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Structural or developmental editing – what is it?

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, or developmental editing (or, as it is sometimes called,  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. It may also be sound in terms of style, point of view, or plot. But usually, a manuscript has some structural or developmental problems the author hasn’t noticed, or that they haven’t been able to fix themselves, and it needs a structural (or developmental or substantive) edit before moving on to the next editing stage.

The structural or developmental 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, structure, any rewriting or new content is needed, and other issues, or 2) non-fiction: structure, style, consistency, whether any rewriting or new content is needed.
  2. The editor makes their suggestions via a report, and often also via track changes comments or suggestions in the manuscript document itself. The editor does not correct the manuscript or make those changes themselves. They do not decide whether to implement their suggestions. They may consult with the writer after they have done the developmental or structural edit, to clarify points or help the writer decide what to do. But implementing the editor’s suggestions (or not) to improve the manuscript is the writer’s job.
  3. Sometimes, depending on the editor’s relationship with the author (or client), it may have been agreed that the structural editor actually edit the document. This is sometimes the case when I’m editing a manuscript where the writer is very inexperienced or is not computer literate, and cannot implement the structural editing suggestions themselves. Actually making the corrections to the document is not actually ‘structural editing’; it is more filling the writer’s role – almost taking on a ‘ghost writing’ role. Note that unless this has been stipulated prior to the structural editor commencing their task, the structural editor will never undertake to implement those corrections for the writer.
  4. Some examples of what a structural or developmental editor may suggest ti the writer: deleting sentences or paragraphs, or moving them to different positions; moving chapters or sections to different locations; rewriting content, or writing new content; and if the manuscript is intended to be self-published, the editor may advise the writer to write  front or end matter.
  5. The structural editor may or may not need to a) adhere to a publisher’s or other ‘style manual’ or ‘style sheet’, or b) commence a ‘style sheet’ for the manuscript. Creating a style sheet usually doesn’t happen until after the structural edit. However, the structural editor usually provides a kind of ‘map’ looking at the broader issues (e.g. point of view or structure).
  6. As their focus is on the developmental or structural edit – i.e. the big picture issues, and the improvements needed – the editor does not attempt to correct grammar, spelling or punctuation or the smaller errors at this stage. Those ‘micro’ level errors will need to be corrected at the next stage after the writer has rewritten/implemented the structural editing suggestions, which is: the copy editing stage.

Note: the stages of editing – structural editing, then copy editing (rough copy editing, sometimes called line editing, and the final copy edit) may be carried out by the same editor or by two or three different editors. But we recommend the editor who does the ‘final copy edit’ always be a different person to the editor who has carried out the previous edits.

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 stages of editing

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

Image: thanks to Pixabay (public domain pictures).


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