Line Editing in the Twenty-First Century
—Freelance Independent Editor FAQ

We’re working our way through the four questions I’m most frequently asked. I’ve answered: 1. Must you write to a preset wordcount, classify your novel in a predetermined genre, ‘dumb down’ your novel?. We’ve talked about 2. Identifying the best freelance independenc editors and 4. What’s the inside scoop on the state of publishing these days i.e. POD, ebooks, self-publishing, multimedia, et cetera? I mean, what’s really going on out there?

So today let’s get technical, shall we? Let’s talk about the craft itself—the writing—and answer the third of these four most Frequently Asked Questions.

3. What is this Line Editing thing of which I speak? And why do I keep speaking of it?

Have you ever held a book in your hands and, as you read, felt the hair stand up on the back of your neck?

Laughed out loud? Felt goosebumps rising on your arms? Had your heart contract, your chest heave, and real, wet tears come to your eyes?

You read the sentences over and over, trying to analyze them, wondering what gives them the power to do that to you, and you don’t find it. There’s something about those particular words in that particular arrangement at this particular moment in the story that creates an experience you can’t account for.

It just happens.

It’s magic, isn’t it? That’s probably even why you wanted to become a writer in the first place, wasn’t it?

To become the magician.

On the other hand, have you ever held a book you wanted to love, knowing perfectly well that everyone who put it on the New York Times Best Seller List obviously loved it, read words that you knew were supposed to inspire that feeling, to be on the verge, waiting for it all to happen (the magic of words!), and, in the end. . .just been left flat?

You put the book down with a sigh thinking, What happened? I bet everyone else got the Big Response but me.

So you don’t say anything to your friends, thinking that it’s just you, until someone finally admits, “It really wasn’t that good, was it? I don’t know about you, but I didn’t like it that much—and I don’t even know why.”

And suddenly, with relief, everyone’s nodding and agreeing.

“I didn’t like it either!”

“Me, neither!”

“Oh, my god, I hated that book. I didn’t even finish it.”

And the only conclusion you can come to is that fiction in this day and age kind of sucks, and nobody knows why.

Line Editing.

That’s why.

I was in my local used bookstore one day last summer, buying books by the Moderns of the 1910s and ’20s and the Post-Moderns of the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s. And I mentioned to the clerk how much I love those authors.

He said, “Well, sure. That was the age of beautiful writing,” in this off-hand way, as though, you know, it’s only to be expected—an Age of Rationalists, an Age of Romantics, an Age of Realists, an Age of Naturalists, an Age of Beautiful Writing.

And after that. . .what? An age of bad writing?

What do you call that—an Age of Crap?

The thing is that journalists have always known about Line Editing and continue to use it to this day. The authors of articles submit their works to their editors, who gaily slash-&-burn it into the shape the periodical wants.

When I write for publications, I get Line Edited. Technical writers get Line Edited. Everyone writing professionally gets Line Edited.

Except, these days, by publishers.

I know that I’ve directed you to the Paris Review interview with the great editor Robert Gottlieb before, but I’m going to do it again.

I want you to understand—Bob Gottlieb was not just an extremely powerful acquisitions editor, not even just an astute and intuitive Developmental Editor, he was a skilled, professional Line Editor. (He probably still is. He’s alive and writing books now.)

He lay side-by-side on the floor of his office with authors, talking over their novels and marking up the pages. He got in shouting matches over adjectives and semicolons. He dragged other editors out of their offices to back him up on points when the fight got too hot.

He was an Editor. He edited.

Even such meticulous, word-by-word craftspeople as Hemingway (Max Perkins), Jack Kerouac (Malcolm Cowley), John Steinbeck (Pat Covici), and Jean Rhys (Diana Athill) were edited. They understood the editors’ role in Line Editing. And they appreciated the purpose of it—

If you want to use written language to its full potential, then your scenes, paragraphs, sentences must be just right.

Now, many aspiring writers today have a gut feeling about all this, so they do work away at Line Editing their manuscripts, they do struggle with those sentences, they are desperate for them to be just right.

And they wind up burning a whole lot of hours spinning their wheels sometimes, because those techniques aren’t always intuitive. You need someone who knows them really well to teach them to you.

And, even worse, even those of us who know them can’t always Line Edit our own manuscripts into professional polish. It’s an excruciating task.

Then you hear all over the blogosphere, “The writing isn’t important. Nobody cares about that persnickety stuff. Just write your message.” And you wonder why someone would say that if it weren’t true.

Well, I know why.

And I am here to call SHENANIGANS.

You can have the greatest message ever (very few of us do), but if you casually dismiss the enormous toolbox of techniques of the written word at your disposal—techniques discovered and developed and honed by writing geniuses throughout the past 150 years—you can never hope to give your reader a physical response to your writing. You will always be destined to leave them flat.

Read the writing of the people who tell you that.

Getting goosebumps yet?

I didn’t think so.

They say it because they don’t even know those techniques exist.

Line Editing is the careful, deep-thinking, ruminative work of learning to use those techniques (and they are many and varied) to achieve exactly the effect you want through the words you choose and the arrangement that gives them their amazing, inexplicable power.

To work magic.

Sure, ‘nobody’ cares—until they pick up a story or novel hoping for that wonderful, classical, visceral thrill, that weightless feeling of being flung bodily, emotionally, spiritually into the ether.

And then, all of a sudden. . .they care.

26 thoughts on “Line Editing in the Twenty-First Century
—Freelance Independent Editor FAQ

  1. Jeffrey Russell says:

    I’ve read scenes like that. Paragraphs like that. Words that drew me in so well that I would almost need to look up from the page to reassure myself I wasn’t actually there, but in my house. In my chair. Lots of books have kept me turning the pages to find out what happens next. Fewer of them keep me turning the pages because I want to stay right there, next to the character, feeling the same things as he does. It is sort of a magic, isn’t it?

    Glad you’re MY line editor!

    1. Victoria says:

      Yes, the whole point of writing fiction is to keep the reader glued to their seat. It’s wonderful—beyond wonderful—when it’s done right. I just read Shirley Jackson’s ghost story, The Haunting of Hill House last week, and the charm and beauty and power of it just about blew me threw the ceiling. I don’t know when was the last time I read a story so riveting I was afraid to read it at bedtime.

      Oh, the power and the glory.

      You can see why I’m such an old curmudgeon about your ms, can’t you? As John Gardner said, it’s not enough to write well enough to get published. You must write well enough to get good.

  2. Okay, I just charged over to Amazon and added your book to my wish list, where it awaits my next gift card. The information you provide on your blog is excellent, and I want to know more. Also, Ollin’s review was a factor (just read that today). I can’t believe you only have one review on Amazon! Nice that it’s a 5-star, but you seriously need to get with the promotion on that puppy.

    I also noticed that you self-published the book, and that you prefer to direct buyers through PayPal. I’m just curious if you did an offset print run or if you are doing POD. I understand fulfillment through Amazon can be a drag if you have to keep them stocked through Amazon Advantage vs fulfilling through Lightning Source or CreateSpace.

    1. Victoria says:

      “you seriously need to get with the promotion on that puppy”

      Oh, I know, Daniel. I’m such a slacker.

      The truth is I’m too busy working with editing clients and putting together the sequels to spend the time for self-marketing. Instead, I’m out here in the blogosphere giving free writing advice through my blog and advice column and on Twitter (#editingchat, which Ollin kindly organized the first week).

      You guys are my groundswell—if you like what I’m writing, if you like the book, you’ll tell your friends, and word will spread. I’m big on grassroots movement. I was raised during the Vietnam War on the motto, “Power to the People.”

      Besides, I’m patient. Raymond Chandler never even published until he was 49.

      We did not do offset—it’s POD. I know how to do offset, as I worked in publication for many years, but we have neither the garage nor the time to handle shipping orders. I am, truly, loath to promote Amazon because Jeff Bezos has made such a fool of himself in negotiations with publishers in the past year, but that is where people look for reviews, and although we tried to use Powell’s online bookstore as our major outlet instead, their rules make it impossible for us to give them a better discount than anyone else. So Amazon it is. They do handle the stocking and shipping painlessly for us, so we’ll probably segue all the way to them eventually. My publisher has a fulltime job, and fulfilling orders is simply getting to be too much.

      I see you’re trying the Snowflake Method. I used a reference that as an intro for a piece on the online magazine about understanding holographic structure, linking the two by their reference to fractal design. They’re not really the same thing at all—Snowflake refers to character development, while holographic structure refers to plot—but the fractal concept does work in almost every aspect of fiction.

      I’m putting together the sequel to my book right now, The Art & Craft of Story, all about plot structure and character development, in which that piece is supposed to make an appearance.

      I think!

  3. Thanks for the response. Glad to hear you went POD. I don’t think offset makes sense for self-publishers unless you have already sold the books you are printing. Start small and keep the overhead low!

    I have a love/hate relationship with Amazon myself. My wife publishes her 10 non-fiction books through Lightning Source, so they end up pretty much everywhere (online that is). We have one of the books converted to Kindle as well. I’m afraid Amazon is a juggernaut that we’ll have to live with for a while.

    As for patience, funny you should mention Chandler. I just started my first fiction novel a few months ago (been writing non-fiction for years), and I’m 49, well, 50 next week.

    It’s been a real challenge writing fiction and learning to write fiction at the same time. I’m making progress on a novel while I read Story Engineering, Fiction Writing for Dummies, and a couple of other titles. I decided to try the Snowflake method because it lets me make forward progress on my novel while I learn the craft. I didn’t want to get too far down the “pantsing” path and have to redo a bunch of work once I learned what I really should have done!

    I’m looking forward to getting your book, and the sequel sounds great as well.

    1. Victoria says:

      Yeah, we went with Lightning Source too. Not the easiest route, but the most financially-sensible in the long run.

      I actually just added an option to my Editing Choices page after the first #editingchat the other day, when someone contacted me and said, “How do I get that pre-writing advice you were talking about?” You are certainly correct that it’s worthwhile to save yourself the hassle of learning how to write your novel after you’ve written it. I’d been doing it for awhile, but hadn’t gotten around to posting it on the page. So it’s there now.

      And, buddy, I just turned 50 in February. By the time you’ve been on this planet this many years, you start accepting just how long things can take.

  4. Rebecca says:

    I <3 this post so much. 🙂

    The "difference between lightning and a lightning bug" can be hard to find. I'm a technical writer, and often spend far more time than seems reasonable figuring out the right way to phrase on-screen help to make it as short as possible *and* unambiguous.

    I *hope* that practice has helped my fiction, but I don't actually know yet.

    1. Victoria says:

      Oh, Rebecca, yeah. Technical writing helps a lot, especially something like on-screen help, where you’re forced into optimum brevity and clarity. Once you’ve trained your brain for those two qualities, your writing in general becomes simpler and clearer, leaving you room for depth and complexity in the story itself. That simple clarity creates a classic voice readers will read for the sheer pleasure of reading it—and that’s what’s meant by the easiest writing to read being the hardest to write.

      And I love the “difference between lightning and a lightning bug.” 🙂

      1. Rebecca says:

        That was Twain, just in case anyone wanted to know! 🙂 I didn’t get it quite right:

        The difference between the almost right word & the right word is really a large matter–it’s the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.
        – Letter to George Bainton, 10/15/1888

        1. Victoria says:

          Thank you, Rebecca! What a wonderful quote. I love being validated by the greats. 🙂

          Twain was the king of the right word.

  5. Victoria, I was lucky enough to catch the tail end of your last #editingchat and I plan to be a regular recipient of your “free writing advice.” You give hope to this late bloomer!

    1. Victoria says:

      I’m a late bloomer, Kathleen! I’ve been writing and editing for thirty years and still haven’t gotten around to publishing a novel, although I have five finished ones in my desk. I’m like the Grandma Moses of fiction.

      It doesn’t matter when you come to the craft, only that it makes your life a better place to be whenever you do.

    2. Jeffrey Russell says:

      You’ll do yourself a favor following Victoria’s advice, Kathleen. You might not always like it at first, but it always turns out to be good advice nevertheless. Take the word of another ‘late bloomer.’ Well, actually, ‘late’ is accurate, but I’m still working on my first ‘bloom.’

      1. Victoria says:

        Poor Jeffrey—boy, you’re speaking from the trenches!

        Jeffrey, in case you guys don’t know, is one of the clients I profiled on Ollin’s blog last month in Profiles in Courage: Six Writers and Their Success Stories.

  6. K.M. Weiland says:

    Great post, Victoria. Line editing is where the nitty-gritty, down-and-dirty hard work of writing really comes into play. We can fly on the gossamer wings of our stories all through that first draft, but when the time comes to edit, we *have* to buckle down, take off our dreamer’s hat and put on our working hat.

    1. Victoria says:

      Yes, they’re really two different activities performed by two different parts of the brain. You create with the child brain. And you shape with the adult brain.

      Aspiring writers love using the child brain because it comes already equipped with everything it needs, batteries included. But professional writers must learn to use the adult brain as well, which has available to it a nearly endless supply of add-on apps.

  7. Ben says:

    A wonderful post yet again. I’ve been a proofreader for a number of years, so all those details of spelling, punctuation, and grammar are pretty much part of my very being now. But some aspects of line editing still elude me. Knowing whether something is grammatical is one thing. But making a grammatical sentence with just the right words, arranged in just the right way, combined with other sentences arranged just the right way too, in a way that makes the whole greater than the sum of the parts is something else. It’s not easy, and you can’t always do it alone.

    1. Victoria says:

      Absolutely, Ben. It’s a different aspect of the craft—although it sounds like you may be a step beyond proofreading into Copy Editing.

      Line Editing is more than just applying the rules of written language to the work, which is the bulk of Copy Editing. It’s choosing among the myriad techniques to create exactly the response in the reader the writer wants. For most of my Line Editing I already know the writer pretty well, having already discussed their aims for their ms with them in the course of the Developmental Edit. But there are still areas where I’ll say, “Do you mean to do this? Or this?” because there are different techniques to accomplish different things. And it’s all about the response the writer wants.

  8. Do you advise the author of a novel to do their own line editing? I actually had a problem editing a piece that was far too personal. It hurt to cut a single word, or rephrase.

    I am so excited about line editing now, though. Thank you for explaining it so thoroughly. 🙂

    1. Victoria says:

      Yeah, everyone does a certain amount of their own Line Editing. Learn it as well as you can. It’s good for your craft, certainly. But nobody can do it on their own stuff perfectly. I spent literally hundreds of hours Line Editing my book—which is why I get reviews like Ollin’s and Helen Gallagher’s—but even so it’s still not good enough for me.

      Maybe that’s an artifact of being an editor. But it’s also an artifact of Writer Myopia. An objective eye really is necessary to represent the reader’s relationship to the ms above and beyond the writer’s.

      1. eek. Sorry for the late reply. Thank you for your advice! I am going to start looking at my work as if I was reading it for the first time. See you next blog! 🙂

  9. munk says:

    I think the magic in the soup is as much the writer-editor pairing as it is the individual writer or editor. To accomplish greatness, both writer and editor should be well aligned on the ultimate goal, but come at it from different directions.

    1. Victoria says:

      Yes, the writer-editor relationship is a fundamental part of creating the best possible manuscript, but the truth is an excellent editor should be able to work effectively with a wide spectrum of writers. Handling that relationship successfully is part of the editor’s job. My clients come from all walks of life, from all levels of expertise, even from a variety of countries and native languages. The common thread is our mutual desire to see that manuscript become the best manuscript, our passionate dedication to the writing craft.

  10. Victoria-
    Two words: THANK YOU. You just summed up the editor’s pride of life, and I humbly thank you for saying it so perfectly. If I ever hear anybody else say that about writers just needing to write the story, devil may care about the copy, I will quote you: SHENANIGANS.

    🙂 I appreciate your guidance on this blog. Thanks for sticking around.

    1. Victoria says:

      You’re welcome, Veronika! Yes, it’s an epidemic out there. I understand smallpox was a problem in its time, too.

      We’ll roam the web looking for such advice and commenting the one word: SHENANIGANS. No one will have any idea what we mean, but it will make us feel better.


  11. So helpful! I line edit as best I can on my own work, and there is just nothing better than refining those sentences to be their best. To pepper in a bit of Twain, the difference between the right word and the wrong word is *still* the difference between lightning and the lightning bug.

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