So you’ve finished a draft of your manuscript. Congratulations! That’s an accomplishment scores of people dream of and only a small percentage of determined writers achieve. The next step is, of course, revising your manuscript, maybe after getting a critique partner’s input or receiving feedback from a contest judge or an editor. You’re done with that too? Excellent! But don’t short yourself by calling it good now. There’s another vital step in making your writing shine, whether you’re sending it off to a New York publishing house or planning to publish it yourself. That step is line editing.
What, exactly, is line editing? While copyediting includes grammar, punctuation, word usage, typos, and other black-and-white issues, line editing is smoothing the wording, picking the best words, getting rid of excess word baggage, and making the actual writing prettier in general.
While using a copy editor is a must whether self-publishing or going through a traditional publisher, line editing may or may not be part of that deal, so it’s crucial, now more than ever, for authors to learn how to do this stage themselves. Why? Line editing a manuscript:
—Smooths out your writing, making it possible for your reader to get lost in your story, not caught up by your words
—Improves your pacing by removing clunky bits, awkward phrasings, and repetitive information
—Can help you catch the eye of an editor if you’re pursuing a contract with a publisher
—Helps make your “voice” more compelling
So if your manuscript is written and revised (no jumping ahead to line editing before it’s time!), here are a few basic tips for how to line edit your own writing before sending it out into the world:
1. Resist the urge to explain (RUE—a pet phrase of my former editor at Harlequin). Give your reader credit and assume he/she can follow your character through mundane actions, obvious actions, etc. without you having to describe everything in detail. If the character goes to the wet bar and makes herself a drink, you don’t need to describe every little step, from padding across the plushly carpeted floor to taking out a cocktail glass to searching for the rum, to dropping three ice cubes into the glass, etc. Sometimes these details could be effective, but if the minutiae adds nothing to the plot and doesn’t show the reader something new about your character, consider whether you could skip it and simply summarize in a single line. (She strutted to the bar and mixed herself a strong rum and Coke.)
2. Avoid unnecessary wordiness. A lot of us tend to over-write, and during the drafting phrase, that’s fine. But this is the time to hunt down those instances of wordiness that don’t do your writing any justice and get rid of them. Some examples, with edits:
3. If you show the reader, don’t also tell her. If your dialogue shows the character introducing someone to her mother, don’t then tell us in the dialogue tag that she introduced him. If you’ve shown us with your character’s actions that he’s angry, don’t then tell us he’s angry. (In fact, if you find yourself naming an emotion in your writing, stop and consider whether you should be showing the reader that emotion instead of telling. And don’t do both!)
4. Keep an eye out for redundancy. Lots of redundant phrases have worked their way into our speech, but avoid these when you’re writing. A few redundant phrases:
5. Avoid repetitive information. If your character tells her best friend her deep, dark secret in chapter three, then when she tells her love interest the same information in chapter seventeen, summarize it. If the reader is in on a conversation between your hero and his mother, then don’t turn around and show the mother recounting the entire conversation to her friend. Summarize or refer to it. The reader already knows the information and doesn’t care to read it twice.
Going through these five steps is a start at line editing, and I’ll cover other aspects of it in future posts. It’s easy to think, after writing an entire manuscript and then going through it and rewriting it in the revision stage, that the book is done. It shouldn’t be.
You owe it to yourself, after so much effort and sweat and torment, to make the words as lovely as possible. And speaking as someone who ended up selling my first book because the editors liked my “writing style” and were willing to work with me on my storytelling, you never know when your attention to the words will pay off and, perhaps, change your life.