Structural edits on paper

I just finished the first full draft of the Writing Well and Being Well book, and that means it’s time to go through the structural edits.

This blog post documents how I did it this time.

  1. I print out the whole manuscript. When my eyesight was better, I used to do 4 pages per sheet, these days I go for just 2 per sheet. Whatever, you want it to be easy to see the big picture, not get caught up in the tiny details. (Make sure to remember to put in the page numbers. I forgot and it was a nuisance!)
  2. I use a pen or pencil, often a terrible one, just whatever is to hand when I start reading. This particular draft is being edited with an ancient BIC ballpoint. My last book was edited with a green Staedler fine-liner, the previous book with a cheap automatic pencil. I don’t mean to pick up a pen or pencil I hate using, but I seem to consistently do so. Go figure.
  3. I read through the manuscript. I find that shifting from screen to page helps me to actually see the manuscript even though I’ve been writing it for months.
  4. Using pen and paper, and having the print quite small, means that I’m mostly aiming to work out what needs to be cut or moved. I put a line through any section, paragraph, sentence or work that can go. I write long and always need to cut. I use arrows to rearrange paragraphs or sentences if needed.
  5. If I see a clunky word, a missing signposting sentence, or a spelling error, I do fix it in the draft. It’s not the main purpose of this read through, but if something snags my eye, and I immediately know how to fix it, I fix it.
  6. I make notes to my future self about further tasks I need to do. This draft has a lot of REFS and CHECK and ??? scrawled in the margins (a version of the Rotkohl [insert quote here] strategy).
  7. I move fast. If I get stuck, I make a note that something is wrong here (usually with a FIX note), and keep moving. I need to have read the whole manuscript cover to cover at a similar speed to a reader for this edit.

Having used paper to make the first pass of the edit, I now go back to the document.

  1. Go through the notes, page by page, and implement the changes I wrote down.
  2. If I see anything else, fix it, or make a note about what else needs fixing.
  3. Create a new document called EXTRAS. Put any great paragraphs that need to be cut into that document, in case I can reuse them somewhere else.
  4. Make an index card for things to look out for when I do the polish edit. I over use ‘really’, ‘actually’, ‘just’ a lot. Many of the sections started life as blog posts, so they have way too much informal punctuation like ! and —. As always, I overuse cohesion signposting words, my current favourite is ‘at the same time’. I’ll be back for these, but it’s important not to get too stuck into the details.

A structural edit helps you move from ‘writing to think’ or ‘writing to work out what you are trying to say’, to ‘writing for a reader’. Therefore it helps if you read like a reader, at as close to a reader speed as possible. This helps you to see if the work coheres, flows, and if the rhythm of the sections and chapters feels right.

Having sorted out the macro and meso levels (chapters, sections, and paragraphs) of the draft, it will be time to go back and address all those notes to my future self. I’ll search for ‘REF xxx’ and ‘FIX’ and ‘???’ then actually reference, fix or grapple with that specific moment in the text. By then, I should be at 75% or maybe more of progress towards completion.

I hope you find this work in progress helpful. I’d love to hear how you tackle this stage of a big writing project! Join the conversation over on Twitter.


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