Line Editing: What Is It? By Jami Gold

Screenshot of line editing example

What Is Line Editing and What Should Line Editors Do? by Jami Gold https://jamigold.com/2018/03/what-is-line-editing-and-what-should-line-editors-do/

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 TWEET But 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 effective?
  • Would rearranging any sentences or paragraphs help the storytelling flow or have 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?

HOW TO CRITIQUE YOUR MANUSCRIPT

On Victory Crayne’s website, a complete version of, How to Write a Critique is available. This site has many wonderful ways to improve a writer’s writing skills.  I critique my own writing, using this form. I find it essential in developing better writing skills.  Go to Victory Crayne’s website for more ways to improve writing skills or just brush up on the great writing skills you have acquired.

http://www.crayne.com/howcrit.html

Opening

Do the first few sentences or paragraphs of the story grab your attention? Do they present the protagonist’s main problem? Remember how you judge a book or story when you first see it in a bookstore. Don’t we often base our decision to buy or not buy upon those first few sentences? Did this author grab your attention fast enough?

Conflict

By conflict, I do not mean lots of slam-bam action. Conflict is “The mental or moral struggle caused by incompatible desires and aims. That is the kind of conflict that makes stories vitally alive.” – Ben Bova in “The Craft of Writing Science Fiction That Sells”.

Is there emotional conflict WITHIN the main character? Between the main characters? Emotional conflict is part of what gets readers interested. For example: love vs. loyalty; greed vs. duty; fear vs. desire; revenge vs. self-doubt. Is there enough conflict between the characters? Is it expressed through action, dialogue, attitudes, or values? Were the characters sufficiently contrasted? Or did they seem to be totally satisfied with their roles? Did they have the potential to transform each other?

Plot

Was the main plot clear and believable? Did the main character have a clearly defined problem to solve? Did you feel by the end of the piece that this problem was solved or did the character become resolved to live with it? Were you able to determine the time and place of the story quickly enough? Did the story start at the right place? Did it end at the right place in the plot? Are there scenes which do not seem to further the plot? Were there too many flashbacks, which broke your attention? Was every subplot useful? Did it add to the overall story or did the author seem to stick it in just for complexity?

Pacing:

Did the plot/subplots move fast enough to keep the reader’s attention? Resolution of conflict: Did the conflict and tension in the plots and subplots come to some reasonable ending? Or did the author leave us hanging, wondering what happened? When you finished, were there things that you still felt needed to be explained? If the author did leave some conflict unresolved, did they indicate somewhere that future stories are pending?

Setting

Is there enough description of the background in the story to paint a picture that seems real enough for the reader? Did you feel that you were transported to ‘that time or place’? Was there too much description so modern readers might tend to become bored? Was the description written with clichés? Did the author use good enough names for people, places, and things? Names help set the tone for a story. Were some names of people hard to keep track of? Did some names seem inconsistent with the character? Were the names too stereotypical.

Timing

Is the timing and order of events in the story consistent? For example, did John drive his new car on his vacation in chapter six but it wasn’t until chapter ten that he bought it?

Characterization

Did the people seem real? Or were the main characters stereotypes or one-dimensional cardboard characters? Were the facts about the characters accurate and consistent? People do not exist in a vacuum. They have family, friends, a job, worries, ambitions, etc. Did you get a sense of enough of these, but not too much, for the main characters? Did you get a good picture of the culture, historical period, location, and occupation of the main character? Did you get enough of a sense of paradoxes within the character? Enough of their emotions, attitudes, values?

Backstory: Were you distracted by too much background information of a character at one time? Did the author seem to dump a lot of information on the background of a character in one or two long speeches, or did we learn about that character here and there in smaller pieces? Did the protagonist undergo some change in the story? Does each chapter/page have enough sensory description? Can the reader easily sense what is happening physically to the main character? Were there enough words of sight, sound, touch, smell, or taste? If the story used a person as the antagonist (villain), did they seem real too? Or did they seem so evil or one-sided that they were more like ideal villains? Did they have some redeeming qualities too? Did the villain seem to be a hero in their own mind?

Dialogue

Did the words from the mouths of the people in the story seem consistent with their personalities? Was there too much or not enough dialogue, in your opinion? Usually writers err on the side of not enough dialogue. Did any character tend to talk in long monologues?

Were you able to sense the conflict, attitudes, and intentions of each character in their dialogue without the author telling you of these directly? Were you able to detect any exchange of power that is sexual, physical, political, or social? Did the dialogue seem easy to speak? Can you ‘hear’ it? If it sounds unusual, you might suggest that the writer try reading it aloud. Does each character have their own speech rhythm, accent (if necessary), vocabulary, and even length of sentences?

Point of View

Was a given chapter or section written from one person’s point of view? Are there too many points of view in the story? Did the story skip around between the first person or third person point of view (POV)? Were the changes in POV signaled clearly?  If the story was written in the third person POV, as most stories are, did the story stick with the omniscient (all knowing) POV, use a limited POV (where we don’t know everyone’s motives except by clues from their words or actions), or did the author mix the two? Did the author’s choice seem right to you?

Show versus tell

When in the POV of a character, did the author describe what his/her senses showed, e.g., sight, sound, smell, touch, taste? Or did the author just tell you the dinner was very good? Did the author describe exactly how the people acted? Was there too much abstract language where specific details would have made a greater impact on the reader?

Format of the text

Was it easy to read or were the paragraphs too long or the lines too long (not enough margin)?

Would it help to put blank lines between paragraphs? If the piece is to be read on a computer monitor, adding a blank line between paragraphs will make it much easier for your critics to read. Note: when you submit the final version to print publishers, it is best to adhere to their manuscript format (no blank lines between paragraphs).

Grammar and spelling

Was the English readable? Were there too many grammatical errors, misuse of punctuation, run-on sentences, etc.?

Did you point out any typos or misspelling? How many times have you missed that in your writing because you passed over it without seeing it? Were there so many such errors that they made reading the piece difficult for you? Did the author use too many exclamation points (one of my weaknesses)? Were there any cliches in the narrative? For example, I once wrote “fruits of mother nature” and “thoughts burning in his mind”, both of which are cliches. In dialogue cliches are okay if the character would speak that way.

Style

You may wish to comment on the style the story was written in, e.g., humorous, wordy, sparse, literary, homespun, technical, etc.