Without a skeleton, you would be a pulsating blob. Without steel, no modern skyscraper could survive. Everything has a structure — including everything we edit.
In fiction, the structure might be the plot line. In academic writing or technical manuals, the structure might be a required template. And in public relations or informational communications, it might be a version of the journalistic “inverted pyramid,” designed to give the most important information first.
But as the people who purchased condos in the Millennium Tower in San Francisco have discovered, structure means nothing if it’s not on a solid base. If one part of the structure is off by even a little, it can skew the whole building—or, in the case of editing, the whole piece.
The writer built the piece; sometimes you have to take it apart to find where the flaws are and then reassemble it. You become the bricklayer, but you have to use the writer’s bricks. You might need new mortar, but if you’re a good editor, your goal is to make it look the way the writer intended it, not to just build a new piece.
Most writers do not supply editors with their outlines, if there even is one, so that’s your first step: Deconstruct the piece by reverse-outlining it.
If there is a template or form that the piece needs to fit into, fill that template with the paragraphs from the piece. Think of them as the bricks making up the piece: these bricks make up the introduction; those bricks are part of the methodology; these four piles make up the four arguments; and these bricks make up the conclusion.
In might be hard to keep track of those bricks as you put them in the template, so pick one of several methods:
On paper or in the electronic file, number each paragraph of the original, so you know where each came from, and put the numbers into the template in the appropriate place.
On paper or in the electronic file, label each paragraph with keywords, such as “Intro: Pro-Common Core,” “Argument 1: Pro-Common Core,” “Intro: Anti-Common Core,” and so on. Put those keywords into the template.
If the piece is not too long, print it out and literally cut it into paragraphs. Rearrange the paragraphs in the logic that better fits the template.
If a brick doesn’t fit, put it aside for the moment. That might be your problem brick, the one throwing the structure off.
By using this paragraph method, you may discover that the paragraphs themselves are in the right order but lack strong transitions or contain sentences that belong in another paragraph. By looking at each paragraph discretely, you can rebuild the piece to make it stronger.
This article was originally posted on the Copyediting website, November 29, 2016.