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March 22, 2018

What Is Line Editing and What Should Line Editors Do?

Screenshot of line editing example

Last month, when I put together the Master Lists of writing craft skills to provide insights for self-editing and/or finding editors, I created a list for each phase of editing:

As I mentioned in the Line Editing post, in my experience, line editing is the hardest type of editing to nail down. We can say that line editing is about how we write scenes and paragraphs, but what does that mean?

Let’s take a closer look at what line editing encompasses

Why Is Line Editing Hard to Define?

While developmental editing is about the story and characters and copy editing is about grammar rules and sentence-level issues, line editing skills are all about our writing—as a whole:

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

Despite how line editing skills overlap those of developmental editing and copy editing, the skills also go far beyond looking at character arcs or knowing grammar and into becoming deeply in tune with an author’s voice. Talented line editing can make our writing sing, and the step shouldn’t be skipped.

Do We Need a Professional Line Editor?

Unfortunately, many writers have probably never been exposed to good line editing to recognize it (or its lack). It’s rare for a beta reader or critique partner—or even an English teacher—to have the necessary skills to be a good line editor.

Due to the difficulty in finding non-professionals with the necessary line editing skills, my “default” recommendation as far as editing is:

For most writers, if we can afford to pay only one professional editor, we should get a professional line edit.

However, many editors who call themselves line editors actually perform more of a copyedit. It’s essential to get a sample edit from a potential editor to see what kind of changes they’re suggesting—and whether or not their changes are good for our voice, etc.

What should a professional line edit include? Check this list of examples... Click To TweetBut that brings up the issue: If it’s so hard to define or recognize good line editing, how can we find a good line editor?

The first step is to learn more about what line editors do (or should do). The better we understand this stage of editing, the more we’re able to self-edit for these issues or judge whether a sample edit from someone calling themselves a line editor reveals if they’re actually looking at the right things.

Once we know whether a potential editor measures up, skill-wise, we can then focus on whether they’re a good match for our voice. I hesitate to ever recommend specific editors because we all have different strengths and weaknesses, but our individual needs are never more important than finding a line editor who’s a good match for our voice.

No matter how skilled the line editor, we should stay far away from any who don’t “get” our voice. *smile*

What Should Line Editors Do? The Basics…

Line editing focuses on clarity and strength in our writing, such as:

  • Are any sentences clunky or confusing?
  • Do any motivations need to be made clearer?
  • Are any phrases too cliché?
  • Do any sentences or paragraphs need to be tightened?
  • Are any sentences or paragraphs too repetitive?
  • Would different words make a stronger emotional impact?
  • Would showing or telling make a point more effectively?
  • Would rearranging any sentences or paragraphs help the storytelling flow or emotional focus?

In my post a few years ago about how we can evaluate potential editors, I gave a few examples of line-editing comments:

  • “I feel like her words should directly follow this. See what you think of the new arrangement.”
  • “This wording is a little awkward, and I would add a sentence or two showing her decision.”
  • “You can cut this. We know it already.”
  • “This almost goes without saying. Could you use a more descriptive adverb, or better yet, phrase?”

Note how these comments get into reading flow, clarity, tightening, and stronger writing. These are what we’re looking for with line edits. (Also note how these comments get into the nitty-gritty of how we word things. That’s why we need our line editor to be in tune with our voice.)

What Should Line Editors Do? More Examples…

I love how line editing makes my voice and writing stronger, so I want to give more insights into what a good line edit can do for us. I hope these examples give us more ideas about the types of self-editing we can do as well as what we should look for when evaluating potential line editors.

In my Line Editing Master List post, I organized line-editing skills into several categories. Using many of those same categories, here are some of the comments I received from my line editor on my latest release, Stone-Cold Heart:

Structure Scenes

Scene structure is usually a developmental editing step, but this is one of those areas that can overlap with line editing—especially when it comes to narrow story issuesrepetition of ideas, and story/emotional flow.

  • “What’s the deal with this? Where did it come from?”
  • “That’s DEFINITELY something I’d expect her to ask about.”
  • “Would this not cause problems in the world?”
  • “I think it’s fine to have this new POV scene this way. It’s not like there’s any other way to reveal this info. The only other thing you could do to make it slightly less jarring would be to put a prologue in her POV.”
  • “I would cut this and move it down to AFTER her explanation so you don’t cut the tension of us waiting to see what happens, with all the backstory.”
  • “I pictured them still on the couch and assumed she was either talking to them from the kitchen or had come back into the living room, so I’m confused about when they decided to join her.”
  • “Insert scene break.”

Structure Paragraphs and Sentences

Paragraph and sentence structure is the “meat” of line editing, ensuring ideas are expressed with strength and clarity.

  • “Three prepositional phrases in a row is the absolute max. I prefer no more than two because it gets overwhelming, but I’ll let you decide if there’s an easy way to rework this.”
  • “Feels redundant. I don’t think you need both of these.”
  • “Cut. This goes without saying, as we see this already.”
  • “I don’t see any need for the paragraph break.”
  • Closer implies comparison, but what are you comparing here?”
  • “Wrenched what?”
  • “Unclear who’s speaking here.”
  • “This sentence has too much going on. Can you split it into two?”
  • “Maybe change to “it doesn’t matter” or something similar. “No” is a confusing answer here.”
  • “This is a little hard to picture.”
  • “This is a little clunky. Reword if you can.”
  • “Even going back to review the last page, it’s not immediately clear what excuse you’re referring to.”
  • “Odd word choice. I feel like this word implies the opposite.”

Tightening sentences is also a major aspect of line editing, as in these screenshots:

Example of a sentence tightened and strengthened.

Line editing example of sentence tightened and made clearer

(Newsletter readers need to click through to the post to see the images. Click on the images to see full size.)

Develop Voice

As I mentioned above, voice is the trickiest aspect of line editing. A line editor who’s not a good match for us will try to “fix” our voice choices into something dull, but a good match will help us make our voice stronger and sharper.

  • “You know me and repetition, but using the different form of the word in the first sentence throws it off. Do you think changing it to match the other two makes it too much? What if you combine the last two sentences?”
  • “I think you may be over-using this word. The idea is well established at this point, and I don’t think the particular word needs to be repeated quite so many times.”
  • “I feel like a pause before this is necessary to emphasize it. Comma, em dash, ellipsis, your choice.”
  • “Try adding this understatement to make it funnier.”
  • “Sounds too formal.”
  • “I would maybe draw out these words with ellipses.”
  • “Some writers would use hyphens to make this into one idea. I was just reading something in an editor forum that said that’s considered lazy writing. Meh. Who knows?
    But the italics are a little odd as well. You could rephrase.”
  • “Technically these are comma splices. Which I’m sure you know. I would probably use periods here, but I can see wanting to tie it all together, so I’ll look the other way if that’s what you choose. 😉 “

Note: That last bullet is a great example of how a good editor match will “get” what we’re trying to do with our voice. *smile*

Evoke Intended Reader Reactions

Another aspect of feedback is for an editor to let us know whether our words are having the intended effect. Good editors will mention when something feels “off.”

  • “I’m assuming the gun isn’t loaded, but I can’t be sure, so maybe make that a little more clear here.”
  • “This actually minimizes the explosion in my head. I think of a bang as something sharp, caused by a gunshot, two things being struck together, etc. But an explosion is more of a boom. Or you could just describe its effect or compare it to something.”
  • “This sounds far more emotional. I would probably cut this part unless you mean to imply that he’s actually falling for her.”
  • “This seems out of left field. At least off topic.”
  • “I would switch these. This just sounds awkward, so it kills the moment you’re trying to create here.”
  • “The ellipsis makes me think that he’s drawing a blank for what to call her. But this word alone is a perfect end to that sentence.”
  • “Both of their statements here feel a little contrived.”
  • “I think this line could be stronger.”

Develop Characterization

A good line editor will help us develop our characters through word choice and keep our character’s presentation consistent.

  • “I want an adjective here to tell me what kind she likes.”
  • “This makes me immediately distrustful of him. Is that your intent?”
  • “Italicized because these words are always extra meaningful for him.”
  • “Seems like a really modern turn of phrase for his voice.”
  • “Would he know what this is?”
  • “I feel surprised that he would use this word. It seems a little feminine or something.”

Use Showing vs. Telling and POV Appropriately

Line editing can also highlight out-of-POV (point of view) phrases or let us know when we need more showing or telling.

  • “These highlighted phrases feel like she’s too self-aware. If she recognizes the signs, why can’t she exert some sort of control over it?”
  • “Are his arms still around her?”
  • “This feels very info-dumpy for her to say aloud. Doesn’t sound natural.”
  • “Not sure if she’d know her expression is pathetic.”
  • “This seems too self aware. Almost outside her POV. Maybe an analogy like…”
  • “This feels kind of “as you know, Bob-ish.””
  • “Can you unpack this a little? What does that look like?”
  • “Above, she merely “stepped back” from his arms, so I assumed he was still right there within touching distance.”
  • “This is a little tell-y.”
  • “More description please. A warehouse, a mansion, a brownstone, an estate?”

Miscellaneous Line Editing Elements

In addition, line editing can touch on goals, stakes, conflict, motivation, pacing, tension, etc.

  • “This feels like overkill. We get this point, but it feels like a jump. Almost weird that she’s even thinking about this.”
  • “Why does she assume this?”
  • “I realize the importance of this moment. You need their bond to be threatened, but this doesn’t feel like it fits. It comes out of left field.
    Could you tweak the direction a little and have her lash out? That’s still a lack of trust, without seeming like the thought suddenly made her change her mind.”

Want More Line Editing Information?

Here are a few other posts where we’ve talked about line-editing issues:

Hopefully this information helps show how line editing can take our writing and make it stronger. With a good line editor (or amazing self-editing skills), our stories will grab readers’ attention and emotions, compelling them to read just. One. More. Page. *smile*

How familiar are you with line editing? Have you had a good line editor before? What made them good (or bad)? Does this help clarify what a good line editor should analyze or how to evaluate a line editor’s skills? Do you have any questions about line editing?

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Comments — What do you think?

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Mike
Mike

Posts like this by any writer are so disheartening. A writer could easily spend upwards of $10,000.00 having all the recommended edits performed on her/his manuscript and still find no one wanted to read the book. And that doesn’t count the hours spent trying to find the right editor, or the days of angst hoping for the best when the manuscript is finally sent to an editor. Writing is not for the weak.

Cynthia Maddox

This was so informative for me. Last year my writing group put out an anthology. I ended up doing all of the edits. That was not the plan! I am not a professional editor but I’ve done a lot of editing over the years for friends on research papers and more recently short stories. And I studied journalism in college. After reading over your post, I recognized that this is the kind of editing I do. Thanks for laying it out so clearly. No one ever told me that’s what I was doing. I love editing like this!
Incidentally, me instructor always said you never change the voice of the author. You just find the problems.

Elizabeth Randolph

Thanks for showing what line editing is. Now, I get it.

Clare O'Beara
Clare O'Beara

Busy editor! A writer still has to find her own style and that may not come through if the work is edited so severely. However, I can see many advantages. For instance I once picked up a book in a shop, turned to a page at random and my eye fell on:
“speech” John raged angrily.
Closed book, back on shelf.

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[…] 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 […]

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Sieran Lane
Sieran Lane

Wow, I loved this post!! And thanks for sharing the edits you got too.

You know, I realized for quite some time that I’m not as good at analyzing big picture issues in depth, and am much better at commenting on details, like for specific sentences, paragraphs, etc. I don’t have professional training in line editing, but I’m able to beta read for strength and clarity issues. Since a number of friends have said that I’m a good beta reader, I think I am stronger in this area than in the developmental and copy-editing areas. For the latter, though I know a bunch of grammatical rules, sometimes I have “grammar confusion,” where I would feel like using this word, even though it might be grammatically incorrect. Or sometimes I’m just confused about which word, phrase, punctuation, or structure would be right to use grammatically.

Nevertheless, I need to watch out for my urge to alter the author’s voice to suit my own, haha. For instance, I feel quite averse to long sentences (or phrases), so I try to shorten them when I can; but I understand that some authors want to write longer sentences.

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