What is Line Editing and How Can It Fix Your Book?
Whether you're dashing off a note to a colleague or listing something for sale, your writing could always use a second pair of eyes. But what is line editing, and how do you know if you need it? It's true that short, informal pieces don't typically require a line edit. But a book... that's another story.
A line edit can be the secret sauce that takes a manuscript from good to great, turning a solid story into a bestseller-in-waiting that's impossible to put down! This post covers what exactly line editing is, how it differs from other types of editing, and what it can do for your book — so you can start looking for a great line editor today.
What is line editing?
Line editing involves editing sentence by sentence (or line by line) to upgrade the prose, always keeping craft in mind. A line edit ensures that your book's content is consistent while its language is creative and concise. Basically, line editing perfects your manuscript's clarity and style — hence why it's also known as "stylistic editing."
Why is line editing necessary? Well, your goal as an author is to pull off the premise of your book as effectively as possible, and a line editor helps make that happen. Have you ever been super excited about a book's concept, only to be disappointed by its poor execution? That author probably never got a decent line edit... a mistake that you'll surely avoid now that you know how important it is!
Before we move onto exactly what a line edit entails, however, let's go over the difference between line editing and other types of editing.
Copy editing vs. line editing
While these terms are often used interchangeably, line editing is a particular kind of copy editing, one that focuses mainly on style. Copy editing is a general term for editing a piece's text, encompassing both style and mechanics like spelling, grammar, and punctuation.
Copy editing, on the whole, aims to produce the most readable prose possible. It corrects outright mistakes and distracting inconsistencies, like shifts in tense and when to spell out numbers vs. write them numerically (e.g. ten vs. 10).
This kind of technical work falls outside the scope of a line edit. But because line editing has to do with more subjective, interpretive stuff, it usually takes longer and requires more effort that what most people would call "copy editing." So don't confuse copy editing with line editing — though copy editors can (and do) perform line edits, the terms aren't synonymous, and a copy editor who specializes in grammar will provide very different benefits than a copy editor who specializes in style.
(Also note that even though poetry is known for having "lines", line editing is very different from poetry editing. To learn more about the latter, check out the post linked there!)
4 examples of line editing
Now let's see what line editing looks like in practice. Say you've just finished writing an 18th-century paranormal romance called State of Blood. The action-packed story seems destined for the big screen, the characters are vivid and interesting, and the grammar and spelling are flawless.
However, the prose itself could use a bit of... finessing. Time to hand your manuscript over to a line editor! Here are some examples of how they might upgrade your book — with sample passages and bullet points to show exactly what they'd suggest.
Example #1: polishing the prose 💎
A line editor ensures that you have strong, precise word choice, and no clichés. They'll mark up where word choice can be improved and note what they'd use instead, as seen below this passage.
"As star-crossed lovers, Clothilde and Janus felt like the whole world was against them. It felt bad. Thinking about her fellow vampires' negative response to the Janus' meaty fragrance in her underground chamber, Clothilde couldn't help but weep tears of fresh blood."
• "Star-crossed lovers" and "the whole world was against them" might accurately describe the state of your characters' relationships, but these are clichés you’ll likely want to avoid. Try to use stronger, more specific language that brings their situation to life. Instead of telling us how they feel, can you show us in detail?
• "It felt bad" — weak word choice, too general
• Is "fragrance" in "meaty fragrance" really what you want here? Why not "scent"? If the response is negative, do the vampires find it repugnant? Then try "odor." Maybe they don't like the smell because it's distractingly appetizing and makes them want to drink Janus’ blood. If that’s the case, make sure that comes across clearly.
Example #2: trimming the fat ✂️
The editor will also check that the syntax is clean, concise, and doesn't waste words. Cutting sentences and even whole passages is one of the most difficult parts of editing, but that's what a line edit is for.
"Janus was on his way to a meeting of the wizard's council when he saw the broadsheets being passed out on the street that clearly had something to do with the embezzlement case Clothilde was investigating, even if he couldn't see the lettering very clearly. Clothilde's investigation of the embezzlement was not going well. His trip to the council meeting was also now going to be similarly derailed."
• The first sentence is long and unwieldy. To make it easier for readers to navigate, break it up and condense the language. Maybe something like: "On his way to a meeting of the wizard's council, Janus saw broadsheets being passed out on the street. He couldn't make out the lettering, but they clearly had something to do with Clothilde’s embezzlement case."
• Unnecessary repetition. You don't need to write about "Clothilde's investigation of the embezzlement case" right after talking about "the embezzlement case Clothilde was investigating." (Repetition does have a place in your prose, however! To learn more, check out this guide.)
• In the last sentence, you don't need "also" and "similarly."
Example #3: filling in the holes 🕳
Your line editor will also look out for plot and character inconsistencies. These may be as significant as a missing explanation for a major plot point, or as simple as a descriptive blunder, like the following:
"Clothilde gagged at the smell of blood. Janus regarded her, now clearly in pain, with mild disinterest."
• Isn't Clothilde a vampire? Why would she gag at the smell of blood, which she presumably drinks?
• Furthermore, why does Janus respond to her pain with "mild disinterest"? Aren't they supposed to be deeply in love — and therefore very invested in each others' wellbeing?
Example #4: correcting mood and tone 🎭
Finally, a line editor will correct writing that strikes the wrong tone. This is especially important during dramatic and/or climactic scenes.
"'Clothilde!' Janus screeched, as her eyes dimmed and dulled. The stake stuck out of her shapely chest at an angle that made it look like a light switch in the off position. The embezzler giggled. Janus glared at him indignantly and pulled the stake out with a squelching sound."
• This is meant to be the book's tragic climax, but the odd tone makes it come across as unintentionally funny. Try retooling your diction to convey the gravity of the moment. Take an especially close look at things like "screeched," "giggled," "glared at him indignantly," and "squelching sound," which read a bit slapstick and make the stakes feel low.
• Is her death scene really an appropriate time to comment on Clothilde's "shapely" chest? Choose a more appropriate descriptor ("heaving" or "bleeding," maybe) or remove the word entirely.
• The light switch simile is out of place because of the novel's setting — as an 18th century wizard, Janus wouldn't know what a light switch is! Be careful of anachronisms like this when writing historical fiction.
Why hire a professional line editor?
Maybe your manuscript isn't quite so rough as State of Blood. But you still need to tighten it up and make sure there aren't any accidental slips. Do you have to shell out for professional manuscript editing services, or can you DIY?
The truth is, you're probably too close to your own project to give it the scrutiny it needs. Have you ever said a word so many times that it loses its meaning? When you’ve spent so much time with it, your whole manuscript can start to feel like that — obscuring not only its problems, but its charms.
That's where professional editors come in! They'll be able to approach your sentences with fresh eyes, and they'll bring experience and industry savvy that you simply don't have.
If a pro line editor really isn't in the budget, you might ask a friend to help out, or try self-editing after some time away from your manuscript. But honestly, you might be better off saving until you can hire an editor who will do the best job possible. Whether you're writing a book or applying to a writing scholarship, a strong line edit could be your ticket to success.
How much does line editing cost?
According to stats from our marketplace, the cost of professional copy editing (which, again, encompasses line editing) comes out to around $17 per 1,000 words.
Of course, lots of factors go into getting a quote, including the editor's experience level, the overall shape of your manuscript, and the genre you're working in. If you want to find out how much your line edit will cost, sign up and start requesting quotes today.
Dos and don'ts of self-editing
Say you've thought long and hard about tagging in a professional editor, but you've ultimately decided to go it alone. While there's no substitute for having a professional go over your prose, here are a couple of best practices you can follow to make the most of your DIY edit.
✔️ Set your manuscript aside for a couple of days — at least— before you go over it. Let your own language, as familiar as breathing, become new to you again. Only then can you approach it as an editor.
✔️ Read everything out loud. Do your sentences flow well? Does their order make sense? Does the dialogue sound natural coming out of a human (or vampiric) mouth? If you find yourself gasping for breath before the end of a sentence, consider slicing it up. If you stumble over a certain word, rework or cut it.
✔️ Do a style audit for your own, personal clichés. Of course you want to avoid actual clichés — expressions like “in the nick of time” and “raining cats and dogs” can make any piece of writing feel boilerplate. But writers should pay attention to their own stylistic quirks as well; you don't want to overuse them and irritate your readers.
For example, do you use way too many em dashes? Do your characters constantly "chortle" instead of laugh or "declaim" their words instead of saying them? Whether or not these choices were intentional during your writing, it's important to be mindful about them during your edit.
❌ Become a thesaurus junkie. When it comes to precise and varied word choice, a thesaurus can be extraordinarily useful. But signs of egregious thesaurus use are obvious and damning — transforming blue eyes into "ultramarine orbs" and bad feelings into "substandard affections." The resulting constructions read more freshman essay than Pulitzer Prize.
❌ Insult your reader. In editing your manuscript for clarity, you may be tempted to make some insertions in order to, well, clarify your prose. But don’t go too far and start spoon-feeding your readers! They're smart and should be guided through the text by a similarly discerning author — not stuck with interpretive training wheels.
❌ Refuse to ask for help. You've decided not to hire a professional, but that doesn't mean you're doomed to edit alone like a hermit in a tiny cell. Consider seeking out beta readers or even running your writing questions by a friend, on- or off-line.
Now that you’ve learned about this crucial type of editing, you can use your knowledge to turn out a book as polished as your ideas deserve! Whether you end up exploring the marketplace for pro assistance or engaging your inner editor, your manuscript (and readers) will thank you for it.
Have you ever worked with a line editor? Leave your questions and comments in the box below!