Line Editing in 10 Easy Steps

September 4th, 2007

I just finished revising the manuscript for my second novel, and I’ve got line editing on the brain. Here are ten easy steps you can take on that nearly-done manuscript that will significantly tighten up your prose and improve your final product.

1. Eliminate unnecessary modifiers. When I say unnecessary modifiers, I’m talking about both “weasel” words that lessen the impact of your prose and useless modifiers that emphasize for no reason. Words like possibly, simply, really, totally, very, supposedly, seriously, terribly, allegedly, utterly, sort of, kind of, usually, extremely, almost, mostly, practically, probably, and quite. Why write “It was quite hot out that day” or “It was extremely hot that day” when the sentence “It was hot that day” accomplishes the same thing? The more clutter you can get rid of, the better your sentences will be.

2. Eliminate clichés. What’s a cliché? A cliché is any phrase so commonplace the reader speeds right past it without even realizing they’ve done so. The metaphor is wasted. When you say someone’s scraping the bottom of the barrel, do you actually picture someone scraping the bottom of a barrel? When someone’s monkeying around or driving like a maniac, do you actually think of monkeys or drooling lunatics? Better to have plain, unadorned prose than prose filled with clichés. This doesn’t mean you need to strike out every last familiar phrase from your manuscript; you just need to be conscious of what each word in your story is doing. Microsoft Word’s grammar checker has a helpful feature that will automatically underline clichés with a green squiggly line. Give it a try.

3. Eliminate repeated words and phrases. I’m not just talking about redundant phrases that are redundant. In going through my book, I discovered my characters were rasping things every two pages. A certain character was constantly described as panther-like. And every time people stopped to think, they would “fold their arms before their chest” or “roll their eyes.” Use your word processor’s search function to hunt these repeated phrases down, then use the thesaurus to find replacements. They don’t have to be fancy words, just different ones. My rule of thumb is that really striking words shouldn’t be repeated at all within the same chapter, and only repeated a few times in the same book. For more common words and phrases, just make sure they’re not repeated too close together.

4. Search for extraneous thats and hads. Perhaps this is just a shortcoming of my own prose, but I’ve noticed that I tend to stick in way too many thats and hads. Quick example: “He had been talking about how he had needed to get new glasses” could be phrased better as “He talked about how he needed new glasses,” or even “He talked about needing new glasses.” That often sneaks in between clauses in a sentence when it’s not really needed. “I knew that I was robbed” can be tweaked down to “I knew I was robbed.” (Often this is a function of choosing a better tense; see #9 below.)

5. Straighten out your mixed metaphors. Jumbling metaphors together in a big stew of words is my Achilles’ heel. I actually like the effect that comes from clobbering the reader with a smorgasbord of different metaphors. But you have to know when to stick to your guns and when to cool it. If you’re riddled with doubt about a particular sentence, try treating every word absolutely literally to see if the sentence pans out. Make sure you’re conscious of every metaphor in your prose; they shouldn’t slip in there unbidden.

6. Look up any word you’re not positive you know. I don’t care if that word only has one syllable and your eight-year-old kid uses it every day. You absolutely need to know what every word in your story means (and you need to make sure you’ve spelled it correctly). There are free online dictionaries aplenty, not to mention Google, so you have no excuse for using words improperly.

7. Use that thesaurus. Some writing experts will tell you the thesaurus is a dangerous tool. Phooey. Find a thesaurus you’re comfortable with, whether it be paper-based or CD-based or online-based, and use that sucker. That doesn’t mean you need to start throwing obscure words into the text where they don’t belong; as a general rule, you should only use words you were already familiar with anyway. (See #6 above.) If you’re writing about a baseball game, your players can’t always throw the ball every time. They need to toss, hurl, lob, pitch, fling, and even fire off that ball too. Once in a while, they might actually catapult, flick, or chuck it.

8. When in doubt, try the Delete key. Sometimes I’ll find myself stuck on a particular sentence I can’t quite wrestle into submission. I’ll scan through the thesaurus, I’ll rearrange the words half a dozen different ways, and it still doesn’t work. Then I’ll just start hitting the delete button and suddenly, like magic, the whole thing comes together. Don’t get so attached to any particular piece of prose that you’re blinded to its shortcomings. Sometimes the perfect sentence can be used in the wrong place, and you need to be able to slice it out if necessary.

9. Try changing tenses. It’s very easy to slip into certain tenses that needlessly complicate your prose. Tenses like the past progressive (“I was doing something”) and the present perfect (“He has done this forever”) tend to get very confusing very quickly. You can’t always avoid the more complicated tenses, but the less you use of them the better. See if you can switch the scene/sentence/paragraph to simple past instead (“I did something”). Consult this handy Verb Tense Chart from the Purdue University Online Writing Lab. Perfect example: the original version of the first sentence on this page. Originally it read, “Having just completed revising the manuscript for my second novel, I’ve got line editing on the brain at the moment.”

10. Rewrite, rephrase, reconfigure. Unfortunately, despite the Romantic picture many of us have of the writing process, prose does not just flow down from the Muse and magically burst through your fingertips. Even the best artists need to constantly rework and revise what they’ve written. It’s work. Of course, for most of us writers it’s fun work. But just because you’re an artist doesn’t mean that you don’t have to worry about your craft. Piano players practice scales, painters make preliminary sketches, and writers go through lots of drafts. That’s just how the process works. If you want to know the most important lesson I’ve learned about making art, it’s this: the stuff that looks the easiest is usually the hardest to pull off. Jackson Pollock? Raymond Carver? Ernest Hemingway? Andy Warhol? These dudes worked their asses off to put together works of art that look effortless.

60 Responses to “Line Editing in 10 Easy Steps”

  1. Marie Brennanon 04 Sep 2007 at 9:36 am

    I learned a lot of this stuff when I started writing flash fiction. I can’t maintain microscopic focus on every word of a story when there are 120,000 of them, but the habits I learn when there are 500 slowly become natural.

    After I started doing that, I went back and line-edited my most recent novel, and cut out over 3000 words without losing even a molecule of story.

  2. Sherwood Smithon 04 Sep 2007 at 10:54 am

    Nodding.

    Yep.

    I now keep a running list of phrases and words I seem to use far too often. There are few things more grindingly tedious than searching an entire manuscript for them and forcing myself to reword. But I still keep putting them down…and then finding far, FAR too many instances.

    Unfortunately, this is the only way that I (an intensely visual writer) can actually force my brain not to present the story images, but to bypass the images and focus–even if one squint at a time–on the actual words on the page. Dismaying, too.

  3. CE Murphyon 04 Sep 2007 at 11:55 am

    Reading aloud is what triggers the “oh my god, I used “eyes” eight times in two pages” thing for me. That helps me clue in *next* time as to what I need to be looking for, and what I should be aware of while I’m writing. It’s mind-bogglingly dull to deal with, but hoo boy it makes a difference.

    This is a great list. :)

    -Catie

  4. Kate Elliotton 04 Sep 2007 at 1:29 pm

    auugghhhh!

    Just agreeing – I do all those things, and more, too!

    One thing I’ve discovered when line editing is that I often have to cut in order to cut. I’ll do a pass and cut various unnecessary words, phrases, and sentences, leaving only the necessary ones behind.

    However, once I’ve trimmed out the text, then if I go back and reread new stuff pops out at me (that I can cut) that wasn’t obvious the first time around.

    Repeat as necessary. The trimming of words never ends.

  5. Leon Staufferon 04 Sep 2007 at 3:37 pm

    There are a few very successful authors who need to relearn some of those lessons, particularly number 3. They fall in love with a certain way of saying things and then say them the same way for the next decade of writing.

  6. Theo Neelon 04 Sep 2007 at 10:18 pm

    Microsoft Word allows you to search a particular word or phrase and replace it with the same word or phrase that’s formatted differently (e.g., in a larger font, underlined and in a different color). I use the function to search and destroy all the thats that creep, unbidden, into my work.

  7. Katie Lovetton 05 Sep 2007 at 8:40 am

    I agree with Leon; certain successful authors need to relearn some of these! Wonderful advice, by the way.

  8. Charleson 05 Sep 2007 at 8:58 am

    I know I am guilty of my share of all of the above, number 4 being the bane of my existence.

  9. David Louis Edelmanon 05 Sep 2007 at 9:07 am

    Leon and Katie: Note that I have these steps listed as a means of making your prose better, not necessarily more commercially successful. :-) If you’re just trying to write a commercial success, I might recommend the exact opposite for #3, for instance.

  10. Carol Bergon 05 Sep 2007 at 9:57 am

    Oh yez, oh yez. Lots of fine recommendations, David. I always read aloud, as CE says. Not only do word repetitions stand up and sing, so do spates of repeated sentence structure (five sentences in a row beginning with a gerund or whatever), and failures to vary sentence length. It is also a great way to judge pacing – but that’s a different aspect of revision.

    Some writers compose “spare” and must add description or sprinkle action into their pages of talking heads, but I am one who writes down everything and must go through this stripping down process to achieve clarity. A trick my first editor taught me, when I was waxing wordy, was to set out to remove one line from every page. Astonishing how easy this is to do without changing anything in the story. And, as Kate said, once you remove some of the clutter, other unneeded pieces jump up at you, asking to be removed as well. I, too, make many passes. I like to think of myself as a sculptor, removing all the unnecessary bits and pieces of marble until only my vision is left.

    Carol

  11. Stacyon 05 Sep 2007 at 2:57 pm

    Thanks for the list and the many Word tips – I’d been trying to get Word to highlight or something every time should occured in my manuscript, and my characters all sigh way too much. Now if I could only finish revising and get to line-editing . . .

  12. David Louis Edelmanon 05 Sep 2007 at 3:05 pm

    One thing worth pointing out and discussing… For me, at least, there does come a point when I reach satisfaction with my writing. I’ll sit and mark up earlier drafts 10 or 15 times (or more) and it will seem like I’m never going to finish. My first readers will tell me I’m just putting in the same words I had taken out three drafts earlier. And then suddenly I reach a point where I’m satisfied. I can read the book and find only minor things I want to change.

    In other words — the old stereotype of the writer who keeps revising and revising until he decides to just give up and label his work “finished” is not true. You do actually finish if you keep revising long enough.

  13. [...] Line Editing in 10 Easy Steps [...]

  14. Adamon 06 Sep 2007 at 8:11 am

    Hi Carol,

    I, too, am a sculptor. I use clay — so I have to add! Does that work?

    Adam

  15. Lindenon 06 Sep 2007 at 4:57 pm

    If Robert Jordan cut out every time one of his characters sniffs, adjusts a shawl, or pulls on her hair, “The Wheel of Time” series would have three fewer books.

  16. Kate Coombson 06 Sep 2007 at 11:07 pm

    I thought I was the only one nit-picky enough to make a long list of the words I tend to overuse and do a search for each and every one–glad to hear I’m not alone! “Look” is at the top of my list. Yes, you need it, and you don’t want to sub in painfully posed thesaurus-speak at every turn, but neither do you want a pageful of “looks.” Oh, and all those sighs and nods have got to go. I also figure that certain striking words should only be used once or twice in an entire manuscript: “gawped,” for example. Good point about finishing with revision, David; I just wrapped up a manuscript and shipped it off to my editor, and what I was noticing that last week was that I had actually, to my great surprise, run out of things to fix. First the problems became a trickle, and then I decided I was trying to invent things to fuss with. So that’s when I stopped!

  17. Carol Bergon 07 Sep 2007 at 1:24 am

    I, too, am a sculptor. I use clay — so I have to add! Does that work?

    Adam

    Absolutely. You trick is to make sure that the bits and pieces you add enhance and contribute to the wholeness of your vision. And then you have to do all these editing things, too.

    Enjoy!
    Carol

  18. Maggie Mon 07 Sep 2007 at 3:24 pm

    Just experimenting with the tip about removing “that” created an immediate difference in my writing. These tips are extremely helpful. Thanks!

  19. [...] plus Maureen already wrote about it. In the meantime David Louis Edelman has a really useful ten-point guide to line editing: 1. Eliminate unnecessary modifiers. When I say unnecessary modifiers, I’m talking about both [...]

  20. Charlion 09 Sep 2007 at 3:42 am

    Good tips, but using #4 requires care. Sometimes “that” is needed for clarity in a sentence, and if you’re writing in past tense, cutting out the wrong “had” will make your sentence incorrect. “He had been talking about” and “he talked about”, for instance, have slightly different meanings depending on the context. For a person whose grammar is shaky, trying to remove “had” can lead to trouble.

    I can’t tell how you many manuscripts I’ve edited where I’ve had to constantly put in needed hads.

  21. Gyp Orienson 09 Sep 2007 at 5:59 pm

    Right. Number four is a good tip, except when you’re writing in the past perfect tense you NEED hads in there that you may not want to put in.

    “He had been talking about how he had needed to get new glasses” could be phrased better as “He talked about how he needed new glasses,” or even “He talked about needing new glasses.”

    If you’re writing in past tense and you say something like, “he talked about how he needed new glasses that day,” then you want to go further into the past, you need the “had”: “and he had talked about how he needed new glasses the day before, too.” I’m sure y’all know what I am talking about.

  22. [...] – Line Editing in 10 Easy Steps “Here are ten easy steps you can take on that nearly-done manuscript that will significantly [...]

  23. rettersonon 15 Sep 2007 at 4:26 pm

    LOL.

    Yes, all of that is easy.

    But perhaps there ought be a Step 0 — “Learn how to recognize, identify and otherwise find the following prose problems.”

    It isn’t for want to eliminating cliches that cliches remain (for example), but the inability of beginning writers to see them.

    Also, I’d be careful with wholesale eliminations of “hads” — some time the past perfect tense is needed. If you’re writing a story in simple past — as most stories are — you ocassionally need to go past perfect (the past of the past). You can’t simply eliminate “had.” “Had” has a function that needs to be respected. I find that overuse of “hads” tends to point to a greater problem that can’t — and sometimes shouldn’t — be solved by simply zapping the “hads.” Sometimes, it means that you’ve fallen into backstory. That should be a big red light getting you to think about whether that is where that stuff belongs in the narrative.

    Just my two cents.

  24. M.T.on 15 Sep 2007 at 9:14 pm

    3. Eliminate repeated words and phrases.

    This is one of the biggest problems I have as a writer whose native language is Chinese. In Chinese, repetition = emphasis. The English equivalent would be using two different words with the same meaning, but in Chinese you could get away with just repeating the one.

    So a thesaurus would indeed be helpful.

    Reading aloud is what triggers the “oh my god, I used “eyes” eight times in two pages” thing for me.

    Reading stuff aloud never really worked for me, for some reason. I generally notice repeated words as I put them down on the page and try to get rid of them with a vengeance.

  25. Matt Jarpeon 18 Sep 2007 at 2:47 pm

    I like this list. I myself am not guilty of any of these crimes, but I’m sure these tips will help others. :-)

    I got some great advice from Gordon Van Gelder when he line edited “The Bad Hamburger.” Seek out every instance of the verb “be.” If you think about it, each of those sentences can be made better with a bit of rearranging. you can make each of those sentences better with a bit of rearranging.

  26. triggxron 22 Sep 2007 at 3:29 am

    I can’t belive you wrote ‘bane of my existence’ after reading this great list.

  27. Kristenon 24 Sep 2007 at 10:56 am

    The abundance of unnecessary “thats” is a common complaint, yet there are many bestselling authors still guilty of wrongful use of the word. There is a whole article devoted to the subject on this site:
    http://www.writersmind.com/articles/unnecessarythat.html

    I agree with Matt Jarpe’s comment about seeking out every use of the verb “be” (or in past tense, “been”). It’s a great way to track down and eliminate inflated prose.

  28. [...] is some good advice on the craft of manuscript editing. Vonda McIntyre has this (pdf) good introduction to manuscript preparation.  Or, in a nut shell, [...]

  29. Simon Hayneson 12 Oct 2007 at 9:01 am

    “In other words — the old stereotype of the writer who keeps revising and revising until he decides to just give up and label his work “finished” is not true. You do actually finish if you keep revising long enough.”

    I agree, and I know I’m done when I can read the latest draft and NOT have to pick up the red pen for anything.

    Mind you, it takes me at least 12-15 printed drafts before I reach that stage, and that’s after writing and editing the manuscript on the PC first.

  30. Lindaon 28 Oct 2007 at 7:20 am

    For #1, I found more words than than (i.e., a bit, a little, a little bit, just, etc.), so I used Word’s autocorrect to automatically capitalize them. That way, I’ll see immediately how often I’m using the qualifiers and I can work on eliminatingthem as I write.

  31. Line Editing Linkson 27 Dec 2007 at 5:48 pm

    [...] Line Editing in 10 easy steps [...]

  32. Paul Baughmanon 21 Feb 2008 at 3:32 pm

    Re #10, that reminds me of a Japanese proverb I heard many years ago. I did a quick google search and couldn’t find any references to what I remember. Apologies in advance for butchering any of the details.

    A rich man commissioned an artist for a painting of a cat. After a month, with no painting, he spoke to the artist, who told him to come back later. A month later, he again asked the artist for his painting and was told to come back later. This went on for many months. Finally, after a year of pleading and waiting and pleading some more, the rich man stormed into the artist’s house and demanded his painting or his money back.

    The artist grabbed a handy piece of paper, brush and ink and dashed off a painting which he handed to the rich man. The man was amazed at the life-like realism of the seemingly off-hand effort. It was the most beautiful cat he had ever seen.

    He turned to the artist and asked: “If you could paint such a wonderful picture with no effort, why did you make me wait?”

    The artist opened a closet and showed the rich man the hundreds of discarded paintings of cats.


    I love this story because it illustrates that even with talent, it takes hard work to become a true artist. It lets me hope that I have potential to become an artist.

  33. Bonita Kaleon 20 Mar 2008 at 9:33 pm

    Number Eight! If a sentence justwon’t come right, I take it as a sign that it wasn’t supposed to be there in the first place.

  34. Nancy Wattson 23 Jul 2009 at 9:41 am

    Thanks, these are useful tips.

  35. Tere Kirklandon 09 Dec 2009 at 2:51 pm

    These are great tips! I’d like to quote from your article and link back here for my blog post tomorrow. Doing a series on revisions, and this is just the thing.

    Thanks!

  36. Elspeth Antonellion 10 Dec 2009 at 1:17 pm

    What a marvelous post! I’m bookmarking it. I’m glad I’ve found your blog.

    Elspeth

  37. Cassandra Jadeon 12 Dec 2009 at 4:45 pm

    An excellent post. I found it really difficult to idenitfy repeated words but using the find in word and searching for a few common offenders made it really clear how often I overused certain words.
    Thanks so much for this.

  38. Tony McFaddenon 26 Feb 2010 at 12:22 am

    I use the ‘speech’ function in Scrivener to read a chapter at a time. While the intonation is Stephen Hawking-ish, I caught my characters saying ‘hey’ far too much. And ‘yeah’. And ‘so’. And ‘okay’. And…you get the point.

    I’ve also done a global search on ‘was’ to find uses of passive voice. Works a charm.

  39. yt sumneron 01 Mar 2010 at 7:22 pm

    This is one of those things I’m going to print off and pin above my desk. Thanks for such helpful reminders.

  40. Bangalow Accomodationon 28 May 2010 at 4:56 pm

    Thank you for a wonderful post. I am writing my first book and trying to get my head around editing. I am up to Draft #2 but from what I read in your post I have a few more drafts to go! Thanks for an insightful post – I found it very helpful!

  41. [...] Line Editing in 10 Easy Steps by David Louis Edelman from DeepGenre [...]

  42. Kathyon 22 Dec 2010 at 1:19 am

    I agree; very, very helpful tips you have here.

    However, you must admit: having another fresh set of eyes to review your near-perfect masterpiece isn’t at all a bad idea. Surely it is inevitable that some minor misses would be present no matter how meticulous you can be—be it in spelling, punctuation, grammar, or consistency.

    If you need someone to do this for you, you can contact me at kathlinejane.delosreyes@yahoo.com.

    Of course, it wouldn’t be for free. But rest assured that I can give you a sample of my editing style (i.e., utilizing the Chicago Manual of Style) in the first five to ten pages of your manuscript. Only after then can you decide if you wish to forgo or continue hiring my services.

    I hope to hear from you guys! Good luck! :)

  43. Daleon 19 Jan 2011 at 8:03 pm

    “Gosh! Here come Roccio and George. Get me out of here Corie-Ann!”

  44. [...] Line Editing in 10 Easy Steps by David Louis Edelman from DeepGenre [...]

  45. Neil Feinon 28 Mar 2011 at 3:56 pm

    Nice post! This is what I do, or at least it’s the part of what I do that I enjoy the most.

  46. Lakia Gordonon 21 Jul 2011 at 7:23 am

    Thank you so much for sharing this! I’m in the process of looking over my manuscript. Great information!!

  47. [...] about editing that beautiful piece of work (I’m an editorial intern!). I came across an article called “Line Editing in 10 Easy Steps” that I thought would be perfect for my own [...]

  48. Janét Leeon 16 Aug 2011 at 3:49 pm

    What a pleasure to read all of your comments and find that there are still so many educated and articulate authors at work! I edit for others and am appalled at how few writers these days possess or value language skills.

    Of course, the younger the author, the greater the problem. Self-publishing, e-publishing and internet blogging have given rise to a generation of scribblers who firmly believe that Spellcheck and MS Word grammar checks comprise sufficient “editing.”

    You’ve brightened my day.

  49. Kim Krodelon 06 Feb 2012 at 4:45 pm

    Great post. Editing is the bane of my existence. Thanks for the comprehensive breakdown.

  50. induswwon 21 Feb 2012 at 10:10 pm

    Very helpful points. I’m going to print it out and keep it, so that it will be useful while editing my second novel.

  51. Jadeon 22 Apr 2012 at 6:43 pm

    That was to date the most helpful article I’ve found on line editing.

    By the way, inho you should install a social bookmarking widget so visitors can spread your articles around!

    Cheers

  52. DIY Editing « The Write Inspirationon 11 May 2012 at 4:21 am

    [...] an easy-to-use post here that outlines the ten top tips for line editing.  Take a look and let me know what you think.  Are there any editing tips that you’d like to [...]

  53. [...] Once you have written a rough draft of the conclusion, go back and do a line by line edit… twice. I believe it is important for the writer to do this even in the early stages of the manuscript because it helps focus on detail. Getting the details right is a vital part to having a handle on the plot and leaving your audience with a satisfactory experience, whether they agree with the conclusion or not. For a good reminder on how to do a line by line edit, click on the following link: http://www.deepgenre.com/wordpress/craft/line-editing. [...]

  54. kellyon 04 Sep 2012 at 11:53 am

    Carver probably did work his ass off, but it wasn’t him that created the spare style I think you’re referring to here. That was all the work of his editor, Gordon Lish. You can read original drafts of Carver’s work and compare it with Lish’s edited version (the version we’ve all seen) in the NYer article on the topic. Lish cut about 1/3 to 1/2 of Carver’s words out and many people argue that without Lish, Carver wouldn’t have amounted to much.

    Sadly, editors aren’t often as involved as Lish these days. There are very few who create authorial style, if any. Reminds us of the importance of editors, and nowadays, the importance of writers becoming expert editors in their own right.

    http://www.nytimes.com/2007/10/17/books/17carver.html?pagewanted=all

  55. [...] checklist for line-editing from the Deep Genre [...]

  56. [...] in writing, there are no rules. But there are soem websites with brilliant tips. I really like the top ten tips at DeepGenre. Alexander Kaurin has some tips which are so simple even dogs can do them, he [...]

  57. […] Want to do your own line editing? Find out how. For example - http://www.deepgenre.com/wordpress/craft/line-editing/ […]

  58. […] Want to do your own line editing? Find out how. For example - http://www.deepgenre.com/wordpress/craft/line-editing/ […]

  59. […] This is a more detailed approach:  Line Editing in 10 Easy Steps […]

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