Line edits – the most detailed, and perhaps most difficult, part of the editing process. For those who don’t know, a line edit can refer generally to the entire process of editing the manuscript’s content for consistency, style, voice, dialogue, and the like.
But it also refers to the meticulous process of editing the manuscript, line by line, and sometimes spending much of one’s time on a particular sentence in and of itself to make it the very best it can be – grammatically and stylistically. Line edits are the true nitty-gritty of editing and can be very exciting – but they can also be difficult and tedious, and more often than not, daunting.
If you’re not an editor, editing can be extremely difficult. However, it is also very rewarding, and many indie authors edit their own books, or edit them through at least once before sending them off to a freelance editor for some polish and more professional flair.
We want to highlight here some advice for getting through those essential line edits, and how to stay engaged in the process.
Words of Advice from Editors:
“…line editing is basically what the name is, is a line by line edit. And the difference between that is that now you’re starting to look from paragraph to paragraph from page to page. Is the flow working? Do we have support of the transitions? And do you have your voice? Is it consistent? Are you overlooking any little thing? So, that it gives you a professional, competent point of edits so that you can present it to your public. And you really need line editing before you put it anywhere in the public, before you share it, before you distribute it, before… I mean, even before your beta readers and things like that.” – JoEllen Nordstrom, editor and founder of First Editing
“…to me every word is important, and every sentence is important. And I want the whole thing to hang together. And so then I do the line edit. So that’s where you see me working on the page, the author will get an actual manuscript and track changes. And I’ll have comments in the margin. And I’ll be tinkering with their sentences or, and so then we go through that stage, maybe one or two more times, ideally.” – Janice Zawerbny, editor and co-founder of the Carol Shields Prize for Fiction
Now, before you get started, remember these key components of line editing:
- Flow – is the sentence flowing into the next without reading as awkward, stilted, or stagnating?
- Voice – is this sentence consistent with your writing voice (content) or the character voice (dialogue)?
- Consistency – is this sentence consistent with the rest of the story, i.e. is anything here incorrect, confused, or otherwise iffy?
Keeping the story flowing; maintaining a consistent voice; and general content consistency are the goals of the line edit. Editors can vastly improve a reader’s reading experience by paying attention to these three things.
As a writer, it’s important to be aware of your own idiosyncrasies. Maybe you use filler words too much (“very”, “really,” “perhaps”, etc.), or find yourself often writing in passive voice (“have been”, “was being”, etc.). Maybe you find yourself over-describing settings and getting into purple prose. Or maybe you over-complicated plot details and bring them up time and time again at different points of the story – so much so that the repetition becomes jarring. All of this can be improved and corrected with line edits!
Here are some ways you can effectively line edit without needing to be an editing expert:
Utilize tracked changes – this may seem obvious, but utilizing tracked changes on your document is extremely helpful during line editing. You can visualize the reconstruction of a sentence from start to finish, which is great if you want to tweak things later – or even revert the sentence to the way it was before!
Edit out filler words and excess description – as mentioned, filler words like very, really, perhaps, just, etc., are all words that can be removed from a sentence to make it stronger. If a sentence is looking weak or sounding awkward, try removing one or more filler words and see how it looks. Let’s use an example:
“The entrance to her home was a very tall and very wide door, with an imposing and intimidating doorknocker in the shape of a dragon set squarely in the middle of it – perhaps, I thought, I should go around the back.”
Now, after removing the filler words, it would read as follows:
“The entrance to her home was a tall and wide door, with an imposing and intimidating doorknocker in the shape of a dragon set squarely in the middle of it – I should go around the back, I thought.”
This is already much better! But we can improve it further by removing words that are unnecessary or repetitive – descriptive “fluff”:
“The entrance to her home was a huge door, complete with an intimidating doorknocker in the shape of a dragon – I should go around the back, I thought.”
Do you see what difference that can make? Here, we have clarified “tall and wide” into huge and have removed “imposing” as it was repetitive, since “intimidating” follows right after. Likewise, we replace “squarely in the middle of it” with "complete" – we don't need the exact placement of the doorknocker, as the reader will most likely be picturing one set in the centre of the door anyway, as is conventional. All of this has shortened the sentence while keep its meaning and integrity in one editorial move.
A lot can be done at the line level, as you have now seen – so much so that certain sentences, such as the first one in the novel, or the last one in each chapter, can make or break your readers interest! Be sure to work closely on remove the fluff from sentences such as those, that function as hooks or cliff-hangers.
Check your content with a tool – there a myriad of tools online to help you with grammar and spelling. Consider feeding your manuscript, or particular portions of your manuscript, in order to catch any grammatical errors, passive voice, etc. – this is a great option if you yourself will be completing the copyedit on your final version. Don’t shy away from trying out one of these tools – especially if it is free to use, as many of them are.
Factcheck, and then factcheck again – if you are writing historical fiction or are including scientific facts in your novel, to name few of many fact-based details, make sure those facts are correct! Nothing is worse than getting a date wrong, naming the wrong historical figure, or utterly forgetting an important fact only to have one of your readers point it out after publication. Factcheck each line you come across that contains a concrete fact to ensure you don’t make these mistakes.
Focus on finding your voice – lastly, focus, of course, on what feels true to you. Sometimes, grammatically correct sentences can feel stilted, awkward, and without life or style, even if they are, in fact, correct. You are allowed to take artistic liberties, so don’t be afraid to break the rules now and then.
Similarly, don’t edit out your voice. Don’t remove all your idiosyncrasies and writing habits; these are a part of your style. As long as they aren’t overly repetitive or disruptive to the reader, go wild! Be proud of how you write and let your style help you stand out.
In conclusion, line edits can be extremely daunting – but they are so, so necessary. Consider getting help from an editor, but remember: you can do this. Your novel is so close to being done! Think of these line edits as helping to build on a strong foundation; with even more support, your novel can bear the brunt of anything else that comes its way. And, of course, try and enjoy the process – happy editing!