Lessons I Learned from Line Editing

Recently, my editor and I went through the line editing process with Ivory and Bone. If you’re unfamiliar with the steps a book goes through once it’s acquired, here’s an at-a-glance overview:

Structural/Developmental Edits: This is the part of the process often referred to broadly as Revision. Your editor sends you a letter outlining her ideas for the “big picture” changes that will make the manuscript stronger. (There are usually several rounds of this stage.)

Line Edits: In this stage, your editor goes through the manuscript line-by-line. The notes you receive look at the “small picture”—word choice, sentence structure, etc.

Copyedits: I haven’t gotten to this stage yet—expect a dedicated post when I do—but copyedits are concerned with correcting grammar, punctuation, style, and usage. For example, if you misuse dashes—I’m sure I never do—you will find out at the Copyedits stage.

After going through structural edits, I made a crazy assumption that line edits would be… easy. Well, maybe not easy, but easier. This assumption was incorrect.

I learned A LOT from the line editing process! Here are five things I learned, that apply to writing and life in general:

Some things that you expect to be easy are actually quite hard.

Many (maybe even most) of the comments in my line edit involved rewording and rephrasing. At first glance, I thought tackling these requests would be so easy. How hard could it be to find a fresh word or to change up sentence structure? It’s probably different for everyone, but I learned that rewording the simplest sentences could be quite difficult for me.

I found myself bogging down on four-word sentences. I have to admit that I felt stupid. How could this be hard? But getting the wording right can be equally challenging when the sentence has four words or fourteen. I learned to come back to things after letting my mind clear, and to be patient and forgiving with myself when things didn’t come easily.

Another person’s input can help immensely.

I’ll be honest—I’m not good at asking for help. I like to solve things on my own. But line editing taught me that some problems become much more manageable if you accept help.

Sometimes that help came from the thesaurus (which, for lots of reasons, I usually try to avoid.) Sometimes it came from my (immensely patient) husband. Sometimes it came in the form of a suggestion from my editor, tucked into a comment.

“Playing favorites” can hurt you.

I never knew I had “pet words” until I went through this line edit. If I told you how many times I used the word “stunned,” you’d be… surprised. I was quite stunned to see how frequently my characters were stunned. Or shocked. It was… startling (another one of my pet words!)

An echo isn’t as lovely on the page as it is on a hillside.

“Echoes” are words or phrases that repeat multiple times on a page, or even in a paragraph. (My editor often would simply highlight the word in both places, so it would jump off the page at me.) My theory on how this happens is that, when drafting, I use a word or phrase that feels so right, I subconsciously use it again, the sooner the better! It doesn’t matter how it happens, though. It still makes for flat, uninteresting writing. (Fixing these was slightly easier for me than some of the other line edits.)

A question mark can make a huge difference. (So can the word “please.”)

It never feels good to have your mistakes pointed out, no matter how small or common they may be. Knowing that all writers repeat words doesn’t make it easier to address the hundredth comment about a repeated word in your own manuscript. What does make that hundredth comment easier to accept is a simple question mark. “This repeats. Rephrase?” is very similar to “This repeats. Rephrase.” Yet that question mark makes such a huge difference! (As does, “This repeats. Please rephrase.”)

How about you? Do you enjoy working on the small details of your manuscript? Do you catch yourself using pet words or echoes? Does rewording come easily for you? Please share your thoughts in the comments!


20 Responses to Lessons I Learned from Line Editing

  1. Marc Vun Kannon Jun 24 2015 at 6:19 am #

    All of my books were published through a small press, and probably never were properly edited, at least not in the Big Picture sense. My writing technique, on the other hand, is a form of continuous line editing. I have to read what I wrote before to know what to write next, and I often find places where I repeated words within a paragraph, not big words like ‘stunned’, but little words like ‘all’, or ‘just’. Three of those in quick succession stick out just as much. I try to limit the bigger words to once per page.
    Sometimes getting rid of those words is easy, but other times I realize that the same word indicates the same thought or deed, and I don’t want my characters repeating each other. Sometimes the only fix is to take the story off in a completely different direction because I had to send my characters there. Which is a good thing to find out while I’m writing the story and not after.
    Also I would stay away from words like ‘stunned’ simply because it’s a word that tells instead of shows (unless your character is getting hit on the head). I recently did a comic scene where my MC was a bit flummoxed, and I had my guy stand there saying “Um…” a lot.

  2. Marc Vun Kannon Jun 24 2015 at 6:30 am #

    And that question mark is very important. It’s your editor reminding you that this is your story, not his. But just a question mark isn’t very helpful. I had an editor who stuck in all sorts of comments that gave me ideas for how to rephrase. Or even extend the story. I had a character (an evil editor, in fact) say “They’ll take what I give them, as long as there’s breasts in it.” My (real, not evil) editor pointed out that it should be ‘there are’ (which I already knew, thank you very much, but this was in dialog and the guy was a jerk), and I decided to put that comment in the mouth of the main character, Author Guy, because he knew it too.

    • Julie Jun 24 2015 at 8:14 am #

      Yes, definitely! Thanks for your comments. I agree that self-editing as you go along is important, especially if the solution is to take the story in a different direction. 🙂

  3. Terry Jun 24 2015 at 7:02 am #

    Ah, you have a nice editor. When I edit, or critique too, I almost always end comments with a question mark, as I’m making suggestions not giving orders.
    I suspect that when I don’t add ? the writer involved also realises I’m a lot more serious about taking note of what I’ve said!

    • Julie Jun 24 2015 at 8:16 am #

      Ah, the power of the question mark–your personal critique method sounds great! (And yes, I DO have a very nice editor!)

  4. Marilynn Byerly Jun 24 2015 at 8:58 am #

    Some word processors and grammar programs can list all the words you used and the number of times you used them. That’s a good way to spot overused words.

    • Julie Jun 24 2015 at 10:22 am #

      Thanks Marilynn! Great advice! 🙂

    • Suezette Aug 14 2015 at 11:35 pm #

      I have stuck smaller sections into a word cloud generator…largest words are the ones used most.

  5. Maria D'Marco Jun 24 2015 at 10:04 am #

    Hi Julie –
    Thanks for this informative post!

    I use a lot of humor in my editing approach to soften direction and guidance. After years of working with first-time authors who were all ’round virgins to editing. I discovered that I was often in a teaching position, whether I wanted it or not. My experiences in communicating with people in crisis (9-1-1 Manager) had taught me that instruction or foreign concepts cannot be absorbed or accepted when people are emotionally compromised. An editor who uses stinging comments, has a detached approach, or employs harsh corrections isn’t going to help any author understand those directions. To me, it’s extremely important that the author understand why I’ve made the changes I’ve made or indicated corrections, re-writes, or the need for additional material.

    So — I say please and thank you and use question marks and smiley faces. I do things like call-outs that tell the author a word is now on the ‘banned’ list (after encountering it on every page for the past 10 pages). I also may list several suggested replacement words. A smiley face and a humorous way of phrasing the ‘ban’ keeps things light, while drawing their attention to a redundancy problem.

    We all tend to write like we speak – especially our self-dialogue – and that tendency can fall onto the page subconsciously. To me, this results in habitual usages and tired phrasings that the writer simply doesn’t see. They’re invisible. This is like using the word ‘like’, so that like everyone like knows what I’m like talking about — like. 🙂

    As a writer becomes more experienced and skilled, these personalized style problems are overcome. But since we are continually learning how to best use language, and our natural tendency is to use what ‘works’, even as we gain skills, we can also gain new habitual usages. Our new favorite word or phrase will be just as invisible as the old.

    I appreciate your post, as it may help writers understand the very dense and intense task every dedicated editor undertakes when asked to ‘clean this up a bit’. Thanks for that and best success to you always!

    • Julie Jun 24 2015 at 11:52 am #

      Thanks for this comment, Maria! It’s great to get your perspective. And I completely agree–our repeated words can become invisible to us! 🙂

  6. Elizabeth Torphy Jun 24 2015 at 11:06 am #

    Awesome post. I am living your hell and learning sooooooo much. (Not for publishing reasons, but for rewrite.) I had an author friend edit my novel and, “Wow!” Do I use ecxlamation points or what!! They jump out at me now like glaring neon signs! It makes me laugh to see my repeat words or consistently poor punctuation use. How did I not see it before? But I realize it is the process of writing: turning off the creative brain and turning on the analytical one. Two processes…and I shouldn’t beat myself up. It is ALL a part of creating a final work…not my lack of ability; just another step in writing. I am calling it the layering effect of writing. Thanks for reviewing the edit process…I look forward to it some day!

    • Julie Jun 24 2015 at 11:54 am #

      I love your attitude! It really is a chance to learn, and yes–two processes! I will definitely keep analytical vs creative brain in mind!

  7. Stephanie Garber Jun 24 2015 at 12:46 pm #

    Great post, Julie!

    I’m glad I’m not the only one guilty of using word echoes! I didn’t realized it until my agent pointed it out. I actually love working on the details of manuscripts, but sometimes I really struggle with rewording, especially if it’s a passage that has made it through multiple drafts–the more I look at something the harder it is for me to change it. 😉

    • Julie Jun 24 2015 at 12:51 pm #

      That is the same phenomenon with me–the way it is on the page is soooo ingrained, I can’t imagine it another way. Then when I do, it seems obvious! 🙂

  8. Jo Smith Jun 24 2015 at 4:27 pm #

    Some of us just wish we had these problems. We’re still working on first draft/first edit/first read through. But one of these days we will join the choir and be able to complain about the editor/agent corrections we have to make. Glad you are to the place to be doing these corrections.

    • Julie Jun 24 2015 at 5:17 pm #

      It’s all about stages, right? First drafts, revisions, critique partners. I had many manuscripts before IVORY AND BONE, but like you, I stayed positive. 🙂

  9. Kim Jun 24 2015 at 4:27 pm #

    This is a fascinating post! Thank you so much for sharing it. I’m always surprised when a critique partner or beta reader points out certain words I over use. You never really can tell those things on your own. Turns out, in the last novel I wrote “up” was used like a billion times. It’s such a odd thing to repeat on.

    Echo words can always be a problem too. It’s so much easier for another person to see these problems then it is for the person doing the writing, I think. It’s good to have that person who is further removed to take a look over it.

    Again, thanks for the post! Good luck with copy edits 🙂

    • Julie Jun 24 2015 at 5:21 pm #

      Thanks Kim! I’m glad you liked this! I never knew what to expect from line edits, so I thought it would be good to share some info, mainly because it surprised me that it wasn’t a breeze haha. I will let you know how copy edits go!

  10. allreb Jun 25 2015 at 3:53 pm #

    Ooof, yes. I am in the midst of this for the first time – I just got line edits back from my (brilliant and lovely) editor. I had figured this part would be harder for me, because I have always preferred doing big structural changes and rewrites to doing more detailed, fiddly bits, but it looked reeeeally overwhelming when I first looked at the comments and tracked changes. Now that I’ve had a few days of adjustment it’s fine and doable! But I definitely appreciate those question marks and “please”es. 🙂

    • Julie Jun 26 2015 at 10:39 am #

      You and I are very similar! I also enjoy the big picture more, (though I realize the importance of the details!) I’m so glad your line edits are going well!

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