“Conduct” a line edit? No, that makes me sound like an orchestra leader. Which is part of how I do a line edit—I check out the word choices.
I thought I’d take a break from the mechanics of writing (punctuation and such) and present a short piece on how I perform a line edit, though the work isn’t much of a performance. But people do say things such as “I went through and don’t have any questions because the presentation is clear.” “Thank you for commenting on the writing and letting me know the overall problems I need to fix.” “I appreciate the word choice substitutions. I can see they improve the work.”
Doesn’t anyone criticize me? I live in fear that someone will resent my changing their words. After all, what is meant by a line edit? Perhaps only that I’ll correct what’s wrong, and not tweak. But I’m filled with a compulsion to listen to the voice in my head telling me to change the word. So I do. 🙂 Do people complain? No. The only complaint I ever received on my line editing was from a well-educated fellow from Montenegro—yes, really—who had done his own translation from his native language. He wanted me to make the work seem as if an American had written it. I said that I’d made it quite readable but not entirely American sounding—yet the quaintness was charming. He wanted to sound like a native English speaker. Well, no, that wasn’t possible with just a line edit.
I would say over the years perhaps five or six students (not line editing clients) have been unhappy with one thing or another, such as after I said to a man from Brazil that I didn’t understand his written English and he replied, “How many languages do you speak?” One. Or when I told a woman she needed to actually write scenes and not summaries of scenes, which filled her with indignation. (Having only written for film—successfully—she apparently couldn’t make the leap to the novel.)
But I digress.
Hmm. How do I conduct a line edit? I begin to read… I’m feeling my way here. For most work, everything looks pretty good right now. I understand what’s being said. Only a few pages later, I start again. (And for the edit I’m doing currently, I started a third time.) Now that I’m warmed up and I can see more clearly what’s on the page, the writing isn’t reading quite as well as it did at first. Every word and its meaning counts. Some words don’t mean what they’re obviously intended to mean. I change the word. Maybe the whole sentence needs to be recast.
Passive writing has to be made active. (“The dog was eaten by the soldiers” becomes “the soldiers ate the dog.”) Incorrect use of subjunctive must be corrected (“If he were intending her harm” becomes “if he was intending her harm” because he might be).
I change a present tense out of place to past tense. I insert commas for direct address, correct the punctuation of dialogue (possibly thousands of times in a single novel—oh boy). Punctuation, punctuation, punctuation. Commas inside quote marks, periods inside quote marks. Recast the sentence to get rid of awkward wording Oh, oh, that’s “sight,” not “site.” Wrong name for the character. Name the character instead of “he.” Too many “said”s in a row. Get rid of the repeats, the near repeats, the too-close sounds. Look up the spelling of the corporate name. Fix the biblical quotation. Suggest a plot change to heighten the suspense… Grumble because the client doesn’t use a chapter break. And so on and so forth.
Ah, I’m done. Now that I’ve gotten the most obvious errors out of the way, I start all over. Not because the price of a second draft is built into the edit, but because I’m a bit of a perfectionist. And believe me, a second, full, double-draft edit is not amiss on a major work if the client wants to pay for a further review.
Now I’m really done, and early. Because I’m driven.
There you go. I’m sure I’ve forgotten many things I actually do look at, but whatever your work is you probably need at least one double-draft edit from me. No guarantees as to sales.
A friend of mine who edits freelance for the big name publishers was discouraged. They have no complaints about his work, but they object to his—to them—high-price billing.
“How can I bill fairly and keep those clients?” he questions when we’re speaking.
“The only way is to edit a big bestseller,” I respond. We look at one another, and we laugh.
Send a comment here if you want to inquire about an edit or take a class with me at Writer’s Digest University. Or download The Naked Writer at Amazon. I look forward to the interaction.