What I’m learning about writing: structural edits – Anna Spargo-Ryan

What I’m learning about writing: structural edits

What I’m learning about writing: structural edits

Hello, friends!

I am waist-deep in structural edits at the moment, which is to say that I’ve bought every colour of Post-It in existence, watched three movies about writing (Stuck in LoveThe WordsBeing Flynn), sent quite a few emails to my dad and “tried” the new Cadbury Strawberries & Creme flavour. Constantly.

Before I wrote a book, and before I had clever clogs to tell me what happens when you do that, I didn’t know that there were different kinds of edits. The only one I really knew of was the Make It Better Edit, and I’ve written before about how I kind of just assumed that was about word choice. You know, look at a sentence, think about which words are good, take out the ones that aren’t, voila! book.

Because you are savvier than me, you won’t be surprised to know that’s not how it works. Or that after rewriting a book three times, there is still work to do.

1. Don’t beat yourself up about it

Here’s what happens.

After a manuscript has been contracted to be published, some poor bastard has to figure out how it can be better. Then, this poor bastard has to go back to the elated, joyous author and tell her where she’s veered off the road. And maybe she’s just hit a pothole and can get right back on, or maybe she has plummeted into a ravine and killed everyone she loves.

The author then takes this information and beats herself into a kind of pulpy mess, after which she lies in a ditch and hopes that someone will find her and that they have a defibrillator.

Having been revived and taped into some semblance of her former self, the author sits in front of her manuscript and does this:


Pictured: insanity

This is normal. Or, someone will lie to you and tell you this is normal.

But: unless your editor has been assigned to you because of revenge killing, he or she wants your book to be the very best book you can put out. Give yourself a few days to think about giving up writing forever, and then find the constructive bits that sing to you.

2. It’s not prescriptive

I have the most lovely editor, and she says the most lovely things. I got her notes back and asked someone else to read them in case I had gone blind and was just reading the inside of my ruined corneas. But even so, even with constructive feedback and great ideas and very kind words, you open your computer and there is this document staring back at you and if you’re honest, you can barely remember writing it.

I have never much liked the middle of my book. It sort of reads as though I went to the set of The Bold and the Beautiful, spiked their drinks with downers, told them their mothers had died and then made it into a Vine. It is weak in parts, rushed in others, and it ends in a climax that is neither believable nor especially profound.

What the structural edit notes have given me is not a solution for my saggy middle, but suggestions for how the story overall might be improved. My job is to apply the suggestions that resonate with me to these extra winter kilos and come out with a stronger story.

A structural edit is (mostly) not someone telling you how to fix your book. It might have broad suggestions, and it might have specific suggestions, but it will probably not say “you have to take out this person because her hair is bad.” I suppose maybe if it’s a kind of hairdressing sub-genre.

3. They are a two-way conversation

After I had digested my edit notes, turned my manuscript into an illegible rainbow and bought sixteen pastries, I had a phone conversation with my editor. I asked these kinds of questions:

  • What if character X did this instead?
  • Could it work if I took this character out all together?
  • What if the weather was better?
  • Can I make this character fall in love with this one?
  • Will I get in trouble if I take out the 20,000 words in the middle?

The last one was important for me to know. I had imagined being sent to the publisher’s office for a lashing, because I’d changed the story and now they hated the story and also I would be condemned to The Author Blacklist.

Turns out, that’s not how it works. I mean, if you drop werewolves in where previously there were none, then maybe. But — and this is the craziest thing — the author writes the book. So you can take out your chapters and smash in your characters’ heads and send the thing through the shredder and that’s okay. That’s what a structural edit is for.

You don’t have to go away with your notes and not come back until you have a fully revised book. If you’re not sure about an idea you’re having, you can ask. I know!

4. Don’t force it

I mean, force it a little bit. You’re probably working to a deadline, after all. But in my experience, staring at the words while punching yourself in the face is not the way to draw out your best work. Let it sit with you a while. Romance it. Invite it in. You’ve got time.

See everything else I’ve been learning about writing »

  • John James

    July 10, 2014 at 8:20 pm Reply

    Thanks for this SO MUCH!

    I’ve wondered how a structural edit would go – how it works… This will be so valuable for me if I ever get a book published…


    • Anna Spargo-Ryan

      July 11, 2014 at 11:29 am Reply

      You’re welcome! I suspect you may be more orderly in your approach to a structural edit, though. This type of planning is totally foreign to me and is proving very challenging!

  • JFGibson

    July 10, 2014 at 10:22 pm Reply

    Thanks for sharing Anna. I hope one day to experience the torture that is the structural edit.
    Excited for you (and feel for you at the same time) :)

    • Anna Spargo-Ryan

      July 11, 2014 at 11:42 am Reply

      I’m certain you will, and then you’ll rue the day you ever suggested it :D

  • Malinda @mybrownpaperpackages

    July 11, 2014 at 8:44 am Reply

    Note to self – become tough as leather before submitting a book! Good on you for knowing how to deal with it.

    • Anna Spargo-Ryan

      July 11, 2014 at 11:27 am Reply

      Thanks Malinda :) It took a long time for me to feel okay about constructive criticism. I think eventually I just realised that the alternative was to put out terrible, unfinished work and have to live with that instead.

  • Kelly Exeter

    July 11, 2014 at 11:08 am Reply

    I am quivering! And staying away from scary fiction for the foreseeable future!

    • Anna Spargo-Ryan

      July 11, 2014 at 11:27 am Reply

      But I have been inspired in part by the spirit of Kelly Exeter! I have lists! Colour-coded tags! Excel documents! This is the most organised I’ve been about probably anything, ever!

      • Kelly Exeter

        July 11, 2014 at 11:37 am Reply

        I won’t lie. Seeing those beautifully organised post-its did make me sigh with pleasure. SO pretty!

  • Vanessa

    July 11, 2014 at 11:10 am Reply

    Love your take on things! You’re the only person who has ever made me laugh about a structural edit. Wishing you all the very best for it – hope you come out with a middle you adore x

    • Anna Spargo-Ryan

      July 11, 2014 at 11:26 am Reply

      Thanks Vanessa, I hope so too! I find it so hard to work on something at a micro level and still be able to see the macro level. (Maybe I should spend my time doing something that isn’t writing books?)

  • Ian Trevaskis

    July 11, 2014 at 11:12 am Reply

    Thanks Anna for reminding me to stop punching myself in the face as I try to sort out the 70 000 word mess in front of me!

    • Anna Spargo-Ryan

      July 11, 2014 at 11:18 am Reply

      Ah, ’tis my pleasure Ian! Good luck! Put your fist around some cookies instead.

  • Lisa M. Cronkhite

    July 12, 2014 at 12:43 am Reply

    Haha…this is too funny. I’ve been in that same ditch too.
    Thanks for the laugh. Good luck on your edits and remember to listen to number 1.

    • Anna Spargo-Ryan

      July 16, 2014 at 11:35 am Reply

      Thanks Lisa! So glad to know there’s an “other side” to come out at ;)

  • Lee Kofman

    July 18, 2014 at 6:50 pm Reply

    Thank you, Anna, for describing so eloquently what I’ve been through 4 times by now!

  • Panos

    October 19, 2014 at 1:29 pm Reply

    Excellent advice, thank you for this. I’m currently working through a structural edit myself, though it’s one I’m doing through an editor I hired rather than through a publisher. Hopefully it leads to one though! How is the whole process going in general?

    • Anna Spargo-Ryan

      October 20, 2014 at 9:42 am Reply

      I’m glad :)

      The process is hard work, frankly. I don’t do much editing generally, so this seems a bit like doing it on the largest possible scale without a run-up. Hopefully I’m nearing the end of it and can start on copyediting before too long.

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