Thursday, March 11, 2021

Line Editing

 

This week, Robin and I started going over the last pass of edits for Nolyn.  The first set of copyedits came in from Laura just after Christmas, and after incorporating her changes, a new manuscript went to Linda. 

This is a milestone for us. In times past, deadlines became constrained such that both editors worked off a single manuscript at the same time. I can't begin to express how difficult it is to edit that way. There are many ways to skin a cat (an expression I never understood...who would do something so despicable?  Well, maybe a "dog" person, but I digress), and trying to evaluate the various pros and cons of each change and come up with a single definitive manuscript has always been challenging.

Adding to this, I'm going to be doing a panel on editing as part of Write Hive's Virtual Writer's Convention, and I'm also spending a bit of time each week editing work for a small group of authors I've been mentoring. Needless to say, the Sullivan household is all edit, edit, edit at the moment.

Anyway, while editing was on my mind, I thought I would spend just a minute talking about editing in general and line editing specifically. In the future, I may come back and do detailed dives into the other types of edits, but for now, I'll just explain each one briefly.

  • Structural edits - these are done first. For me, I get my best feedback about these types of changes during the alpha read phase. This is when Robin gets a book for the first time, reads through it, and provides a list of things that need fixing.  They address "high-level" problems. Examples include plot holes, poorly defined characters (or characters acting in a way that they normally wouldn't), things that were in my head that didn't get on the page fully - which leaves the reader lost because they have only half (or less) of what they need, or horses I beat too hard (wow, what's with all the animal cruelty in this post?)

  • Continuity edits - these are when you go looking for inconsistencies.  Did you mention a person was eight years old early on in the book and then later talk about their tenth birthday? Did someone leave a room but still participate in a conversation? Did their eye or hair color of a character change mid-book? And the one that has to be examined most closely -- issues with the timeline. Some timeline errors are addressed in structural edits (things being out of sequence).  But it's worth it when the entire manuscript is finished to go back through things and plot what is happening on which day, and by all means, if you speak about the past (and mention how old someone was then), make sure their ages align with their birthdates.

  • Line edits - have nothing to do with the story...okay, they have a little to do with the story, but when working on line edits you aren't concentrating on "what" you are saying but rather "how" you say it. For fiction, the first duty of a good line editor is to polish the writing, elevate the style of the work, and make the prose as pleasing, engaging, and readable as possible. For those who write quickly, it's likely that your work could benefit from several passes of line editing. While there is no doubt that the quality of self-published works has risen over the years, there are still too many indie authors who don't spend enough time in this important part of writing. Moreover, if you are seeking traditional publishing, it's essential not to "skimp" when it comes to line editing. For either path, when you take the time and effort to apply the additional layers of polish of line editing, it will make an incredible difference in how brightly your work shines. So, no matter which path you plan on persuing for publication,  I highly suggest you work on strengthening your line editing skills.

  • Copy edits - do two things. The first is to ensure that the entire work is following adhering to a single style guide (more on this in just a minute), Second, the copyedit is performed to correct grammatical errors such as run-on sentences, incomplete sentences, noun/verb disagreement, and fixing problems such as dangling modifiers, pronoun confusion, and using the wrong word -- is it few or less?  Now, a style guide may be a new term for some of you. It was for me the first time I hired an editor, so let me just take a minute to explain that further. The English language is complicated, and there is vast disagreement on many subjects regarding what is "correct." This is a fact that drives Robin crazy because she is an analytic person (an ex-engineer) and she enjoys math where the is always a single answer to an equation and there is never any disagreement. Style guides are the referee that set the rules.  They cover subjects such as whether to use the Oxford comma? (You an look that up on your own if you don't know what it is). How many words are considered a "short introductory phrase" (where a comma is eliminated), and lays down a number of rules about capitalization, hyphenation, and even whether a number should be written with numerals or spelled out. Once a style guide is selected, the copy editor is going to make sure that the rules of "that" guide are followed. There are two major style guides (Chicago Manual of Style and the AP Style Guide), but there are also companies that start with one, but then make slight exceptions from them which become the new "bible."
Okay, that was longer than I expected, but I think it's important to set that stage before digging in further. As the post's title indicates, today I'm going to talk about line editing. Generally speaking, I say that you should do all your line edits BEFORE starting copy edits, although many editors will do them at the same time. The reason I say this. Is while doing a line edit, you may inadvertently make a grammatical error, so you want the copy editor to come along behind you and "clean up."

Anyway, what raised this subject today was a piece of my writing that Robin worked on in our "final pass," which was brought to her attention by incorporating copy edits. Here is the passage:
He was still feeling queasy. His legs were weak, his balance off, and his stomach cursed him both for eating and going without. Like a spoiled child faced with suffering for the first time, there was no pleasing his stomach. As with any petulant child it needed time to vent frustration and perhaps a nap.

Okay, so the copyeditor looks at this and sees several problems, including a big 'ole dangling modifier right up front and a missing coma from an introductory phrase, and a few missing words. So they suggest the following changes:

He was still feeling queasy. His legs were weak, his balance off, and his stomach cursed him both for eating and going without food. Like a spoiled child faced with suffering for the first time, his stomach could not be reasoned with. As with any petulant child, it needed time to vent frustration and perhaps take a nap.
An improvement, to be sure.  And Robin could have left it at that, but there were several things that bugged her.
  • Starting any sentence with "It was, he was, they were,  or any number of these types of combinations is a red flag that a boring sentence is coming. And is this little snippet of four sentences I did it twice, and in a row! So, she couldn't walk away from both "He was" and "His legs were." These should have been addressed during a prior line edit, but, hey, you don't catch everything.

  • Pronouns are necessary, but if you don't keep a close eye on them, they can run amuck. There are four pronouns in the first 17 words of this snippet--far too many!

  • It felt "choppy" and didn't flow as effortlessly as it could have. Usually "choppiness" can be corrected by combining sentences or moving a parenthetical phrase from the middle to the start of a sentence. 
  • Doesn't "cursed him both for eating and..." make you stumble just a bit?  Doesn't switching "both" and "for" flow better?  As in "cursed him for both eating and..." I think so, but is that really the best we can do? It's not "just" that he was cursed with two things - but that the two things were equally bad.  Maybe we can work that aspect in?

  • Is "faced with suffering" really the best choice of words?  "Suffering for the first time" sounds good, as does "facing adversity for the first time" but "faced with suffering"? That just isn't as good as the other two options.
Then there were issues that became apparent because of the copy edit
  • While many of us have been taught to avoid contractions (except in dialog), I write in "close third-person," which has an additional layer of intimacy not found in "third person limited." As such, much of my writing sounds like it came from the character. So if contractions are avoided,  the narrative can sound a bit formal and stilted. The editor wasn't considering this aspect when offering her suggestion--why would she--her job was to fix the error, and her change did that. So when she added "could not" it would be better written in this manuscript as "couldn't."

  • By adding food, a spotlight is now shining on an area of excessive wordiness (one of the biggest problems I see with new writers). Why tire your readers out with three boring words such as "going without food" when one word, "abstaining," says the same thing more succinctly?

  • Also, by fixing the dangling modifier problem, the copy editor has used the word stomach, which is fine.  But it was already used (and nearby) so now we have a repeating word.  These can be particularly annoying when listing to an audiobook.  What your eyes gloss over, your ear picks up. Again, this is a common problem with new authors and something to look for when you are doing your own line editing. But not only that, if we take a step back and look at the snippet as a whole. We can see something else wrong. Why do we have something relating to the stomach tied to his legs rather than joining it to the next section which is already dealing with his mid-region?
So, with all that said, hopefully, now you can see what a true mess these fifty-eight copyedited words were. Or maybe you saw the disaster even before the breakdown.  In any case, now you know why Robin couldn't just hit "accept icon" and move on. 

So, what did we end up with?  Here is the corrected version:
Still feeling queasy, his legs were weak and his balance off. Like a spoiled child facing adversity for the first time, his stomach couldn’t be reasoned with, cursing him equally for eating and abstaining. As with any petulant brat, it needed time to vent its frustration and then take a nap. 
Let's go over it.

  • Excessive pronouns in the first 17 words -- fixed --we are down to 2 rather than 4.

  • Sentences starting with "xyz was/were" -- fixed -- there were two and now there are none.

  • Choppiness -- fixed -- a short sentence followed by two small phrases separated by commas were split apart and better distributed.  

  • Excessive words removed -- check -- "going without food" replaced by abstaining.

  • Word choices examined -- check -- "equally" brings more to the table than "both." And "facing adversity" is better than "faced with suffering."
I should note that while there is only a 7-word difference between the two, the second one seems so much "lighter."  Why? Elimination of the dastardly "xx was"  and "xx were," which are nothing more than filler that tire a reader out.  And better attention to the flow of words.  The revised version doesn't feel like a "slog."

So, that's today's lesson.  Does this take a lot of time? You betcha.  Is it worth it? I think so. If you are a writer.  Grab a few sentences out of the middle of your current work in progress and look at it independently of the story being told.  How could you improve it? Feel free to post some of your examples.

Okay, enough distraction. I have to get back to my final read-through. 




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