Just before Fabled Planet was born, I hesitated to add line editing to our list of services – solely because so few authors know what it is and how it can improve their manuscript.
I included it anyway. Because the truth is, a lot of authors who come to an editor requesting copy-editing or proofreading actually need a line edit to bring their writing to the standard expected by most readers.
That’s not a statement about their writing ability; it’s just how publishing works. Although the lines might blur a little between services in practice, the typical editing trajectory looks like this:
You’ll notice that line editing comes before copy-editing and proofreading. There’s a good reason for that: copy-editing and proofreading are largely mechanical clean-ups of a manuscript’s grammar, punctation, and formatting. Ideally, you won’t focus on those small details until you’re happy with the big picture. Otherwise, you may be simply polishing a troubled manuscript.
So, what exactly is line editing, and how will it help you avoid that? We define it like this:
Line editing improves the style of the prose in your manuscript, helping your story flow better and making the language more engaging. The editor will go through your manuscript line by line, improving the writing as they go. We often recommend it if a manuscript has a strong story but the writing is inconsistent or needs to be sharpened in order to ensure it reaches its full potential.
Now, let’s break that description down further into the concrete ways a line edit can help you:
1. Improve style and flow
Some manuscripts tell a good story yet quickly become tiresome to read because of purple (excessively flowery) prose and chunky paragraphs.
The problem with purple prose will likely be obvious to you. It’s not easy to follow a story that’s buried in layers of adjectives and adverbs in never-ending sentences. But this problem is more common than you might think. Chances are, if you perceive your own prose as flowery, it will seem even more flowery to readers—and that might make it hard to read.
Paragraphing, on the other hand, is something that some authors don’t pay attention to when they read, and it shows in their writing. They write rectangle upon rectangle of prose, cutting one off and starting another when they feel like it rather than when the story demands it.
But readers use paragraph length and breaks as cues of tone, tension, timing, and other important elements. A terse sentence that doesn’t pack much of a punch when tacked on to the end of a long paragraph can become devastating (in the best way possible) when given a paragraph of its own.
Think of paragraphing as a film score for your novel. Now imagine a movie without music. It’s often that important. Unless your writing is absolutely genius, most readers will not bother slogging through monotonous pages.
2. Help your prose engage the reader
Flat, unengaging writing is one of the most challenging prose issues for a writer to handle on their own, especially since readers usually aren’t good at telling you what’s lacking.
Line editors aren’t always great at explaining that, either – but we are great at pinpointing problem spots and suggesting solutions and alternatives. We can show you where to slow down to help the reader digest the importance of a crucial moment in a character arc, how to take your descriptions from textbook-dry to cinema-vivid, and when the language doesn’t fit the emotion the scene should be conveying.
3. Weed out repetition
A line editor can certainly help you prevent your characters saying the same thing twice in a conversation, point out when they’re nodding or frowning on every page, or suggest alternatives when the same phrase appears four times in one paragraph.
But repetition can also be more subtle. Take this sentence: Wearily, he yawned. Unless an unusual context demands it, a line editor would likely point out that you don’t need wearily here. We all yawn when we’re weary and know how yawning works.
This is called overexplaining, and it also comes in more complex forms, such as To show her brother that she was as strong as him, she stared him down as she picked up a throwing-disk of the same weight he did. Do you see the repetition here? Especially in the context of a scene, the girl’s intentions will be clear from her actions, so to show her brother that she was as strong as him is unneeded. Another example: ‘I didn’t see you there!’ the professor said. He was startled by my entrance.
This quieter kind of repetition can be difficult to spot in your own writing, especially if you haven’t been able to take a long break from your manuscript before rereading it. The fresh eyes of a line editor are an excellent solution for this.
4. Keep your style and voice consistent
You and you alone wrote your whole story, so it should be a given that your voice is the same from beginning to end, right? Not necessarily. Despite common writing advice on ‘finding your voice’, the fact is that each author writes in a multitude of voices, differing from genre to genre across novels and from character to character within the same novel. You’d be forgiven for slipping into wrong one every once in a while.
Not only that, but especially if you’re on your first novel or if it took you several years to write the book, your writing may have improved drastically by the end. While a remarkable achievement, this is not something you want readers to notice as they’re reading: you want them to feel safe in the hands of a confident storyteller from page one.
A line editor can make sure that your narrative voice is consistent and that your characters stay in character.
5. Ensure your language is genre-appropriate
While there’s a lot of room for variety, some words and expressions will just feel wrong to many readers in your subgenre of fantasy or science fiction. Expressions like ‘bro’, ‘groovy’, and ‘in a hot minute’ in a medieval fantasy might strike you as obviously absurd. But what about non-English words, such as sans, in that same novel? Or what if you’re writing urban fantasy set in the present day but don’t want your characters’ slang to make readers cringe in a few years? Or a low fantasy novel that takes place in New York, but you’re from London and don’t know if your characters sound American enough?
Line editors tend to be naturally aware of such nuances. A big part of our job is being sensitive to tone and register, and that includes genre.
And don’t assume that readers don’t care. I’ve had clients come to me specifically because readers complained that their novel’s dialogue doesn’t match the setting. And I can’t even count how many times I’ve seen anachronistic language or slang or jarring voice mentioned as justification for a low rating on Amazon or Goodreads.
In the end…
If you’re still not sure whether your manuscript needs a line edit, a good person to ask is the editor you’re considering working with. In my experience, editors will be honest with you about how much editing is required to bring your work to a professional standard. Show them a chapter or two from your manuscript, and if they say it needs a line edit, ask what kinds of issues they see in the writing that their line editing can resolve. Then take an honest look at your own words and see if you agree. As always, it’s your book, and the ultimate decision is up to you.
Kahina Necaise is the executive editor of Fabled Planet. She is also a content and line editor for its sister brand for writers of historical fiction, The History Quill. When not editing, she can usually be found writing her own fantasy fiction with ancient-history-inspired settings, reading, or going on walks while daydreaming about one of these things.
Do you write fantasy or science fiction?
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