Editing Principle 17: Structure Trumps Word Choice

One of the more common misconceptions about editing is that it’s a matter of swapping out poorly chosen words for better ones. In fact the most important developmental editing work has to do with structure, and by that I mean the arrangement of information. What does a reader need to know, and in what order do they need to know it in? Roughly speaking, a critical fact revealed:

too early will be thought interesting, but it won't be clear to the audience how it relates to the rest of the story, and if the author keeps doing this too often—that is, throwing information/details/subplots out there before they’ve sketched out a general framework that helps the reader know where to mentally file this stuff—the text starts to get soupy, aka “all over the place”;

too late risks not being learned or absorbed at all because the audience needed the information earlier to enjoy the story, wherever it was leading, and so when they kept expecting something (which all readers do, across all genres, even if they don’t know exactly what they’re waiting for), but did not receive that something close enough to the time when they started wanting it, they got frustrated and so stopped reading;

When a reader says "I just couldn't get into it," this too-late effect is essentially what they're describing. It doesn’t matter if you’re dealing with fiction or nonfiction; the principle holds.

Michael Crichton has a good line about this phenomenon: "…when there is something wrong in writing, the chances are that there is either too much of it, too little of it, or that it is in some way backwards."

Now the longer I stare at that sentence, the less I’m certain that “something wrong” being backwards means what I think it means, but the principle holds up in practice. Sometimes all I do for a line-editing client’s work— well, not “all” but you get the idea—is take two paragraphs buried deep in the middle and pull them up to the front, and reorder the piece’s structure from there, and that change alone can make a tremendous difference before I’ve even started to examine individual sentences. A text that was plodding gets suddenly…zippy, and gathers momentum. It’s fun to see.

Megan Hustad