February 15, 2011

revising a manuscript - line-edits

For anyone that’s taken any sort of writing course, line-editing is by far the most familiar revision method. Line-editing looks at a story sentence by sentence, word by word. I won’t lie. Doing this effectively takes a lot of time and effort, and it may take several line-edits of a manuscript before it is virtually error free.

When I first started writing all those years ago, I hardly revised. I’ll admit it. I didn’t quite understand the concept. If I didn’t like the way something turned out, I would trash it and start over, or I would forget about it all together. It never crossed my mind to fix the problems. When I began writing essays in high school, I learned how to revise sentence by sentence, checking for grammar, misspelling, poor word usage, and poor word order. Sadly, my practice of revision never strayed from that. Not until just recently. Line-edits are a wonderful tool; there’s no doubt about that. But as I said in the previous two posts, they shouldn’t be the first form of revision that we undertake. We first have to address the story as a whole.

Assuming we’ve done all that, our story as a coherent progression of plot-packed scenes (hey, this is important!) is ready to undergo line-edits. Once the novel has focused in on the story, we can then apply the power of written craft to the narrative.

How do we do that?

Honestly, I think line-edits should be done on hardcopies. When you read on a computer screen, your eyes are trained to track the page in a different way that when reading on physical paper. It’s easier to miss grammar mistakes, improper word usage, and misspellings. If you insist on line-editing electronically, then I suggest you read the story aloud as you go. When you have to speak the words aloud, your mind spends more time processing what is actually there rather than what your brain tells you should be there. You’ll pick up the same mistakes that you would have reading it on paper. Even if you do line-edit on a hardcopy of your work, read aloud sentences that are giving you trouble. Usually, you can sound out the problems.

So, once you have your method of line editing, get out a set of different colored highlighters, pens, Post-It tabs, and a notebook (if you’re doing it digitally, memorize the location for changing text color, highlighting, comments, and bookmarks). Take out the outline you wrote for your last stage of revisions. Keep it close.

Read the first page of your manuscript. Get in the feel of the story and remember where the story is going. Now, sit down and start on sentence one (and do this for every sentence after). Analyze the sentence as a whole.

Do you use passive voice? Do your sentences lack action verbs? Do they feel grounded in the actions of the characters within the story?

Do you use too many adjectives, adverbs, or other modifiers? Do you have sentences that run on for more than two lines of text? Do you tack lyrical description onto every noun and verb?

Could the sentence be pared down to fewer words? Do you repeat yourself in an earlier or later sentence? Could two or three words be consolidated into one?

What is the purpose of the sentence; does it convey important information? Does the sentence seem to ramble with no real direction? Does it feel like it’s there to take up space, or is it detrimental to the action of the story?

Answer those questions first. Once you have answered those questions, fix typos and grammar oopsies. Swap words around. Delete unneeded and repeated words. Do this from sentence one, to sentence eight-thousand. Make notes on your spare notebook or extra document when you come across a sentence or paragraph that gives you a lot of trouble. Maybe make notes of things that happen in the later parts of the book that you could hint to in earlier parts. This is part of honing in your revisions, but in reality, no stage of revision is exclusive. If you’re line-editing and you realize that you can expand upon a scene, make notes of it. The same goes for when you’re reading a scene while macro-editing. If you spot a sentence that’s out of whack and you won’t be able to sleep until you fix it, go on and fix it. It’s not going to hurt anything. The point is to try not to do everything at once. This categorizes everything and makes revisions easier to tackle.

When you’ve finished line-edits on your hardcopy, you may choose to do another run through, just to see if there is anything you’ve missed, add things you may have thought of later, or delete things that you realize were in fact pointless.

When you believe you are truly done with line-edits, and you’ve copied the changes to your electronic manuscript, run spell-check (turn the grammar check on too).

The whole point of line-editing is to pare down the story sentence by sentence so that it conveys the most amount of information in the least amount of words. Flowery descriptions and lines and lines and lines and lines of pointless text were okay back when you were friends with publishers and all you had to do was buy them a bottle of scotch to get your book in print. Those days are no longer my friends. Now is the time of flooded markets and e-books, whether we like it or not. Midlist publishers and self-publishing is going to come out on top in the near future. There’s no doubt about that. Books that need the least amount of editing are going to be the ones that sell the most quickly. To help ensure that your book is one of them, you have to master the art of self-editing.

I’ll post a quick checklist on Thursday that addresses all parts of the revision process. In the meantime, happy revising!


  1. I'll get on board with this. Line editing is one of the parts of beta reading that I enjoy the most. However, I think it's important to impress on amateur writers (including myself in this category) that line-edits are the last part of revision.

    Don't get me wrong, I will fix a typo or weak sentence structure as I'm reading to pick up the threads of the story, but I learned the hard way that expending energy line editing my manuscript *before* looking at the larger revision needs (such as inconsistencies that require rewrites or removal, and large general cuts) means I've just wasted a whole lot of energy editing chunks of the book that I won't use, and adding more that I will just have to line edit again later.

    That said, I think your point about categorizing the line edits is really interesting, though I'm not sure I could ignore the grammar oopsies. I'm looking forward to the checklist. :)

  2. I have to teach my students NOT to do line editing before I re-teach them HOW to do line editing. As you said, high school graduates sadly think that line editing and revision are directly synonymous concepts. Still, it is an essential step in itself once its role is understood by the writer. (Hmm...I opted to use passive voice to achieve better parallelism in that last sentence; should I change it?)