Home » Editing » Line Editing: Is It Really Necessary for my Novel?

Line Editing: Is It Really Necessary for my Novel?

Line Editing: Is It Really Necessary for my Novel?

A good line editor can see prose in a pumpkin patch.

Today is Halloween. Tread carefully around our website. Amanda (our resident horror writer) will release the monsters from her lair tonight. Beware. And watch your children closely when they’re out searching for treats. You never know what they’ll find in the shadows — or what shadows will find them.

Unfortunately, I don’t have a lot of time today (or this month). But I figured I’d give Amanda some love. Last night, she and I did a little work with her flash fiction piece. (Read it HERE.) Sadly, I had to leave after the first paragraph and a half, but I think she did a fine job without me anyway.

But what were we doing? It’s only a few hundred words, right? It shouldn’t take that long. No reason to stay up until 4 a.m. 5 a.m. Well . . . a line edit, my friends. That’s what we were doing. You’ve never seen a couple of happier writer INTJs.

What does the line editor do?

If you’ve read my post on the kinds of edits available to you, you’ll know that line editing is a special type of project. If you’re serious about writing a decent book, you won’t skip this step. Line editing is more than fixing punctuation or typos (that’s copy editing actually). It requires a certain kind of attention — an ear for prose. It requires an inherent knowledge of language. And I’m not just talking about grammar (though good grammar is important), I’m talking about the artistry of language, the musicality of it. Style, so to say.

Do not just hire anyone claiming to be a line editor. Read the work they’ve edited. Read it carefully. Line editing requires either training or natural talent (a bit of both is best). And I feel a bit brazen saying this, but just like with other kinds of edits, not everyone can do it. You wouldn’t hire an optometrist when you need a podiatrist, right? In the editing world, the same differences apply.

Why are line edits important?

Have you ever read a book and lost yourself in it? Forgot that you were reading a book? That’s good line editing. I’m not saying the initial writing wasn’t good (we editors are only as good as our writers). But a line editor will forge the bridge between the author and the reader with the words on the page. We do not fix prose. We bring it to life.

How does the line editor work?

For a complete line edit, I do two things. Firstly, I go line by line. I find the rhythm of your prose, dust it off, and polish it. Then, I’ll go back and work with the lines in combination with the others in order to smooth them out into one final product. If you work with me, you will rewrite. A lot. I do not rewrite sentences for you. I will push you to find your own answers. I will ask a lot of questions that will make you think about how you’re using your words (and language). But you will learn a lot, too. Eventually you’ll start to see patterns. You’ll start to feel your voice.

Why should you get a line editor?

Because you don’t want reviews that say: “The story was good, but the prose was clunky.” “I don’t know why I didn’t like it. I loved the story idea, but I couldn’t connect with it. Something was missing.” “I just couldn’t forget I was reading a book.” “I couldn’t get invested/engaged in the story.” “Places just felt awkward.” “Things could have been worded better.” “Too much telling, not enough showing.”

Let me put it this way: Though some people are stubborn readers and will read a book from cover to cover no matter how bad it is (definitely not me), many will not. Line edits are what keep people in your story.

In conclusion . . .

Get a line editor for your book. They’ll probably do copy editing, too, so you can get two edits for the price of one. (I do.) And maybe I’m a bit biased, but I’d argue that along with good content editing, line editing is the most important part of prepping your story for publication. So when you’re searching for a line editor, do three things: Read their edited work (as I said above), read their written work, and make sure they actually know what a line editor does. The freelance world is full of people who have hung up their door signs without even researching their own chosen profession. If the self-proclaimed line editor is focusing on punctuation and typos, for instance, you aren’t hiring a line editor. You’re hiring an optometrist for your podiatry issues.

So that’s that. Now go read Amanda’s Halloween story. Happy Halloween!

What about you guys? Ever worked with a line editor? What are your thoughts on hiring line editors?


15 thoughts on “Line Editing: Is It Really Necessary for my Novel?

  1. “I’m talking about the artistry of language, the musicality of it — style, so to say.”
    “You’ll start to feel your voice.”
    These two sentences alone make your post well worth the time it takes to read it. The distinctions among the different kinds and levels of editing are *so* important and so often not understood. What we think of as “voice” is often heavily influenced–if not created–by good line editing (or the adjustments a writer makes in response to good line editing). People talk about voice as a natural feature, something that simply flows from the writer, and to some extent I agree. But when you see the same writer using different voices in different pieces, then the qualities that line editing highlights are at work. For example, comparing Poe’s voice in “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” to his voice in “The Tell-Tale Heart,” you see similarities but also significant differences: of pace, of sentence length and rhythm, of tone. For an even stronger contrast, sample Mark Twain’s “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” and “The Prince and the Pauper.” Same author, startlingly different voice. I think you explored this very well.

    • I was so happy to read your comment! I agree. Many people (and I’m mostly thinking of self-published authors here) don’t do their research when searching for editors, and therefore they end up not understanding the sort of editorial work that goes into the novels they read from publishers. I’ve seen quite a few authors either skip editing entirely or skip certain steps. For instance, authors may use beta readers for the content editing (which can work if the betas are good), but then skip line editing and jump straight to copy editing. However, getting commas in the correct spot isn’t going to fix all those inherent language/prose issues that the line editor would have pointed out. The other thing that irks me is the misuse of the term “line edit” (by “professional” freelancers), which causes confusion among authors. So the authors then get their content edits and think, “Oh, I can do the line edit myself. I’ll just read the story backwards and out loud, so I’ll catch all the typos and punctuation errors.” But they don’t realize that what they’re doing is copy editing and that they’ve skipped an entire part of the editorial process. (A process that an author cannot do on their own. I would never do my own line editing, ever.)

      GREAT examples of different voices by the same author. Absolutely, a line editor would have helped to ensure the author’s voice matched the characters, the setting, etc. Style falls on all levels of narrative: the authorial voice, the characters’ voice via the POV, the certain preferences of the writer. The similarities will carry over on the authorial level, but the differences, as you so aptly pointed out, will vary from text to text as the story requires. Thanks so much for your thoughtful comment!

  2. An author cannot live without a good line editor. They teach and mold you into a better writer. Be quiet and listen to them.

    And seriously, that was too much fun last night. I have become addicted to analyzing my writing… though not at 12:00 am in the morning.

    For a talented and honest line editor, see Michelle Mueller!

    • Thank you, Amanda! 🙂

      You are a wonderful writer to work with because you care about your story. And you listen. An editor couldn’t wish for more.

      Analysis is fun fun fun. People who dislike editing their work just don’t know what they’re missing, huh?

  3. Hi Michelle – my agent who represented my fourth novel (who has since left the biz – sniff) was a former NAL/Penguin editor. After we signed our contract and she sent my manuscript back with her line edits, it bled so much red ink, I thought, “Do you even LIKE my book?!”

    She helped me make it sooo much better.

    • Ohhh the red ink of death! I’m always afraid I’m going to give the writer a heart attack with all the comments I end up making. But those comments are made with love, I promise. 🙂

      I’m glad you had such a great experience with your editor. It sounds like she did a terrific job.

  4. I have never actually worked with an editor, but then again I am not at a point where my work is worthy of being passed to an editor. I suppose you could say that my introverted side is protecting my work for discerning eyes (at this point at least). 😉 With that being said, your post is extremely informative and makes perfect senses.

    This is going to sound really weird, but if I understand the process you are explaining correctly, I enjoy the line editing stage of a story compilation more than the original draft. Perhaps I am weird to be different like that, but I suppose that would explain a lot of things 🙂

    In any case, what I love most about writing (now that I think about it) is bringing a story to life, allowing it to flow, expressing the artistic and musical aspects of language. That is probably why I have become much more cognizant of poetry lately. Thank you for bringing several things that I have been subconsciously thinking about to light Michelle. I always appreciate your keen insight 🙂

    • It’s definitely possible to enjoy editing. I also prefer editing to drafting. Drafting frustrates me endlessly (and I procrastinate it like crazy), but I like working with something that’s already on the page, and editing allows me to do that. Maybe it’s just that I like analysis? Not everyone is weird, I suppose, though. 😉 I totally get where you’re coming from.

      As for poetry: I think poetry is a perfect example of what can really show writers how language works. It’s different from prose, sure, but it demands a certain awareness, and that awareness may eventually prove effectively translatable into prose writing as well. My study of poetry has made me a better editor, I think.

      But anyway . . . thank you so much for stopping by. I always love hearing/reading your thoughts! Keep writing!

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  6. I have never hired a line editor, though your article showed me the merits of hiring one. Well, I think it did. Of the varied editorial skills, line editing improves story/scene flow–correct? I definitely appreciated having the link to the previous entry on editors and editing, so I can understand more about this most important of tasks during the production process of a novel.

    Informational, educational, enlightening. Great treat for Halloween (though I am reading it as a Twitter #MondayBlogs post).

    • Thank you for stopping by and commenting, and for the shout out on Twitter, too!

      I’d say story/scene flow would fall under content editing, mostly. Well, anything that has to do with the actual story itself falls under content editing. Whereas line editing deals with language. So in theory, line edits will make the scenes flow in the sense of how well the prose flows. Each word works in combination with other words, each sentence in combination with other sentences — a line editor oversees these combinations and makes sure they communicate the intended meaning to the reader in a way that works best for the story. I read a post today (which so kindly linked back to this one) that highlighted this really well. The author called it “shaping”:


      I’m glad you found my post helpful! Thanks again!

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