Structural editing ... in a nutshell
I think the best way to describe what structural editing looks like, what it does, and how it can improve your story is to show you. To do that, I'm going to use a 100-word story I wrote. Hopefully, you'll see how the comments and suggestions from the editor impacted my story.
Structural editing is all about the story. And all stories have a beginning, a middle and an end, even 100-word ones. But the bits in between? Give a bunch of writers (or anyone really) a set of prompts - like your story must start with the word "three", it must be set in a school and must contain the words "precious" and "awful", and while we're at it, let's throw in a bit of romance, too. Then, let them loose, allowing them to write whatever they want. You know what will happen? Every single person will approach the exercise differently, and no two stories will be the same either.
Oops, got a bit distracted there. And as Great Aunt Peggy always told me: 'keep your eye on the ball, girl, or suffer the consequences!'
So, structural editing looks at the way the story is constructed. It examines whether it makes sense, has the right pacing for the genre and audience, and whether it's easy to read and understand. A structural editor asks questions like: is it clear; is it entertaining; does it satisfy, as they go through your story.
The 100-word story I'm using was written in preparation for an international micro fiction competition I'd entered. You're given a genre, an action and a word which must be incorporated into your story. You have 24 hours to complete it after receiving the prompts. For this example, the genre was ghost story (not my usual genre); the action was making a coffee; and the word was ugly.
And now, I'm going to allow you to read my first attempt. Yep. A brave, and probably stupid move, but here goes nothing:
A cold draft swept through the open window. A piercing whistle echoed around the house. A door slammed. Footsteps marched down the hallway. An obscure haze drifted lazily in the breeze.
A woman, wearing a bonnet and a long flowing dress, appeared out of the mist. She reached for the boiling kettle. Her hand travelled through the handle, but the high-pitched whistle stopped immediately. An ugly mug was placed before me containing dried coffee. Hot water was poured inside with a quick stir.
"Come," she implored, "join me."
Taking a deep breath, agreeing reluctantly, I finally accepted my death.
The following was my editor’s comments – and yes, this is a direct quote: "A cold draft, door slamming, footsteps…these statements [in the first paragraph] run the risk of being ghost story clichés. Each statement doesn’t tell me anything about who is telling this story and where they are in the house, so I’m finding it hard to create a mental image and really jump into the story. For example, who’s footsteps are they?"
She went on to say she thought the second sentence was a better start to the story. That the hand moving through the handle ‘was eerie’; and that I could probably delete the words 'agreeing reluctantly'. Last, but not least, she wanted to know why the mug was so ugly. What made it ugly? And why was this so important?
That right there, is exactly what structural editing is all about, all wrapped up in a neat little package.
The editor pointed out possible clichés; she made suggestions for improving the opening. She questioned why the mug was ugly. (Well, that was only because I had to include the word in the story!) And she identified where I could remove two precious words without losing the intent or meaning. (And every word counts when you’re telling a story in only 100 words. Oh, okay. Every word counts in every story.)
But wait, there's more. Because I'm sure you want to know what happened next, right?
Naturally, I was a bit deflated when her comments arrived, especially as I was under the pump and the clock was ticking. But I’d kind-of already guessed most of this already. Well, okay, I knew something was wrong, something was missing, but not exactly what. And once I'd calmed down, her comments made complete and utter sense. So, I pulled my big girl pants up and went about fixing the problems she'd highlighted, tinkering with what I was really trying to say, making it (hopefully) a lot better in the process.
And here’s the finished product:
I sit at the table, my body drooping, while an ugly, depressed atmosphere presses against my spirit. The kettle’s whistle shatters the eerie silence.
I ignore both.
Before long, a woman wearing a long floating dress appears out of the swirling mist. While reaching for the boiling kettle, her hand passes right through the handle. Still, the kettle’s high-pitched whistle stops abruptly.
A mug, with instant coffee dissolving into the hot water, is placed before me. A splash of milk is added.
"Come,” she implores, "join me.”
Sighing, I look up into her vacant eyes, reluctantly accepting my death.
Regardless of whether you like this version or not, I'm sure you'll all agree, it's sharper, clearer and more direct than my first attempt. That happened because my editor told me exactly where I'd gone wrong. And she helpfully pointed me in the right direction. Because of her input, because of that structural edit, I now have a story I'm proud to call my own.