Guest Post: Harold Underdown on Line Editing

Harold Underdown

By Harold Underdown
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Eileen Robinson and I have been teaching about revision for several years now through our partnership, Kid’s Book Revisions.

Until recently, we hadn’t taught about line-editing–it seemed too complicated, too messy, for a workshop approach–but we thinking we’ve figured out how to do it. I’d like to tell you why you should learn about line-editing, show what line-editing is and how to do it, give you a couple of exercises to do, and point you to some places where you can learn more about it.

Line-editing is an in-between stage of editing, with developmental editing coming before it and copy-editing after. It’s often done by an in-house editor.

Why should you take the time to learn about it?

I can give you three reasons.

Though there are limits to how objective anyone can be with their own writing, you can use line-editing to make your manuscripts better. You can also trade line-edits with writer friends, as you might do with beta reads, which could help with the objectivity problem.

And as author Jo Knowles pointed out, learning line-editing skills could lead to “freelance editorial opportunities.”

To understand what line-editing is, it helps to know what comes before and after.

Developmental editing comes before–that’s the stage when an editor works with a writer on the big issues, such as plot, characterization, voice, and so on.

After line-editing comes copy-editing, when an editor typically lets go of what’s seen as a finished manuscript, so that it can be prepared for publication by the copy-editor, who typically works on grammar, punctuation, spelling, and the like.

What’s left between those stages?

Editing at the sentence and paragraph level, done line by line (hence the name), covering problems in description, dialogue, pacing, and sentence structure, requiring the line-editor not only to spot specific writing problems but to bring their editorial judgment to bear and ask questions and make comments about focus, clarity, or what’s left in or left out.

The boundaries between these three stages are blurred, of course, but overall, that’s what you can expect as a manuscript moves through them.

Line-editing can be done in one of two ways–on paper or on screen. Line-editing was always done on paper until the arrival of personal computers and electronic workflows, and that approach is still used by some editors today.

Here’s an example courtesy of Emma Dryden, done on a picture book manuscript we provided to her and some other editors as a sample. As you can see, she wants to trim a lot of the text. She has comments, and she has a few suggestions. If she had even more comments, she might have added them on Post-it notes.

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More and more these days, editors like to do their line-editing on screen, using the Track Changes and Comments features in Word.

Just as with line-editing by hand, heavy editing can lead to a confusing visual display, and writers often have to pick carefully through the manuscript to make sense of them. Here’s an example of work that editor Karen Boss did on that same passage, this time on screen.

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As you can see from these two short examples, there’s a lot going on in line-editing, which is why it’s typically learned by young editors in house, in an apprenticeship kind of process, watching more senior editors do it, and then doing it themselves with supervision.

How can you learn to do it on your own?

We think it’s possible to learn via a two-part process, first practicing identifying and fixing specific issues in isolation, and then doing actual line-editing with the help of “mentor examples.”

We are planning to do this in a seven-plus hour workshop this fall, but to give you a feel for it, we’ve got a couple of examples here.

This first example is set up as a puzzle.

We’ve taken a passage from Gail Carson Levine‘s Dave at Night (HarperCollins, 1999) and scrambled it. Your task is to put it back in the correct order. This requires you to think about what sentence makes the most sense as the opening sentence, what would best follow after it, and so on.

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Though this is an artificial exercise, a writer has to make decisions like this in action sequences, so we think it’s a good way to sharpen your thinking around this area.

Once you’ve done your best with the passage, scroll down to see how the passage was actually published. We would agree that other sequences are possible, but see if you can figure out the logic of that sequence.

Why does the first sentence make sense as the first? Why are the second, third, and fourth sentences together, and why in that order?

Continue asking yourself questions like these through to the end.

To line-edit well, of course, editors must do much more than put sentences in the best possible order, fix run-on sentences, eliminate clumsy phrasing, and the like, though doing those things is a required part of line-editing.

Correct sequence for Dave at Night excerpt (click image to enlarge)

Editors must also bring their editorial judgment to bear on a line-by-line basis, and ask questions and make comments to help the writer see where they need to make improvements.

To learn how to do that aspect of line-editing, we believe it’s essential to see actual examples of line-editing being done. As I mentioned previously, as we worked on our course, we asked some editors to provide sample line-edits, and in the course itself we show how multiple editors responded to the same passage.

I will share one example here. Take a look at this sample, which is the opening paragraph for a middle-grade novel with a setting on a planet other than our own–it’s a sort of vacation planet, visited by many different kinds of beings. Shelpa is the main character.

If you encountered this passage, what comments and questions would you have about this as a line-editor?

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Now compare your notes to what editor Marlo Garnsworthy had to say.

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She had a suggestion about the first sentence (as a side note, almost all of the editors we shared the passage with had a comment here–but all of their comments were different!), followed by a clarifying question, a comment phrased as a question, and then a comment on something she liked.

These are good examples of the kinds of things editors do when they line-edit.

As Emma Dryden did by hand in the passage I showed earlier, they may also suggest deletions, re-orderings, and even additions, but engaging with the writer via questions and comments is a large part of the process.

So, where can you go to learn more? There’s no one book that I know of that is “about” line-editing, but I do want to recommend a few for reference:

  • Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King (HarperCollins, 2004): this is aimed at adult writers, but much of the editing it covers is line-editing. 
  • The Chicago Manual of Style (University of Chicago Press, 2017): this is more of a reference book, but does have some guidance regarding types of sentences and correct syntax. 
  • The Magic Words by Cheryl Klein (W.W. Norton, 2016): chapter 16 offers an extended and annotated line-editing sample. 
  • A Dash of Style by Noah Lukeman (W.W. Norton, 2016): this crosses over into copy-editing issues but provides help with punctuation, for those who need it.

But if you really want to learn how to line-edit, I hope you will join our class, “An Introduction to the Practical Side and the Mysteries of Line-Editing.” Our first session will be at 8:30 p.m. Eastern  Sept. 26. Registration is still open.

Cynsational Notes

Harold Underdown is an independent editor and publishing consultant; he does critiques, helps to develop manuscripts, does strategic consulting, and provides other services for individuals and publishers.

Harold enjoys teaching, and in that role wrote The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Children’s Book Publishing (Penguin Random House, 2008), now in its third edition. He founded and runs “The Purple Crayon,” a respected website with information about the children’s publishing world.

He speaks and gives workshops through the Highlights Foundation, SCBWI‘s national and regional conferences, and Kid’s Book Revisions (offering online and on-site tutorials, webinars, retreats, and workshops in partnership with Eileen Robinson).

As an in-house editor, he worked at Macmillan, Orchard, and Charlesbridge, and has experience in trade and educational publishing.

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