The Editing Process: Line Editing

Updated on March 1, 2024.

So you’ve got the overall structure of your manuscript successfully ironed out. As I wrote last week, developmental editing is the initial step in the editing process, but it only covers the bird’s eye view: your characters, your content, and your story arc.

Digging a little deeper into those concepts is where the next step in the process comes in: content editing, perhaps better known as line editing.

Line editors take your characters, content, and arc, and focus on realism. Scenes, conflicts, and endings (or cliffhangers) are analyzed word for word and sentence by sentence. In the words of Tiffany Yates Martin, “The most beautifully crafted prose in the world won’t hold a reader without a great story, but excellent storytelling can miss the mark with prose that’s cluttered, vague, or inauthentic.”

Although developmental editing focuses on helping you to flesh out your story, line editing focuses on leaning it out in two major ways.

Decluttering Your Prose

 “You’re either for me or against me.”

If the word or phrase isn’t positively affecting the story, it’s holding it back. However, because language itself is constantly evolving, both in definition and impact, this is more of an artistic effort that relies heavily on an editor’s experience in the publishing industry as well as the specific genre of a manuscript.

 Filler words, unneeded explanations, and overuse of adjectives and adverbs clunk up your text, distracting your reader from the story you’re trying to tell.

  1. Filler words are words that are not required to get your point across. Using “that” or “like”, for example, are superfluous, especially when the primary word itself is clear and concise enough to your reader.
  2. Unneeded explanations (or over-explanations) can test the patience and intelligence of your reader, neither of which will work in your favor as an author. If you’ve already stated your sentence or scenario one way, whether it was one page or a whole chapter ago, trust that your reader can keep up. They don’t need or want you to hold their hand.
  3. Overuse of adjectives (“She was frustrated, irritated, annoyed with everything about him.”) reads like 19th-century Victorian literature. If that’s your intent, where your story is set in Europe circa 1832, that’s the accepted writing style. However, if your focus is instead on more modern ways of writing, line editors would point out that those adjectives all mean the same thing and suggest picking just one.

Streamlining Your Dialogue

Your characters are not only made up of their physical actions. Whether spoken words or internal musings, character dialogue should never detract from your story. After all, your characters come alive—or fail to—when they speak.

  1.   Overuse of adverbs, like the overuse of adjectives, adds unnecessary emotions into speaker attributions that are always better used in the dialogue itself. Those pesky -ly adverbs in particular (e.g., gruffly, meekly, absurdly) weaken both your writing and your character, which is what line editors help you to avoid.
  2. Circumlocutions—”um’s”, “uh’s”, “like”, and so on—that so often pepper real-life conversations aren’t always required in written dialogue. As a matter of fact, it’s so rare that even with the most awkward character, you still shouldn’t use them. Line editors eliminate those and suggest using character actions instead that would show that awkwardness without needing to describe it in dialogue.

Line editing is as much an art as it is a science. Writers need this step in the editing process to cut extraneous words to their bare minimum without losing the messaging and intent of the author. It takes trust, honest communication, and a ton of practice to learn how line editors do what they do—and why they do it. But a story will be all the better with their input. And that’s priceless.

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