Often, people are confused between line editing, copy editing, and proofreading. Line editing is the most “creative” of the three: it deals with how the craft carries the story.
Line edits are typically what I myself get caught up in while writing, when my inner editor is more in control than the writer. I stress over word choice, phrasing, and always ask, “Is this the right way to write this?”
Copy editing and proofreading are separate from line editing, and they’re vastly more technical than line edits.
So how to do line edits?
First, you must read through your story. You should already have done this in your developmental edits—which come before any line edits—but reading through after the revisions is key for line editing. How you read the story is up to you: you can do a cold read-through, use digital formats, print off your text in order to attack with a red pen, make notes on paper or voice recording…
However you read through your post-substantive-edits story, you absolutely need to read through it. Either during or after your read-through, remember the tips below.
Remember your audience.
Demographics are important to your book. Age ranges have varying levels of diction. Picture books have a language level to them, as do adult fiction. While you read through your story, remember who you’re writing for. The level of propriety is up to you and your own factors, but line edits are the time to consider how your target reader will read your writing.
Consider your voice (but don’t force one).
When you read through your story, notice the lines that jump out to you—in a good way. These tend to be emblematic of your voice. When they jump out at you, it’s yourself waving back. You feel a connection to them. You can analyse however you like, but as long as you can recognise a sentence that feels like “you” and your writing, you’re on your way to developing your own writing voice. Don’t try to create a voice for yourself based on your preferences or an ideal style. We all have our own patterns in language and those fall into our writing and speaking.
Ask yourself, “What is this phrase, paragraph, or scene trying to convey?”
Your writing always has a purpose. It doesn’t have to be a grandiose or epic purpose of high stakes and emotion. While you do line edits, be aware of sentences that feel empty, rather than adding to the scene. These sentences are usually repetitive of earlier writing, or purely filler in order to get more words in.
Aim for specifics over flourishes.
The difference between creative phrasing and purple prose is one of specificity. When a writer can use a specific word in place of a lengthy, flowery phrase, they are able to focus on smaller, concrete details. Use specific words and you don’t have to overcompensate with more words than necessary. Filler words (like conjunctions, prepositions, and adverbs) all add bulk instead of meaning. The passive voice is one way to add more words. Look for places in your writing where you over explain or over describe. Can you get more specific with your words?
Use minimal passive voice and “to be” verbs.
As mentioned before, filler words add bulk that muddle the writing. Passive voice, the elusive beast, thrives on them. Passive voice has a slow rhythm whereas active voice has a quick one. It’s up to you when you use active or passive, but remember how they flow. Here’s an example:
Active: Passive voice syntax needs more filler words.
Passive: The syntax of passive voice is filled with more words.
Your writing will need “to be” verbs (is/was, are/were) at times, but often, they are written in the passive voice, and are replaced when a sentence is rephrased. Let’s try that again: They show passive voice, and strong verbs replace them when writing is rephrased. A professor of mine described “to be” as an “equal sign” in the sentence. “X = Y” is the same as “X is Y.” See if you can change the verb or rephrase the sentence to remove “to be” for a more multifaceted sentence, and a verb that does more duty than an equal sign.
You don’t need to do a dramatic reading. Even mumbling to yourself while you read will help you catch the flow of your words. We learn to speak before we learn how to write, and how we hear influences the way we read.
Reach out for opinions of other readers, writers, and editors!
This last tip doesn’t mean it should be after you’ve done everything else. Take to Twitter or a trusted friend and ask them about phrasing. Often, you’ll receive feedback you’d never have considered. For instance, due to my background in linguistics, I love giving feedback for my preferences in syntax, which is something not ever writer is in-tune with.
Your line edits look at word choice, sentence structure, paragraph structure, tone, and how you craft your writing. Ultimately, you’re editing in order to say something the best possible way.