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Structural Editing, by Helene Young

One of the joys of writing is seeing the way a down-and-dirty first draft can emerge from the editing process glowing in the sunlight.

I’m a dyed in the wool pantser who starts with an opening scene, a couple of characters, and a theme I want to explore. Once I sit down to write I hang on for the ride. I’d love to be a plotter. The idea of words carefully placed on the page adding brick by brick to my story sounds seductive, but because my working life as an airline pilot is driven by standard operating procedures when it comes to being creative I don’t want to be shackled to a plan.

When I finish my first draft I do plot the book out in long hand and check the timeline on a calendar. As I’m writing I build character maps to ensure things like Nick’s eyes don’t change from thick treacle to midnight blue. Rather memorably, I changed a minor character’s name half way through Wings of Fear. That threw my editor for a while!

The first part of formal editing is the structural edit where the story is tightened, the narrative arc reshaped, and some characters lose their heads on the cutting room floor.

This time around, with Half Moon Bay, I found myself adding 21,000 words to satisfy frequent requests from my publisher to ‘see scenes on the page’ rather than learn about them second hand. In my previous three books I’ve always managed to lose five or six thousand words so I was horrified to see the manuscript grow and grow. Jack and the Beanstalk would have been proud! Thankfully, my editor wasn’t at all fazed.

So, what does a structural edit do? It ensures the foundations of the story are strong and true. It looks at the basic premise, the conflicts, the number of points of view, the setting, pacing, and the story arc. It’s the point when scenes can be retold in a different POV to strengthen the reader’s connection or more scenes can be added to show another dimension of the characters’ conflict.

The editing notes are quite extensive.  Hachette Australia works with typed notes, and a hard copy of the manuscript and comments in the margin. Penguin Australia uses track changes on an electronic document.

Here’s an example of a comment regarding Half Moon Bay’s opening scene.

“Is there opportunity for us to learn a little more about our character here – some detail of what she’s been doing or what she’s wearing/reading/watching until now? Would be great if we could ‘see’ her even better in these crucial opening moments.”

The detail of how I do that is left up to me to work out. It’s liberating when your editor asks for more, but it can also be daunting. It’s important to remember they are highly skilled professionals and working closely with them will be rewarding for you and your readers. They don’t ask for change out of contrariness. They ask because they too want the best for the story.

It’s a long road to produce a book and my advice to new writers is to embrace the editing. It will get easier with time, but there’s no place for a thin skin in this business! Every step is about learning and growing as a writer.


Helene Young’s author website:

Helene Young’s bio page


Wings of FearShattered SkyBurning Lies     Stillwater CreekBeautiful MaliceAfrican Dawn

Writing Novels in Australia

11 Comments Post a comment
  1. I found this engaging – I read it to the end. Thank you – made me think about my WIP.

    February 8, 2013
  2. Thanks Helene. I’m about to start this process on my first book so knowing a little of what to expect is really useful.

    February 8, 2013
  3. Very interesting. Thank you, Helene.

    February 8, 2013
  4. That was most interesting, especially as my first experience with an editor was when numerous errors were added to my first book. (Long since removed, I hasten to add.)
    But the sort of editing you describe, by someone who knows their business – that would be truly valuable. So maybe when a major publisher makes me an offer, I’ll be prepared to listen to the editor after all.

    February 8, 2013
    • Was your experience with a freelance editor, rather than an editor with a publishing company preparing your book for publication?
      These tend to be very different situations. An editor, or at least a competent editor, preparing your book for publication with their publishing company will be experienced and skilled in the nuances of written storytelling, and in the specific context of how your book will be produced, distributed, publicised and sold, to create an end result which helps create great reader experiences.
      A freelance editor, who doesn’t know the context of how your book will be produced, distributed, publicised and sold will be at a comparative disadvantage. They may also be more used to working with amateur writers and focussing on bringing something that needs lots of work up to a more coherent and readable level in the limited time they can realistically spend on each manuscript, rather than bringing something that already works well up to a level where it works really well. Many freelance editors tend to work with writers for short stints and get paid to provide appraisal reports or editing notes, whereas an editor with a company publishing a writer’s book will tend to work with that writer over an extended period and have a specific incentive to help the writer deliver a quality end result.

      February 8, 2013
  5. Excellent post, and, I absolutely agree on the importance of trusting your editor. They are trying to help make our books better! Everybody wins.

    February 8, 2013
  6. kerriepaterson #

    Great post, Helene! I find the process fascinating.

    February 8, 2013
  7. You summed this process up in a nice little nutshell. Your editor would be proud, Helene. My thoughts after receiving the structural edits for House for all Seasons was much like your Half Moon Bay. I also added about 20,000 words by ‘putting the reader in the picture’ better. I LOVED the process because I could see the end result was going to be a much better reader experience. As for line edits though…… Brrrrrrrrr

    February 16, 2013
  8. Thanks, guys. Apologies for not dropping by to chat – I didn’t realise this article was live!! Editing is still one of the joys of writing for me and I hope it continues to stay that way.

    Marj, I’m sorry to hear you had a bad experience with an earlier editor. It can be quite confronting but very occasionally I will fight to keep something that they have suggested cutting. Invariably in the finished work I think, ‘uh oh, they were right!’

    Steve is quite correct that freelance editors are working from a different starting point to one that’s part of an in-house team at a publishers. It doesn’t mean they are any less capable – I learnt so much from the very first editor who was a freelancer working with my publisher – but they may have a different direction in mind than you do.

    It’s all part of the writing journey!

    February 17, 2013

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  1. Month In Review with Steve Rossiter (February 2013) | Writing Novels in Australia
  2. Copy Editing A Novel, by Helene Young | Writing Novels in Australia

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