Tag Archives: Line Editing /

Editing Workshop Part 4: Boost Your Line Editing Skills

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EyeglassesEarlier 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.

Happy editing!

Editing Workshop Part 2: What Are the Different Types of Editing?

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Whether you’re preparing to submit your manuscript to agents and editors or finalize it for self-publishing, there are several distinct types of editing and it’s important to understand the difference. The four main types are developmental editing, line editing, copy editing, and proofreading. So what the heck is the difference?

Developmental (also called substantive) editing is about the big picture. This is where you’ll want to start if you’re new to editing or in the early stages of cleaning up your finished novel; that way you won’t waste time fine-tuning sections that may not make it into the final draft. Developmental editing can help you fix things like these:question

  • holes in your plot
  • story threads that dead-end
  • main characters that fail to captivate
  • secondary characters that should be scrapped or given a larger role
  • decisions about voice (first-person vs. third, close vs. omniscient, etc.)
  • order of the scenes
  • flow of action and pacing
  • and many others

Line editing focuses on the sentence or paragraph level, rather than the broad story-scope of your novel. It’s about refining sentence structure and flow to make your writing both more readable and more pleasurable to read.  Line editing can fix wordiness, awkward sentence structures, and other issues that make your writing feel “unpolished.” Line editing is what helps you go from the first sentence to the second one below:

–Hands trembling, she stared at her sister’s number at the top of the call list on the screen, and after hesitating another moment, sent the call through.

–Hands trembling, she stared at her sister’s number for a moment, then sent the call through.

Copy editing is about grammar, punctuation, and proper word usage. It’s the kind of editing you’d pull out your Chicago Manual of Style to do. Here are the types of questions you might ask yourself when doing a copy edit:

  • should I use “which” or “that”?
  • did I use punctuation correctly in the dialogue?
  • should that be a comma or a semicolon?
  • and a zillion others

Note that in the publishing world, the terms line editing and copy editing are sometimes used interchangeably, as they are closely related and often done by the same person or as a single step in the editing process. Some line editing may also be done during a developmental edit. So if you hire an editor, be sure you’re clear on what services he or she is offering.

Proofreading is the final step in the editing process and results in the final don’t-touch-it-again draft. This is where you catch spelling mistakes, typos, missing words, isolated punctuation errors, and the like. It’s the step that requires the most attention to detail, so if you’re doing it on your own work, it’s often essential to set the manuscript aside for a period of time so you can approach it with fresh eyes. Another helpful trick is to read your work aloud at a slow, measured pace.

For many writers, line editing, copy editing, and proofreading fall under a single umbrella called “being anal.” : ) If this is your stance, you might want to consider hiring a professional. Agents, publishers, and the reading public want a flawless product. So if you’d rather leave the nit-picking to those who enjoy it, no problem! But in the long run, you’ll be glad you didn’t cut any corners.

In upcoming articles, I’ll talk about some of the common issues writers need to address in their developmental and line/copy edits. Stay tuned!