What is line editing?
Updated: Oct 28, 2022
This post covers:
Where the phrase line editing may have come from
The difference between line editing and copyediting
The difference between line editing and heavy copyediting
What fiction line editing involves
So, what is line editing exactly?
It has something to do with lines or sentences, right?
Yes, but other kinds of edits involve reading a text linearly, so it’s easier to say what line editing isn’t.
Line editing is not light copyediting
You’ve written a book (congratulations!) and submitted it to a publisher. The publisher has said the manuscript is in good shape and production can begin. Any copyediting you receive from then on will likely be light. It’s about correcting any remaining errors and formatting issues, and applying editorial style to make the text consistent and clear.
Line editing is not rewriting
At another extreme, you’ve written a great book in your first language, let’s say German, and you want to publish in English. Translation is too expensive, so you hatch a cunning plan and put your text through translation software before contacting an editor. This text will need a complete rewrite as genre conventions vary across languages, and an authorial voice will need to be reconstructed from what is probably a very literal translation.
Building a meaningful, well-written text in English from this starting point is not line editing either. It’s something else … something close to translation.
Line editing is not developmental editing
Scenario three: you’ve written a book, but it needs complete chapters to be moved around, scenes deleting and heavy edits for big picture issues. If this is the case, you need a developmental editor.
So what is line editing about then?
As Christina Frey describes in the EFA course Introduction to Line Editing Fiction and Creative Nonfiction, it’s about uncovering the author’s voice and making edits that refine and strengthen that voice.
Some people call this stylistic editing, while in the UK it may be called heavy copyediting.
One point to note: this term is used much more often in the US than the UK.
So where did the term come from?
In her fiction developmental editing programme, Jennifer Lawler briefly mentions how traditional publishing workflows offered developmental editing (structural changes) and copyediting (sentence-level editing). With the rise of indie publishing, where authors chose – thanks to technological advances – to self-publish books, demand grew for a sentence-level service that was deeper than the average publisher copyedit. There was a need for a service that would make sentence-level interventions catching issues such as POV slips, head hopping etc., some of which would have been tackled at the developmental editorial stage in traditional publishing.
Now the term is used in the UK too, particularly among editorial business owners working with the indie author market.
What about non-fiction?
When I set up my business, my first clients were academics writing in English with a variety of language backgrounds. My work almost involved heavy edits to the text. Does this count as line editing?
Well, ‘it depends’. This type of editing is VERY different to line editing fiction for indie authors, so I’ll explain some of the differences.
Editing for multilingual authors is:
A sliding scale from light copyediting, through to refining a writer’s style, to a complete rewrite (for a rewrite, not only is a style and voice lacking, but also the meaning of many sentences are fundamentally unclear)
This kind of editing is much more like translation
It can involve creating or applying new registers to the text, rather than subtly honing a fully formed style
Fiction line editing (for authors deeply familiar with literature in the language they are writing in) involves:
Tightening up the prose
Checking rhythm and flow at paragraph level and sentence level
Checking the pacing
Checking the showing vs. telling balance
Watching out for common issues that fiction writers encounter (too many ‘stage directions’, purple prose, overwriting, issues with dialogue, issues with character voice etc.)
POV considerations (e.g. ensuring voice and transitions are on point)
Many of these points are very specific to editing fiction and creative non-fiction.
What does all this mean?
It means that as a writer seeking an editor, check that the editor is offering what they say they are offering. Line editing is a more expensive service than copyediting because it requires more effort and takes much longer.
So, are there any similarities between editing for multilingual authors and line editing?
Yeah, a couple. I’ve learned that …
The pace of work is roughly the same – 1000–1300 words per hour on average
A middle-of-the-road edit for a multilingual author really is a style edit – there is an authorial voice that an editor refines
Edits are made to meet genre conventions and expectations
But despite these similarities, the nuts and bolts of what to look for are quite different. This means that you should always hire someone trained in line editing fiction.
What is fiction line editing? Examples
To finish, let’s look at what a fiction line-edit can do. Here’s a doctored (i.e. problems have been introduced) version of my own fiction writing.
Danny squinted her eyes. ‘Do you have a torch?’ she asked with a slight note of fear in a voice that was otherwise obsequious.
They felt their way around, brushing against cobwebs and bricks. Then Jamie opened her schoolbag, felt around as if she were looking for something in particular, and then pulled a glowstick out of her bag. Then the wall lit up, beginning to display multicoloured graffiti. Then they saw the names of older generations of academy students and, Jamie guessed, visitors from the nearby town came up here.
Danny was in awe; she felt this amazing sensation of freedom she had not experienced in a long time.
‘Did you know the temperature stays the same all year round? Someone told me it was 14 degrees. Anyway, it’s cool in summer and warm in winter,’ Jamie asserted confidently.
Danny shrugged her shoulders and kicked a beer bottle. The air stank, and the sheer number of beer bottles hinted at long-gone parties. Jamie walked to the end of the corridor and into a small chamber, roughly ten metres wide. She sat on a stone slab and pulled the glass orbs, giant marbles, out of her bag. She looked at them one by one and polished them with her handkerchief. She wished she knew how to play them. A small spider scuttled over her shoes. Danny is light years ahead of me on this, she thought.
‘How do you play them? I’ve never been able to get them to work,’ she blurted.
Danny smiled. ‘They’re difficult. But amazing when they come to life.’ She walked over and tapped them gently.
Jamie felt stupid. ‘I can never get this to work. We covered them in class last term. Don’t try and force them to move, just try to relax and imagine them lighting up.’
‘Pick one and imagine a colour,’ chuckled Danny, turning to face Jamie.
Redundant words and phrases
She shrugged her shoulders. She squinted her eyes. He nodded his head. Beginning to display …
Too many unnecessary stage directions (include them when we learn something about the character or story through them)
Jamie walked to the end of the corridor and into a small chamber, roughly ten metres wide. She sat on a stone slab and pulled the glass orbs, giant marbles, out of her bag. She looked at them one by one and polished them with her handkerchief.
Too much micro telling in dialogue through the overuse of adverbs and unusual or incorrect dialogue tags
asserted confidently, blurted, chuckled, ‘with a slight note of fear …’
Too much macro telling of the story through exposition that doesn’t reveal much about the plot or characters. (A form of infodumping, sometimes called ‘As you know, Bob.’)
‘Did you know the temperature stays the same all year round? Someone told me it was 14 degrees. Anyway, it’s cool in summer and warm in winter.’
We jump inside Danny’s POV for one sentence. ‘Danny was in awe; she felt this amazing sensation of freedom she had not experienced in a long time.’
Problems with rhythm and flow (e.g. sounding clunky due to repetition of connectors or sentence rhythm)
Repetition of sentences beginning with ‘Then …’ or ‘She + verb …’
Now, if you’re interested, have a go at line editing the text yourself. You can email me to ask for my solution, if you like.
In short, line editing likely emerged due to demands with the rise of indie publishing for an involved, sentence-level edit that would solve more problems in a text than a regular copyedit would.
If your text is fiction or creative non-fiction, you should work with a line-editor trained in what to look for in these areas – this is very different to involved edits for multilingual authors.
If there are deep, macro-level issues with your text, then you should seek out help from your beta readers, friends and experts on your genre, or the service of a developmental editor.
If you want to learn more about line editing or even train in the service, check out these resources!
The EFA course: Introduction to Line Editing Fiction and Creative Nonfiction
Fiction copyediting for indie authors: Are you fit for purpose?
What To Look For When You’re Line Editing
Andrew Hodges, PhD is a copyeditor and developmental editor who specializes in editing fiction for science fiction and fantasy writers. His expertise is in worldbuilding and cultural considerations when crafting setting in stories.
He is an advanced professional member of the CIEP, a member of the EFA, and an ALLi partner member.
You can contact him here, or feel free to leave a comment below!