The art of structural editing

Although there are many guides to writing, copyediting and proofreading, structural editing (or ‘edit1’) is harder to define and explain. At its heart, it is about the audience. The aim of an edit1 is to make sure the audience can quickly and easily grasp the information you are presenting; a logical, intuitive structure helps you to achieve that.

Before you start

The sorts of questions that help you to do a good edit1 are:

  • Who is your audience?
  • What are your key messages; what do you want to tell the audience?
  • What does your audience want to know?
  • Where would the audience most logically look for this information?
  • What is the logical flow of the information?
  • What pieces of the information go best together?
  • How can I best lead the audience through the information with headings or other signposts?
  • Should the information be presented in a different style or format?

Be bold

Sometimes a document just needs some extra heading levels, or a slightly more logical flow for individual paragraphs.

Sometimes it needs a complete rework. To be successful, an edit1 editor must be prepared to start again with a completely new structure. This is perhaps the most important tip in edit1: be bold.

Make a copy of the document and rearrange chunks until you think it works. Sometimes what works in your head doesn’t go so well on paper, and you might need several iterations to get it right. You won’t know until you try!

There is no wrong answer

Everyone thinks differently. If you get 10 people to do a structural edit on the same report, you will get 10 different versions. None of these are ‘wrong’, and indeed several of them may be equally effective.

The only test for your structure is whether it suits the audience. Make sure your reasons for change focus on the audience need, such as:

  • The audience is looking for practical guidance, so I have rewritten the chapters into a step-by-step guide.
  • The audience is most concerned with how this will affect their children, so I have brought the safety questions up the front, and moved the details of the research process to an appendix.
  • There are two different audiences for this document. The policy makers want the results up front, so I have written new summary and recommendation sections to sit at the beginning of each chapter. The detail for the scientific audience is then provided in the rest of the chapter.