, it may already be structurally sound and can be given straight to a line editor. But usually, a manuscript has some structural problems the author hasn’t noticed, or been able to fix themselves, and it needs to be edited structurally before moving on to the next editing stage.

The structural editor’s role

  1. To 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. To confirm the manual to be used as a guide when editing the document; e.g. in Australia, it may be decided to use the Australian Government Style Manual or another manual. Also, to commence a ‘style sheet’ for the publication; this usually needs some input by the writer. A style sheet outlines the rules all editors are going to follow that are not covered, or supersede, the rules outlined in the manual; e.g. specific rules about punctuation, spelling, capitalisation of certain words, and instructions about fonts and headings. This style sheet is a working document to which each editor will add new items as they arise.
  6. 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 other editors – they may choose to not correct those minor errors.

Note: the three stages of editing – structural editing, line editing and copy editing – may be carried out by the same editor or by two or three different editors.

Helpful links

The above is a very brief summary of structural editing. For more detailed information about structural editing go to: So what is structural editing exactly? and Structural editing for self-publishers

For a brief overview of the whole process of editing go to: The three stages of editing

For other relevant articles, go to: Editing and proofreading.

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 hard copy publications; and publishing my website and articles online. Keep posted for future articles about editors and editing, proofreaders and proofreading.

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