The Writing Life: The Long Road of Line Editing

What is line editing? Well, if developmental edits are big picture issues looking at story, plot, character and setting among other things, and copy editing is getting down to the nuts and bolts of grammar, then line editing exists somewhere in between.

Line editing is taking your manuscript to a spa: to sweat off the flab, get massaged into shape, and emerge refreshed, ready to deliver its message with vigorous clarity. Or something.

That’s what I’m up to now, trimming away unnecessary words and phrases, re-arranging sentences and paragraphs to make sure the flow of ideas at the sentence to paragraph to page level is clear, and will be clear to the reader. Some stylistic measures too, watching for word and sentence structure repetition, and altering, if the alteration does not draw more attention to itself than the original repetition did. That’s a tricky one sometimes. I should tell you the tale of three wants in a future outing.

The big one I’m wrestling with, in a first person narrative with a framing story that periodically intrudes into the narrative as being told, is tense. Which parts in present, which in past, and why? What about the narrator’s asides, which do not necessarily apply to either the past tense narrative or present tense frame? How to distinguish them?

Is it enough for me to have a rationale for my choices? I don’t think so. The reader needs to intuitively grasp the tense choices and never have them intrude into the experience of the book. All the work with tenses must read naturally, or they will be the reading equivalent of potholes in a literary road, constantly jarring the reader out of their smooth enjoyment of the written journey.

And that is how I regard the editing process, the creation of an autobahn of excellence from a rough track. The book evolves from a dirt path to cobblestoned street to seamless tarmac as the finished product. Each pass lays foundations, replaces sharp bends with sweeping corners, fills in potholes, removes errant old cobbles, and hopefully ensures a seamless and exciting ride for all.

So I have a plan for the tenses, each type of interaction has its assigned tense, and there is flow from one to another as the narrator fights his way through telling a small portion of his life story. I think I have a solid rationale, now I’m working on making the transitions seem entirely natural, so the reader cannot imagine any other alternative. A lot of work goes into natural, and I am so grateful I have an editor working with me to do a lot of the heavy lifting in that regard. I may disagree with some of the suggestions made, but know I am fortunate to have that framework to accept or reject, those working comments to consider and build upon. Without that input I would be where I once was, tinkering aimlessly, wasting time. And I don’t want to go back there again.

I chose first person for this novel because of the challenge it represents. My desire is to learn, to improve my craft as a writer. I intend to set myself further technical challenges with my next book. Is that smart? I genuinely don’t know. I’ll take stock after the first three are out, evaluate what I’ve learned, and see how I’d like to proceed from there.

For now it is the long line edit, trimming, clarifying, refining. And quite a bit of tensing.

Writing. It’s thinky.

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4 thoughts on “The Writing Life: The Long Road of Line Editing

  1. Ug, editing. A necessary evil. This weekend I’m working on revisions based on peer feedback, and then another round of critiques, and further edits. I almost prefer line editing to more substantial revisions.

    1. Every aspect of revising and improving your work comes with its own headaches. I think that is a useful thing because eventually it ensures that you, the writer, are entirely ready to be done with working on it. At that stage it is one last look over and release. Or, if you are a masochist – leave it alone for 6 months and come back to it with fresh eyes. Which you then have to wear out again before being ready to be done…

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