A Foray into Line Editing

Cover photo by Blair Speed

To follow are three techniques of many one may employ while line editing.

Economical Writing

Creating more efficient and clean writing is a task belonging to the final stages of drafting. Eliminating most adverbs offers a good launching point into the “fat trimming” aspect of line edits. An adverb usually signifies the need for a more precise verb or stronger adjective. “She really hated him” becomes “she despised him.” “The very beautiful woman” becomes “the stunning woman.”

Cleaning up prose, though, extends far beyond adverbs. Entire sections may be deleted as the writer asks herself, again and again, “What purpose does this sentence serve?” The writing typically aims to accomplish an intention or combination of intentions: further the plot; develop characters, their internal worlds, and their relationships; create texture in the setting; build upon a theme. If the sentence doesn’t fulfill a particular task, the question becomes one of aesthetic attachment. Here we hear Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch whisper, “Kill your darlings.”  

Very rarely do I leave a sentence in a story for beauty’s sake alone. I did, when I first began writing. As an adjective addict, my writing was often stagnant in its obsession with the aesthetic. Creating flow in a story requires a balance of sniffing the roses and tramping up the mountain. The pacing of prose often comes down to the micro-level and the intent behind each word, sentence, paragraph, and section.  

Catching Grammatical Kinks

When I facilitated writing workshops, I often heard people express embarrassment about their lack of spelling skills or grammatical knowledge. While some may view mastery of the English language the true telling of an accomplished writer, I personally think writing a good story and crafting immaculate sentences activate different parts of the brain. One can be a talented storytelling and still have yet to internalize basic grammar rules. The point is never perfection—it’s a willingness to practice.

Each of us carries in our language toolbox little kinks and glitches. Yours will be different from mine, but I offer here some of the errors I often find in my prose. These mistakes are colloquial; they reflect how I speak at times, given the language I’ve internalized through conversations. On an intellectual level, I see their errors. When I’m in the flow of writing, my editor isn’t (ideally) at work, and so the colloquial kinks slip into the prose. That’s why we edit.

- Proper noun and pronoun agreement in a sentence dealing with two characters:

Example: Michael and him went out to dinner. —> Michael and he went out to dinner.

Ex.: Susan was taller than her. —> Susan was taller than she was.

- Maintaining pronoun agreement:

Ex.: Everyone should do what they wish. —> Everyone should do what she wishes.

- Seeing homonyms:

These are words that sound the same but are spelled differently. (I view these as true testaments to finding the flow state in writing, as we may laugh when we find them in the prose.) A steel blade may read as a steal blade. The woman praying might be preying—a humorous mistake I’ve encountered in my writing more than once. While I like to read my work aloud while line editing, staying visually attentive to the words requires prolonged concentration. I try to only edit two, at most three, chapters at a time to avoid sensory fatigue.

Refining Syntax 

Syntax is simply the arrangement of words and punctuation in a sentence. I try not to overthink sentence structure and the syntactical relationship between sentences until this third or fourth stage of drafting. Get the story down, and then manipulate the diction and punctuation.

While some sentences may stand grammatically correct, the syntax might be cluttered, choppy, or otherwise awkward. We’ve all read sentences that felt off somehow. The question, again, returns to the intent. If a sentence involves multiple dependent and independent clauses, would it be better off as two separate sentences, or does the sentence’s complexity serve an allegorical or functional purpose? The same question applies to a paragraph composed entirely of simple sentences. Is the intended effect a staccato rhythm, or would the paragraph flow better with a variety of long and short, complex and simple sentences? 

Diversity is the guiding principle when it comes to syntax, (unless, again, the intent is staccato or a long paragraph of roaming sentences). A variety of lengths and complexity keeps the reader engaged. As an act of line edits, syntax refinements require our magnifying glass and a spirit of play. Try combining sentences with clauses or connecting punctuation. Pull complex sentences apart and see what they feel like as simple ones. Most of us aren’t composing on typewriters anymore; the impermanence of virtual ink is our friend.

With syntax manipulation, a basic understanding of the parts of a sentence proves useful, if not enjoyable. Below you’ll find definitions and “rules” to punctuation and parts of the sentence. In creative writing, rules can be fun to learn and then break with—yep—intention. Fragments (incomplete sentences presented as complete) are a common way writers break a rule to achieve an allegorical end. Like all artistic liberties, using fragments sparingly preserves their effect. 

More soon on line editing. For now, the worksheet to this post is available here for subscribers to my monthly newsletter.


Punctuation Overview

Periods separate two complete sentences from one another. A sentence tells the reader to pause. The pause can be rich in meaning: separation, discontinuation, temporal or physical space, an inhale.

Commas offer a slight pause and separate clauses within complex sentence.

- Dependent + independent clause: Before answering his phone, he pulled over to the side of the road.

- Two independent clauses connected by a conjunction (compound sentence):  The weather was cold and wet, but* he still took the dog for a walk. 

Semi-colons (;) separate two complete sentences from one another. They create a smaller pause in lieu of a comma + conjunction. This is best employed when the two sentences are closely related, either by a similar theme or through juxtaposition. 

Ex.: She wondered if he loved her; he didn’t wonder anything about her at all.

Semicolons can also used to separate fragments from one another in a list, especially ones following a colon. Ex.: You’ll need a few things for the adventure: a rainproof jacket with a patch kit; a first aid kit with a flashlight; your best pair of hiking shoes; and a good attitude package.

Colons (:) need at least one clause on either side to be grammatically correct. The colon, like the semicolon, can be used to bind two complete sentences together. Unlike the semicolon, colons can join a dependent clause to a dependent one, or in relationship to a list. Apart from lists, the colon is usually used to stress cause and effect.

Ex.: He ate a bag of Oreos a day: it wasn’t long until he needed a new pair of pants.

Ex.: There were many things he liked about his new job: financial security, his coworkers, the location, and, above all, the creativity it demanded of him.

The colon can also separate a complete sentence from a word or a fragment for emphasis/dramatic effect.

Ex.: He wanted one thing in his life: revenge.   

The Em dash (--) can replace a colon, comma, or parenthesis. Unless you are using AP style, there is no reason to offset the Em dash with spaces. The dash is a visually striking punctuation—it creates physical distance on the page between words. The metaphorical power of an Em dash is one of emotional distance or a particularly important emphasis on a person, place, or idea. It is best to use it even more sparingly than colons and semicolons to preserve its potency in the text.

The En dash (-) is used to bridge together dates, scores of games, compound adjectives, or connections between two words.

Exs.: 1940-44, 88-62, award-winning, runs east-west.

Parts of a Sentence

What makes a complete sentence? It has a subject and a predicate (what happened to the subject). This usually includes (at least) a (pro/proper)noun + verb.

i.e. The dog ran. Tim walked. They both fell.

Articles: precedes nouns or adjectives modifying nouns; i.e. an/the/a

Noun: the name of something; i.e. boy, table, sky

Preposition: connects a noun to another word in the sentence, modifying its relationship; i.e. through, on, off, etc.

Adverbs: modifications of a verb or adjective; i.e. really, very, so  

Adjectives: describe a noun; beautiful, bold, radiant

Verbs: serves as the backbone of the sentence and the driving force of the story at large