Editing Focus 3: Line Editing

Sorry this is late in appearing, everyone…that’s what this annoying little thing called…”LIFE”… will do to a person.  O.o

So, I’ve been working on beta reading S.K.’s awesome new book, The Lords of Askalon (can’t WAIT for all of you to be able to read it!).  Beta reading for me is mostly line-editing.  However, since I generally only have time to do a once-over, I usually try to work in syllabic editing and at least some consistency editing (did you really mean “north” here???:).  But most of what I’m doing is looking at the mechanics of the writing, and making sure that the prose is as tight and vibrant as possible.  I promised to share with you my tips and techniques, so that line-editing can be a little less of a headache for you.  Here you go.

First thing’s first: whenever you’re going to do a significant edit on your book, SAVE A COPY OF YOUR MANUSCRIPT.  You don’t want to experience the horror of slashing all of Chapter 9 and saving over your only file, only to realize…”Oh no!  I really wanted to recycle that one passage into another chapter.”  Save it as “MyAwesomestNovel_EDIT” or something.  Then when you’ve got it edited to perfection, save it (again) as “MyAwesomestNovel_FINAL” or whatever.  I’m obsessive about that.  Any time I make significant changes to my story, I save a revision document.

Scanning Edits

Okay, this isn’t really a step one, but it’s kind of a….macro-y sort of line-edit, so I’ll talk about it first.  One of the first things I’ll try to do when I start editing is It’s basically a sort of page-scan.  This means that I’m not actually reading so much as doing a sort of visual pattern search.

For instance, I’ll scan over all the dialogue on the page.  If I see too many modifiers, too many dialogue tags, I’ll start slashing them.  This is one of my personal banes — using too many adverbs (he said thinly/ flatly/ harshly/ sharply/ gently/ whatever-ly), or too many descriptive verbs (he snapped/ laughed/ demanded/ lamented).

My general rule — if I were to have a rule — would be to see no more than one or two of either of these things on a page, or per chunk of dialogue.  I prefer when action frames some of the lines of dialogue (He shrugged. “Who cares?”), rather than dialogue tags.  Then you can use context to identify the next speaker…except where you need to introduce a newcomer to the reader.  So:

Bob and Milo sat quietly for a while, constrained in uncomfortably close quarters.  Milo sighed and fidgeted.
“Where are we going?”
“I have no idea.  No. Idea.”
George glanced at them in the rearview of his Mini.  “Chill out, guys, we’re just going to grab some donuts!”

Now, that does the trick, right?  Right before the dialogue starts, we’re talking about Milo, so we can safely assume that he’s the first one to speak.  Then, Bob has to answer, because he’s the only other character we know.  But I can use an action frame to introduce George — and also to start solving the mystery of why Bob and Milo are feeling so uncomfortably constrained squashed.

So if I’m scanning the page and see several lines of dialogue that elaborate too much, I’ll start cutting.  I’m exceptionally brutal about this, because, as I said, it was the bane of my writerly existence for years.

ALSO.  Don’t be afraid of the word “said.”  It’s perfectly fine.  It doesn’t always need to modified, either.  I’d say…35% the time you don’t need anything modifying the dialogue.  25% of the time, just say said!  25% of the time you can use an action frame.  15% of the time you can use a colorful “speaking” verb, like “demand, snap, whisper” etc.  Anyway, different people have different preferences…just watch out for going overboard in any direction.  ALL of these are problematic:

“I went to the store today,” George said.
“That’s nice,” Bob said.
“I went to the store yesterday,” Milo said.


George frowned and slammed his hand on the door.  “I went to the store today!”
“That’s nice.”  Bob’s face lit with a malicious grin.
Milo squirmed, nervous.  “I went to the store yesterday.”


“I went to the store today,” George whined.
“That’s nice,” Bob sneered.
“I went to the store yesterday,” Milo announced.

But this is sort of better (if we can salvage this idiotic dialogue…):

George speared a glare at Bob. “I went to the store today.”
“That’s nice.”
“I went to the store yesterday,” Milo said.

You get the idea.

Also in the scanning edits, I watch for snippets or phrases that might tend to get repeated overly-repeated snippets or phrases.  This includes phrases like: shrugged, frowned, shook (his) head, sighed, grimaced, groaned, etc.

Generally I don’t want to see more than one character doing any of these things more than once in any particular scene…or at least make sure that you give some solid distance between instances.  If everyone’s constantly shaking their heads and nodding, I’m going to assume they are Bobbleheads.  And yes.  This is one that I have to be extra-careful about, because I do it a lot.  It’s especially hard if you write in fits and starts.  If you don’t make sure to reread your previous few pages before starting again, you risk repeating phrases that you didn’t remember using.

Also watch for consecutive sentences starting the same way.  If you’re scanning a paragraph and see: “He…   .  He…  .  He…”, then you have a problem.  Even worse would be: “He was… .  He was… . He was…”  AGH!  Death.  Try to avoid starting multiple sentences with the same word/grammatical structure.  It gets quite annoying.

So basically, this step is just my eye scanning over the pages, looking for things that are visually….disturbing.   You’d be surprised what you can catch this way, which you might not when you’re actually reading.

Tightness/Vibrancy Edits

This is how I check each line as I’m reading (we’re reading now!) for tightness and vibrancy.  It isn’t syllabic editing, quite, but it’s the closest thing that line-editing has.  This is where I look for hunt down “was/were” verbs, passive constructions (not always the same thing!), and overly-long descriptions of actions that could be tightened and revivified.

For instance, if I’m reading and I see:  “He was looking at her”, I’m going to strike that out — for two reasons.  One is the unnecessary use of the “was” element (sometimes it works…sometimes…but rarely…), and the other is the use of the bland verb “looking.”  How would I correct it?  “He studied/surveyed/glanced at her.”  Look.  “Look” tells me very little.  I can look at someone, but that tells me almost nothing about how I’m looking at them.   If I use that word, it can mean…glare, ogle, scrutinize, gaze dreamily at…you see.

Also, I’m making sure the prose is as tight and vivid as possible.  So I look watch for descriptions that meander a little too long, and so lose their punch — particularly descriptions of emotions or reactions, which tend to be smack-in-the-face type experiences.  Also, events that are shown through a filter, like “I felt X” or “they heard Y”.  So, I would cross out, “They heard the call of an angry man that was filled with rage and grief,” and in its place, I would write, “A shout shattered the stillness, visceral rage tinged with grief.”  Or something similar.  And instead of, “the tree’s branches extended out over the pond” you might say, “The tree hung/ brooded/ worried/ sagged over the pond.”  Capisce?

I always like imagining analogies/metaphors that are a little bit out of the ordinary…but not to an obnoxious or unbelievable extent not so far as to strain credibility.  I’ve seen some writers who are so imaginative in their analogies some excessive analogies that leave you with a kind of “huhhh??” reaction, because there’s no real correlation.  But sometimes you can think of unusual but effective analogies or metaphors that really make your prose sparkle.  For instance, we all know that fear crawls down your spine.  But that’s kind of a tired expression, so I start thinking, what else crawls?  Well, slithering gets used a bit too.  But what about spidering?  Are there many things that are Is anything creepier than a spider running over your leg unexpectedly?  EXACTLY!  So even though I don’t think “spidering” is technically a verb, I use (*whisper*)…poetic license…and turn it into one, because it’s just THAT GOOD of a description of the feeling of fear.

I’m also slashing all excess/unnecessary descriptions….and suggesting places where the narrative might actually need more, not less.  Be brutally honest with yourself.  Just start slashing.  Then reread the passages, pre-edited and edited, and see which one flows better, really and truly.  Or read them to your brutally honest friend, and listen to their opinion.

So, those are kind of the things I look for in the tightness/vibrancy edits.  I’ll write up another blog post about vivid language at some point, because there’s a lot to talk about there.

Grammar Checks

This is exactly what it sounds like.  As I’m reading the story, line by line, I make sure I don’t see, “She watched him coming closer and scream.”  Oops.  Or, “What was that,” she asked.  Oops.


The FIND Function

This is, by far, the single most useful line-editing technique I’ve ever invented.  One of the points of line-editing is to make sure you don’t misspell/misuse words.   So, what I do is, I make a list of the words that are likely to slip in wrong, and then do a search for each of them.  Then I just take two seconds to scan the context where those words appear, and make sure I got it right.  Voila!  That’s it.

So, what are the most common misspelled and misused words?  Here.  I’ll make it easy.  Remember, you have to search for all of them.  It takes a teeny bit of time, but it is SO much more foolproof than relying on your eyes to catch them as you’re reading.  And really, it’s much faster than the alternative (reading the manuscript ten freaking times to make sure you didn’t miss anything), trust me.

Homophones / Tricky Words





towards/forwards (in American English, we use toward and forward)








along/a long



who/that/which — make sure you use the correct one for the context

Less common: affect/effect, would/wood, read/red

Problematic Words/Phrases

was/were — I search for these just so I know that I’m aware of each instance, and want it to be there.

myself/herself/himself — mostly in the case of 1st POV, there can be a tendency to overuse the “myself.”  “I wondered to myself” is not a good use of myself.  “I mentally kicked myself” is fine.  Like was/were, I just want to make sure I’m not getting too free with these words.

look/see — again, I check to see if I missed do I see any instances of these words that I could brighten make more vibrant with a different verb?

went/came — see above

suddenly — used too often, this slows things down and sounds childish, but I’m mostly just checking to make sure I don’t use it ten times in the space of five pages.

If you have a tendency to mistype particular words, search for those.  For instance, if you keep writing “half to” then you really have to go back and check.  Or if you always say “could of”, then you’ll wish you could have corrected it before you published it….;-)

Unique Words/Phrases

These would be things like uniquely spelled names — especially important for speculative fiction where names of people and places are often made up.  If my main character is Marhya, then I better not see “Maryha” anywhere in the text.  Or if my planet in my story is “Ameriga” then I better make sure auto-correct didn’t turn it into “America.”

I also look for paired words that I might use inconstantly, which won’t get caught by the spell-checker.  For instance, in Prism I had to go back and search for “fire pit” because sometimes I was writing wrote “fire-pit” and sometimes “firepit” and sometimes “fire pit.”  Consistency in little things like this can go a long way.

Also, if, while writing your story, you came up with an awesome phrase that you just love, you might want to check for that.  You’d be surprised how often it might have crept in.  And believe me, even though you might think it’s the best thing since buttered toast, your reader might start hating it after the third…fifth…twentieth time.  Me, I decided I really liked this: “He didn’t say anything.  He didn’t have to.”  Or something like that.  Well, I went back and searched for “didn’t have to” and…WHOA.  I’m glad I did.  I cut out all but maybe one of those instances, I think, in the whole book.  Yeah. I still like it.  Privately.  😉

One final note:

If you don’t trust yourself to catch these sorts of things…GET A BETA READER!!!!  Or, alternatively, READ OUT LOUD!!!  You’d be amazing amazed at how many things you catch that way.  Better yet, get a beta reader AND read it out loud!  Pay attention.  Take your time.  Yes, line-editing can be annoying, but if you don’t do it…you blew it.  Especially if you’re writing indie.  Readers have very little patience for poorly-edited works, so, consider it time well spent.

This is long enough, so stay tuned for Part 4: Syllabic Editing.

(Hope you laughed at enjoyed my own line-edits for this post, which I left in for your amusement and edification.;)

About J. Leigh

Author, photographer, awesome ninja. I only kill people in stories. View all posts by J. Leigh

3 responses to “Editing Focus 3: Line Editing

  • bookspirit99

    Thanks for the help in editing; I really need to work on it…

  • Pat

    Great post. Loathe editing with a passion and would like never to have to do it again. Unfortunately, my original blurts need quite a going over and sometimes a good crushing in the editing mangle.
    Thank you for all the reminders.

  • johannelyhne

    Great post with lots of useful information! I don’t know if this is just me but I often misspell “cause/course” as well. And I think reading aloud is extremely helpful when you edit your own writing – you automatically turn into a reader and not a writer which makes all the difference.
    Thanks for the great advise!

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