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What to look for when you're line editing

In my experience, line edits can be both invigorating and incredibly frustrating. On the one hand, this is where I get to make my prose really sing, on the other, these edits often come hot off the heels of major story revisions, by which point I’m exhausted, so finessing the language can feel like a real slog.

With that in mind, I thought I’d talk about what it is I look for during this line by line scrub of the MS, and share some tips and tricks that will hopefully make the process easier.

Repetition

The big focus for me during line edits is repetition, which comes in 3 main forms: repetition of actions, words, and sentence structures.

We all tend to default to certain phrases and words when we write, but when we do it too often, our prose can start feeling repetitive (duh).

Now, some words/phrases are so innocuous they go unnoticed unless you’re using them a hundred times a page — i.e. ‘said’. Whereas others are unique, so they become noticeable when used more than once per paragraph/scene/chapter (or indeed, per book).

Example: ‘he opened the door’ is so common a phrase that you can pretty much use it every time someone needs to, you know, open a door. But something like: ‘he matched her glare for glare’ is far more distinct. Use a phrase like that more than once or twice and it will stick out and jar the reader.

Another thing to keep in mind is that if you do find yourself repeating the same action beats over and over — or defaulting to similar beats — it could mean that you’re not utilising the full range of character actions. 

Example: if all your characters do is grin, smirk and smile then chances are, you’ve forgotten that they have arms and legs as well as lips.

So make sure you’re exploring more than just the basic facial expressions. Have your characters interact with their environment. They could drum their fingers against the table, or stir their tea, or pace around the kitchen. Not only will such actions help you show instead of tell, they’ll also cut down on white-room syndrome, where dialogue feels as though it’s happening in some placeless vacuum.

BUT! As you’re tackling your line edits, it’s important to remember that you can’t always edit out all (unintended) repetition, and the last thing you want is to talk about someone’s blinky-orbs instead of saying eyes again. Not every word has an analogue, and synonyms don’t always convey the same meaning, so don’t go abusing the thesaurus indiscriminately. 

A good way to minimise the effects of unavoidable repetition is to bury the word inside a sentence. When two concurrent sentences start or end with the same word, that word tends to draw more attention, which is why I try to switch up my sentence structures where this is the case.

And that’s something you should be doing anyway. If every sentence is the same length, or starts with the same word, or contains the same phrasing such as ‘like a’… or ‘as though’… those phrases will start jumping off the page. Switch things up. Keep them fresh.

Adverbs

Next up we have: adverbs! Those horribly contentious buggers.

I’ve never been a tee-totaller about these, but I also tend to default to them when a better word/verb would do.

Example: ‘crept’ is better than ‘walked quietly’. ‘Whispered’ is better than ‘said quietly’.

Not always, of course, but it’s worth looking at each instance to figure out whether it’s a crutch word, or the right word.

(N.B see how the repetition of ‘quietly’ there jarred?)

Nondescript Descriptors

Like adverbs, these are words that can often be replaced with a stronger, more visual term. We’re talking words like big/small etc. that may not be pulling their weight in the story. So ask yourself: is it a big house, or is it a huge house? A mansion? Is it palatial?‏

Now, sometimes big will absolutely be the right word. For example, in close narratives, descriptions are filtered through the MC’s POV. It might be that Johnny is the type of guy that says: the house was big, like, movie star big.

And that’s fine. I have a character who deals in a lot of comparative terms like this. But more often, you’ll give your reader a better image by using something more specific that still fits the voice.

The same goes for things like ‘green grass’. Green is kind of the default for grass, so unless it’s a suspicious green — i.e. everyone else’s lawn is yellow and dead because there’s a drought — maybe choose some other way to describe it.

Is the grass overgrown? Or trimmed to perfection? Wilting in places? Covered in dog poo? Each of those descriptions tells you something about the owner that ‘green grass’ doesn’t.

Qualifiers

— Oh qualifiers.

Actually, just, really, at least, of course, maybe, probably… all my favourite words, basically.

Again, I’m not a hard-liner on these. I think that the odd qualifier — especially in dialogue and introspection — does a lot for character voice. Too many though, and you start to lessen the impact of the prose.

I use qualifiers so often I literally (sorry!) have to ration myself and examine each one. If the qualifier changes the meaning of the sentence, I leave it in. If it doesn’t, I try to cut it, or re-word what I have so that it doesn’t feel necessary.

There's also another type of qualifier I try to look out for, and that's over explaining my character actions.

Example: Suzy wanted a biscuit so she went to the kitchen.

Unless the reason for Suzy wanting a biscuit is somehow important, you could just say: Suzy went to the kitchen for a biscuit. The ‘want’ is implied.

This also applies to when you find yourself over-choreographing your character's movements.

Example: he lifted his hand to the doorknob to open the door.

Again, unless that first part is somehow plot critical, or you’re deliberately adding that extra beat (sometimes necessary for flow), just say: he opened the door.

Because you have to lift your hand to the doorknob to open a door, so again, that action is implied.

‏So there it is, my go-to list of things to look out for when you’re line editing. It’s by no means a comprehensive list, but it’s a good starting point, and addressing these simple niggles will go a long way to strengthening your prose.

And the good news is, the more you write and edit, the more you’ll learn to avoid these crutches in the first place.

Kate grew up in a sleepy English town where there was little to do but read, watch movies, and bake. After graduating university, she turned her love for storytelling and the visual arts into a full time job, embarking on a career as a video editor. But it wasn't long before she realised that telling other people's stories wasn't quite enough; she wanted to tell her own. Her passion for writing YA novels is (unofficially) sponsored by Smarties and Nespresso, and supported by her long-suffering boyfriend and their two cats, Sir Dixon Bainbridge and Gypsy Danger.