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.

Guest Post: Carol Coven Grannick on Transitions: Lunging Forward, Leaning Back

By Carol Coven Grannick
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

I am leaving my day job at an extraordinary early childhood center on June 30.

Plenty of people think I am “retiring.”

But if you’re reading this, you probably could guess that I’m not retiring at all. I’m beginning my full-time career as a writer.

At last.

I’ve written and taught about transitions much of my life as a clinical social worker and still struggle with how to convey these vulnerable, beautiful, painful yet joyful, times in our lives.

Because they are difficult.

We feel the need for different or new or next; we feel the need to take a turn on our personal or professional journeys (or both). We feel a yearning. A longing to move forward. An excitement and curiosity about what the new direction will offer us – or what we will make of it.

But we also feel the pull back towards that which we want, or are ready to leave, toward the comfort, familiarity, certainty of the place, the experience, the days we are almost leaving behind.

This is what I’m feeling as I leave a wonderful job at this early childhood center that hums and bubbles with small communities of little ones busy at work and where miracles of teaching and learning surprise and delight every day.

I love coming to work and being at work in a place that feels like a second home. I love the use of many skills and strengths I was pretty sure I owned, but had not had the opportunity to use. I love the children who have passed through my life with their extraordinary desire to explore their world and the powerful capacity to connect to others. I love my boss and friend; and I love the teachers who with seeming endless amounts of energy, create small communities of friends and classrooms of explorers, scientists, artists, technicians, builders, and more.

I took on my day job when I was in the process of winding down the career that ran parallel to my dreams of being a writer – that of a clinical social worker specializing in women’s and eating/body issues and building emotional resilience.

But it’s time for me to stop getting up at 4:30 in the morning to write for an hour and a half before getting reading. I also need time to exercise before I am exhausted from eight hours of a very busy, though wonderful, day. And I want to spend time with my husband when I am not falling asleep because I need to get up at 4:30 in the morning to write.

This beautiful place I’ve had the honor to work is integrally interwoven with my life as a children’s author.

I met the woman who has been my boss and friend for 24 years in the library of my son’s school. He had been coming home each week on the day his class visited the library, sharing the excitement of what they had done that day with “the best teacher in the world.”

I decided I wanted to meet this teacher, and went in on a Tuesday, when I had no clients in my private practice. A fabulous children’s library sprawled through the big open space (along with two floor-to-almost-ceiling robots and a marble-counting machine that counted the books each child read) and the welcoming teacher invited me to take home whatever books I wanted.

I dived into picture books and middle grade novels as though I’d been starving to read. My own middle-grade life was peppered with some wonderful classics like Walter Farley’s Black Stallion series, but not anything like what I found to read now – Jerry Spinelli, Karen Cushman, Mildred Taylor, Sharon Creech, Richard Peck, Gail Carson Levine, and more and more and more…and more. 

I wanted to write this.

I began volunteering one day a week in the library, and kept on for eighteen years. When the K-5 school closed, and my private practice was winding down, I accepted an offer to be the office administrator at the early childhood center.

Every step of my journey as a children’s writer, I’ve had the encouragement and support of this master educator my son introduced me to so long ago.

During the days of volunteering, I often felt like Peter Pan sitting on the windowsill as I listened to her teaching, learned about extending the books into classroom discussions and projects, learned how to read a story to children.

I could say 30 or 40 more things about what the kind of encouragement I received means, but if you’re reading this, you’ll understand when I say that the foundation of her support and encouragement is the fact that she believed in my stories, and believed in me.

And that’s an extraordinary gift.

I’ve had the opportunity to observe hundreds of transitions during my time at this early childhood center, from children so ready to run into the classroom that a parent is left open-mouthed at the door, to those who struggle for days with “missing feelings” that are soothed by loving teachers.

I’m somewhere in the middle. I always have been, I guess. I wean myself gently.

I will miss every adult and every child at my “day job” terribly…and yet I can’t wait to explore my open days.

But of course, I’ll be back in September, volunteering to read stories to eager little listeners.

Cynsational Notes

Carol Coven Grannick writes poetry and picture books.

Her middle grade novel-in-verse manuscript, “Reeni’s Turn,” addresses body image issues for the younger audience, and won an Honorable Mention in the 2018 Sydney Taylor Manuscript competition. It also was a finalist for the Katherine Paterson Award from Hunger Mountain.

Carol chronicles the writer’s inner journey with a focus on resilience for Cynsations and the Illinois SCBWI Prairie Wind.

See her previous posts: Let’s Make a Plan: Reminders from Early Childhood Education; Life, Writing & A Word In Praise of Emotional Safety; “Into the Scary for the Sake of Joy;” Does Expecting the Worst Make You a Pessimist? Confessions of a Learned Optimist.