Editing Explained, Part 2: Line Editing

Editing is more complex than just fixing misspelled words (though that is an important step). There are several distinct types of editing that every manuscript should go through: substantive editing, line editing, copy editing, and proofreading. Writers can benefit from understanding these types so they can self-edit as much as possible before handing their manuscripts off to a professional editor.

What is Line Editing?

“We’re not going to talk about making it good; we’re going to talk about making it tight,” says Brandon Sanderson on the podcast Writing Excuses (Episode 4.29: Line Editing).

Line editing always comes after content editing and before copy editing, though some copy editors include it in their job descriptions. Line editors focus on paragraph-level issues instead of broader story issues. They are not concerned with grammar or spelling (that comes later), but with things like tone, clarity, and word choice. Here are some common problems that line editors work to correct or improve:

  • writing in passive voice
  • using too many adverbs or adjectives
  • telling vs. showing
  • using unnecessary words or phrases
  • repetition
  • unclear phrasing
  • unintended shifts in tone
  • mixed metaphors

How to Self-Edit

Take some time away from your manuscript so that you come back to it with fresh eyes, and then try reading it aloud to yourself; this will help you catch awkward phrasing and problems with word choice. You can tighten up your manuscript by accomplishing the following:

Replace weak words with strong ones.
Example: “George let out the breath he was holding” could be replaced with “George exhaled.”

Replace a phrase with a single word that conveys the same meaning. 
Example: “In a normal situation” could be replaced with “Normally.”

Eliminate unnecessary adverbs.
Example: “She slowly and noisily walked into Howl’s castle through the back door” could be replaced with “She entered Howl’s castle.”

Or, an even better choice would be to describe by showing instead of telling, as the original sentences in Diana Wynne Jones’s Howl’s Moving Castle read: “Sophie, by hobbling furiously, managed to get one foot up on its doorstep. Then she hopped and scrambled and hopped again, while the great black blocks round the door jolted and crunched as the castle gathered speed over the uneven hillside.”

Ensure wording does not confuse readers.
Example: “Bowser was confronted for capturing Princess Peach in the middle of the Mushroom Kingdom” (this is a misplaced modifier) could be replaced with “Bowser captured Princess Peach in the middle of the Mushroom Kingdom, and Mario confronted him.”

Use the active voice.
Example: “It was known by Sauron that a hobbit had the Ring” could be replaced with “Sauron knew a hobbit had the Ring.”

Eliminate cliches.
Example: “It was a dark and stormy night” could be replaced with “The night was blind to the storm.”

What to Look for in a Line Editor

The main thing you want in a line editor is someone who is actually going to do line edits. Check with an editor to clarify what type of editing they will do. A content editor may have the skillset to do a line edit once they are through the content editing rounds. A copy editor may do both line edits and copy edits, leaving the final, more technical changes for for the proofreader. Types of editing often overlap. If you’re hiring your own editor, the best way to determine what kind of editor you’re getting is to clarify what sort of changes they will make and request a sample edit from them.

Working with a Line Editor

In the Writing Excuses episode I mentioned earlier, “Line Editing,” the hosts go over a few paragraphs of Brandon Sanderson’s first novel to demonstrate what line editing can look like. The first sentence they analyze is, “The wind blew carelessly and freely,” and they come up with several options to tighten it up, including “The wind blew carelessly,” “The wind blew careless and free,” and “The wind blew.”

There is usually more than one way to improve something or to fix a mistake. If your editor points out an issue, you don’t have to go with their suggested solution if you’re unhappy with it or feel like it’s not consistent with your voice, but should still work together to solve the underlying problem. Consider the editor an ally working to improve your prose rather than an enemy determined to rip your writing apart. Taking the time to go over the changes they make and understand why they made them instead of just clicking “accept” on all their changes will also help improve your writing in the future.

< Read “Editing Explained, Part 1: Substantive Editing”

Read “Editing Explained, Part 3: Copy Editing” >

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