Earlier this month, I promised to talk about line editing, so I’m squeezing it in as my final NaNoEdMo post for March—phew! As with developmental editing, every manuscript will have a different set of issues to address in a line edit. But here are a few of the most common ones I see in the manuscripts I work with.
Confusing, awkward, or excessively long sentences. It’s usually hard to recognize awkward or confusing structures in your own work, so you may need help from a friend or critique partner. But you can train yourself to fix long, wordy sentences. As George R.R. Martin puts it in his WD interview, “I’ll write, John got up from the chair and walked across the room and pulled up the Venetian blinds, then lowered the window, latched it, and returned to his chair. Then I change it to, John got up and closed the window.” I love that example!
Pop culture references that may quickly go out of style. There are exceptions that warrant these—say, a novel about actors set in modern day Hollywood. But in general, you want to avoid anything that will soon become dated, and thus kill your book’s chance at longevity. This is especially relevant to slang in YA novels—while it may be tempting to show how well you know teens by peppering dialogue with up-to-the minute slang, it may sound phony and can quickly become old-fashioned. Use sparingly.
Repetition. Didn’t your character just tell us the same thing five pages ago? You may have forgotten because you wrote that line last month, but readers will have an unpleasant feeling of déjà vu. This is an easy mistake to make when you are rearranging scenes or adding to previously written ones. That’s why it’s important to do a final read of your entire manuscript (even if you’ve done multiple edits on individual scenes) to help catch these oversights.
Logistical errors. Time out, your reader says. How can Madame Dupont be wearing the priceless bracelet that fell off the cliff in the previous scene? As with repetition, this problem can crop up when you are moving and rearranging scenes. How to avoid it? As you’re doing a read-through, jot notes in the margins: Where exactly are the characters in the room/castle/cruise ship/dormant volcano (and are they where they should be)? If there is a crucial object in the scene, where is it? What are your characters wearing (and did it change unexpectedly)?
Inconsistencies in character behavior, dialogue, etc. Some of this falls in the realm of developmental (big picture) editing—Why did your main character just kill X—she seemed to like him and don’t we need him for the climax scene? But it can be involved in line editing, too. Why did your character just slip out of dialect in the first half of the page? Why is he now shouting—for now apparent reason—when three lines ago he seemed pretty zen?
Pronouns or dialogue without anchors. Readers can easily be confused if you use pronouns like “he” without a clear reference to one of the three guys in the room; “them” can be even more confusing when it only refers to some of the people in the scene. So make sure you provide enough context in the surrounding sentences. The same goes for dialogue. Cormac McCarthy gets along fine without ever using “he said” or “Rawlins said” to anchor dialogue, but that’s a difficult technique to master. Ask your test readers to mark places where they got lost in the conversation.
Passive voice or unnecessarily complex verb structures. Passages full of sentences like She was handed the letter, or He was sent into a panic by her response, usually feel muted or stodgy. Use Roger handed her the letter, or Her response sent him into a panic. Scrap this sentence: He had been doing laundry when she had dropped by to tell him the news, for this one: He was doing the laundry when she dropped by to tell him the news. Overly complex verb structures add a layer of distance you don’t want your readers to feel.
Reporting. Years ago, a writing teacher pointed out that the short story I’d written was full of “reporting,” a term I was unfamiliar with at the time. Once she pointed it out, I saw exactly what she meant. I was saying things like: I remembered doing X, Y, Z…, and I thought to myself that…, and He wondered whether… This is another form of passive writing that adds an unnecessary layer between the writer and reader. It’s okay to use these structures occasionally, but make active ones your default—instead of having a character wonder about something, let him simply ask a question.
I imagine every writer’s goal is to do less line editing. But how do you get there? Try looking for patterns in your critique group/beta reader comments and make a list of your most common issues. By going back to fix them, you’ll train your brain to catch those problems in the future, and to start avoiding them altogether.