February 13, 2018

Writing Craft: Master List of Line Editing Skills

Notepad with text: To Do: Learn Line Editing Skills

Last week we talked about how to know when we’ve learned enough that we can start our editing process. As we discussed in that post, we all have a natural tendency to underestimate where we are on the learning curve because we don’t know what we don’t know.

That means we might think we’re ready to start our editing process before we really know what we’re doing, which can lead to us wasting time and/or money. Not to mention our endless frustration and struggles if we jump the gun.

Instead, as mentioned last week, we need an intelligent guess at where we are on the learning curve before starting the editing process because any advice will be of limited use if we’re not ready to understand.

In that post, Step Two advised us to create a “master list of craft skills.” With that list, we might have a better idea of where we fall on that learning curve, and we’ll get ideas of what skills we should study next.

Me, being the perfectionist that I am, decided to try to take on this project of working up a “master list” that we all can use. But I’m just one brain, so I’m going to get things started, and we can add to this list with your help. *smile*

I’m going to break down this project into three posts, one for each phase of editing:

  1. content/developmental editing (fix story and character-level issues)
  2. line editing (fix scene and paragraph-level issues)
  3. copy editing (fix sentence, word, and grammar-level issues)

The craft skills we’re discussing come up both when we draft and when we edit. After all, whatever we don’t understand during drafting will need to be fixed in editing, and editing generally happens in the order above (as there’s no point in polishing words in a scene that might be cut or entirely rewritten).

We started with the first phase last week, and now we’re continuing with line editing

What craft skills do we need to
understand and be able to apply
to develop our voice and writing?

What Is Line Editing?

In my experience of searching for freelance editors for my stories, the hardest type of editing to nail down and explain what’s involved is line editing. We can say that line editing is about how we write scenes and paragraphs, but what does that mean as far as skills?

Do you know all these Line Editing Skills? Here's a “master list”... Click To TweetThe skills of line editing can cross boundaries with both the story development skills of developmental editing and the sentence-level skills of copy editing. Those gray lines can make it hard to find good line editors or point out what makes line editing unique. As a result, many self-published authors and traditional publishers skip this step.

However, talented line editing can make our writing sing. And that’s what Line Editing Skills are all about—our writing:

  • our voice
  • our style
  • our techniques
  • our choices

Because line editing is all about our writing, we can also struggle to find good line editors because—more than any other phase of editing—line editors must be a good match for our voice.

So between the difficulties of:

  • finding a line editor who can actually line edit (many—many—that claim the Line Editor title are really more like copy editors)
  • finding a line editor who matches and/or respects our voice
  • traditional publishers who skip the line editing phase

…Line Editing Skills are often essential to learn for self-editing. So this list can help us evaluate line editors we might work with as well as develop our own skills.

The Ultimate List of Line Editing Skills


  • Yes, this list is hella intimidating. We don’t—and can’t—learn everything at once.
  • No, we don’t have to be skilled at all of these before moving forward in our publishing career. Many of these skills will be an ongoing learning process, and the advanced ones will only come with lots of time and practice.
  • Yes, as mentioned above, many of these skills overlap with the other lists, but as an example, where developmental editing might look at our skill with showing vs. telling overall, line editing will look at specific examples on a micro level.
  • Most of these bullet points are roughly in order of basic to advanced skills.)

Don’t worry. This list gives us a map for our journey, but we’ll never reach the end because there’s always improvements we can make. There is no “done.” *smile*

We need to know how to:

Structure Scenes

Structure Paragraphs and Sentences

Develop Voice

Evoke Intended Reader Reactions

Develop Characterization

  • understand what characterization is
  • create characterization (character goals, motivations, behaviors, attitudes, dialogue, thoughts, emotions, etc.) for POV character
  • create characterization (stated or subtextual goals, behaviors, actions, attitudes, dialogue, etc.) for non-POV characters
  • use goals and motivation to add characterization
  • use internalization to add depth
  • understand options for internalization and when each option might work best
  • know how to layer character elements
  • make character vulnerable to increase reader connection
  • identify and fix issues with character likability, including for non-POV characters
  • identify character stereotypes and address
  • understand options for how and when to reveal character’s backstory, wound, false belief, longing, fears, worst nightmare, identity, and essence
  • understand pros and cons for each option and when each one might work best

Develop and Weave Story Elements

Develop Goals

  • create goals for every scene
  • understand how every goal has stakes (consequences for failure)
  • understand how conflict, motivations, and stakes all interact with goals
  • ensure goals ring true to character and help propel story/scene forward
  • use goals to reveal character’s longing, fears, false belief, backstory wound, etc.
  • understand the options for revealing goals (subtextual, dialogue, narration, action, character internalization, etc.) and when each option might flow best

Develop Stakes

  • develop stakes (consequences) for every choice characters face
  • ensure every “failure” has consequences
  • raise stakes to appropriate level for point in story
  • understand how stakes create motivations for goals
  • understand how goals, motivations, and conflict all interact with stakes
  • understand the options for revealing stakes (subtextual, dialogue, narration, action, character internalization, etc.) and when each option might flow best

Develop Character Motivations

  • create motivations for every goal (What are their reasons for their goals? What do their goals and stakes motivate them to do?)
  • ensure motivations are strong enough to explain character choices and actions
  • understand how goals, stakes, and conflict all interact with motivations
  • understand how tweaking motivations can solve many issues
  • use motivations to reveal character’s longing, fears, false belief, backstory wound, etc.
  • ensure motivations ring true to character (feels in-character)
  • understand options for revealing a character’s motivations (subtextual, dialogue, narration, action, character internalization, etc.) and when each option might flow best

Develop Conflict

  • understand different types of conflict (not just fighting)
  • ensure conflict appears on every page
  • understand how goals, motivations, and stakes all interact with conflict
  • understand the options for revealing conflicts (subtextual, dialogue, narration, action, character internalization, etc.) and when each option might flow best

Create and Maintain Tension

  • understand what creates sense of tension
  • understand how goals, conflicts, and stakes affect tension
  • understand how tension affects pacing
  • decide on appropriate pace for each scene
  • use emotion, paragraph breaks, paragraph elements, contrast, goals, motivations, stakes, obstacles/conflict, subtext, foreshadowing, etc. to create appropriate tension

Create and Balance Pacing

  • decide on appropriate pace for each scene
  • understand what increases a scene’s pacing
  • understand what slows down a scene’s pacing
  • use emotion, paragraph breaks, paragraph elements, sentence structure and length, narrative drive (sense of forward movement), goals, motivations, stakes, obstacles/conflict, etc. to create appropriate pacing
  • balance providing context and avoiding information dumps

Use Showing and Telling

Use Point of View Appropriately

*whew* Yes, this post took as long to put together as you’d think (if not longer…ugh). Hopefully with this list, we can get a feel for where we are on the learning curve as far as line editing skills. And as a bonus, this list might help us know what to look at for self-editing our writing. *smile*

Have you ever created a master list of writing skills? Were you able to come up with a list for line editing? Can you think of additional skills we should add to this list?

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What do you think?

13 Comments on "Writing Craft: Master List of Line Editing Skills"

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Jenny Hansen

Jami, this post is incredible. I could spend a week on it, it’s so full of goodness. I just bookmarked it to my Toolbox folder. 🙂

Deborah Brasket

Outstanding list of line editing skills! It’s true, all of this can seem overwhelming, but a lot of it is innate, things we’ve been doing over the long hail. But it’s great to be able to check our work and see that it is all there, and fill in the gaps and chinks. Wonderful resource. Thank you.

Tahlia Newland
Wow, Jami. It’s amazing to read this list and realise that this is what I do, that I look at all these things when presented with a book for editing. Now I see that the necessity of mastering all these skills and being able to apply them to a manuscript is why true line editing is actually a fairly rare skill. I love line editing, but other editors hate it. I guess because it requires making decisions that if done unskilfully can diminish the author’s voice and even make the author feel that it isn’t their story anymore. A good line editor, of course, will strengthen the author’s voice, support their vision and help them to express what they want to say, and I’m very relieved that that’s something my clients say about me. For authors’ sakes it’s important that editors know where their skils lie and stick to that, rather than try to go into areas where they aren’t strong. I work with a copy editor/proof reader who sends authors to me if their books need line editing, because he knows that’s where my strength as an editor lies and that it isn’t his strength, and I send people who just want a proof read to him because he’s better at that level of editing than I am. Sometimes indie authors think that a copy edit is all they need, but I find that most authors need a line editor to some degree, unless they have previously worked with… Read more »

Jami, after reading most of this, and clicking on a few links, I’m never going to buy another craft book! What a veritable gold mine of info! Thanks so much for taking the time to compile this.

Clare O\'Beara
Clare O\'Beara

A lot to digest! I am learning new skills all the time.

Tam Francis

Amazing post. Thank you so much for the breakdown. Nice having all these elements in one place. You get much of them in different craft books, but I’ve yet to find one this inclusive (it would probably be too long and too overwhelming).

I can’t thank you enough for this list. I’m going to use it as a checklist for my skills. Whew. Long journey ahead.


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