What Is Line Editing? (and, How Can It Help You?)
There are four major types of editing: developmental, line, copy, and proofreading. You’ve probably noticed that most editors have at least one blog post up about what each of these entails, and I’m about to jump aboard that band wagon. Every editor posts their own version of this because everyone interprets the various types of editing just a little differently, and it’s important for authors to know exactly what they’re getting when they decide to hire an editor. Everyone will be happier if they’re on the same page about what the edit should include! *
First, where does line editing fit in the process?
After you type the words “The End,” do a round or two of self-editing, and find one or more beta readers (another post for another day), it’s time to find an editor. In a perfect world, a manuscript would undergo each of the four types of edits, preferably with a different editor (and their fresh eyes!) for each one. Given, however, that money doesn’t grow on trees and time is finite, most authors choose one edit and a proofread.
What does each type of editing entail?
·The biggest picture edit. If you intend to work with a developmental editor, they should be the first person you work with.
Developmental editors help authors evaluate and strengthen their story’s structure, plot, pacing, and character development.
Developmental editors generally will not pay a lot of attention to your writing at the sentence level, because if you’re going to rewrite character arcs or add new scenes, getting into the nitty gritty of sentences and words doesn’t make sense.
After a developmental edit, authors usually move on to either a line editor or a copy editor.
Line editing evaluates your writing at the paragraph and sentence level.
It focuses on the writing style and checks for clarity, consistency, tone, word choice, and lots of other things that we’re about to get into. 😊
Copy editing also comes after developmental editing, but it’s one level further in the weeds than line editing.
Copy editing evaluates your writing at the sentence and word/punctuation level.
It focuses on your writing through the lens of mechanics.
In order to give a true copy edit, the editor has to be following one particular style guide and dictionary (though she can break from the "rules" where doing so strengthens the story).
The last step of the editing process before publication.
Looks for typos and true errors. (Proofreaders won’t make stylistic recommendations because their only goal beyond catching typos and errors is to not introduce new ones.)
So, specifically, what is a line edit and why is it the best? (Just kidding.)
Line editing is also referred to as stylistic editing, and those two names offer a succinct summary of what line editing is all about. The editor will review your writing one line at a time, evaluating your style as an author and helping you tweak sticky parts of the manuscript to pull them into line with your overall voice.
As previously mentioned, line editing focuses on your writing. And by writing, I mean the actual sentences and paragraphs you’ve used to tell your story. A line editor’s goal is to help you make your writing as clean, clear, and enjoyable to read as possible, ensuring that you’ve told your story with exactly the style you intended.
To do this, line editors evaluate:
Clarity (How clear your writing is): Can this sentence be shortened or punctuated differently to make the meaning clearer? Are there grammatical mistakes that need to be corrected in order for readers to understand this sentence? Do readers actually need more information (such as a name instead of a pronoun) in order to understand this sentence?
Concision (How “tight” your writing is): Are all the words in this sentence moving the story forward? Is there a way to say this that is more succinct, clearer, and packs a bigger punch?
Word Choice (Your ... word choice.): Does each word in this sentence fit the tone and connotation the author was shooting for? Are there instances where two or three words could be replaced with a single, more effective word. Would a different word be more descriptive or convey more meaning?
Cadence (The rhythm and flow of your writing): Does this sentence flow smoothly? Does this sentence “sound” like it fits the author’s voice (and, if not, is that intentional, or should something be changed to make it fit better)? Does the rhythm of the sentence propel readers forward in the story, or is it distracting?
Tone/Mood (Your vibe): Does this sentence fit the overall mood of the scene? Is each word conveying the tone and mood the author intended?
Line editors aren’t looking for errors; we're looking to make your writing as effective as possible. That means making sure each word and sentence enhances the story, rather than detracting from it. It also means making sure the meaning of each sentence is so clear that readers can flow through it effortlessly.
Here’s what makes line editing unique: when a line editor sits down with a manuscript, her goal is not only to help you make your sentences clearer, but to make your writing sound just as you intended. Line editors read (and often, listen to) your manuscript with an ear toward your voice and the cadence and rhythm that you bring to your writing. When we come across a word, phrase, or sentence that breaks that cadence or seems at odds with the tone of a scene, we stop to evaluate it. In addition to asking, “Is that sentence clear and descriptive?” your line editor will also be questioning, “Does the sentence as written reflect the author’s voice?”
All good editors work hard to ensure their revisions never change or detract from the author’s voice. A line editor will do that as well. Line editors also, however, keep an eye out for where the writing itself is detracting from the author’s voice and make recommendations to fix it. The hope is that authors walk away with a sleeker, more polished version of their story.
You’ve probably noticed that the boundary between line editing and copy editing is extremely blurry. In fact, many editors offer a dual line edit/copy edit, and even those of us who don’t are bound to make both types of edits along the way. In reality, you can’t clean up a sentence without paying attention to spelling, grammar, and punctuation. That said, a copy editor (usually) won’t provide detailed recommendations on how to improve the artistry of your sentences, and a line editor (usually) won’t provide detailed recommendations about how to bring the mechanics of your sentences into line with a style guide (or provide you with a style sheet).
How do you know if you want to work with a line editor?
If you know you’re a strong storyteller but feel less confident about your writing, working with a line editor is a great option. That’s also true if you’re both a strong storyteller and a strong writer, but you have a nagging sense that there are some sentences in your manuscript that just aren’t quite right. A line editor can help you polish those sentences until they read just as you hoped they would.
Before I started my business, I came across editor Benjamin Dreyer’s description of his job. He writes, “…my job is to lay my hands on that piece of writing and make it … better. Cleaner. Clearer. More efficient. Not to rewrite it, not to bully and flatten it into some notion of Correct Prose, whatever that might be, but to burnish and polish it and make it the best possible version of itself that it can be—to make it read even more like itself than it did when I got to work on it.”
I’ve never read a more perfect—or eloquent—description of line editing (never mind the fact that Dreyer was writing about copy editing ... like I said, the line between the two is quite fuzzy). If you opt to hire a line editor as you ready your manuscript for publication, be sure to find someone who knows the goal is to burnish and polish, not flatten, and who feels excited about the task!
*Note: I wrote this with an eye toward fiction, but each type of editing also exists for nonfiction!
 Benjamin Dreyer, Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style (New York: Random House, 2019), xi.