Whether you’re dashing off a note to a colleague or listing your bike for sale on Craigslist, your writing could always use a second pair of eyes. But what is line editing specifically? A tool for occasions when the language itself really matters, it’s not something you need every time you sit down to finish a work email. But a book — that’s another story.
For an author, a line edit can be the secret sauce that takes a manuscript from good to great — turning a solid story into a bestseller-in-waiting that’s impossible to put down. This post takes a look at how exactly it can transform your book project.
What is line editing?
Line editing is the act of examining a piece of writing on the level of craft-making sure the language is creative and concise, while the content is consistent and compelling.
Also known as stylistic editing, it fine-tunes your manuscript’s, well, style, making sure it’s written in a way that complements what you’re trying to say.
Your goal as an author is to make sure you’re carrying off the premise behind your book as well as possible. Have you ever been disappointed by a book you were excited to read because it fumbled a cool concept with a so-so execution? If so, you’ve read something that could have benefited from this type of editing.
Did you know the definition of “line editing” changes depending on the country? This posts covers its US definition. But in Canada it refers to a type of editing between developmental and copy editing, and in the UK it’s basically interchangeable with “proofreading”.
Because of this regional variability, we’ve chosen not to use “line editing” in our editing service definitions.
Line editing vs. proofreading
In focusing on a manuscript’s small details, line editing has something in common with proofreading. But where a line editor aims to perfect a piece’s style, a proofreader takes care of its mechanics — double-checking for issues with grammar, spelling, and punctuation, as well as other kinds of errors, like a flubbed index or an image that doesn’t match its caption.
As a result, proofreading is more of exact science, while line editing is an art. Two proofreaders going through the same text will probably flag the same changes — there’s nothing subjective about a comma out of place, or a misspelled word. But two line editors, equally skilled, might make somewhat different suggestions in their attempts to shore up the same book.
Line editing vs. copy editing
These two terms are often used interchangeably, but line editing tends to be a particular kind of copy editing, one that focuses exclusively on style.
Copy editing aims to produce the most readable prose possible. It will look at issues like shifts in tense, and when numbers are spelled out versus written as Arabic numerals. This more technical work falls outside the scope of a line edit specifically. It’s copy editing’s more subjective, interpretive aspect, getting into questions of what makes good writing good — flowing and memorable, a joy to read — instead of merely correct.
4 things line editors will do for your book
Hear the words “line editing,” and you might picture sharp-eyed readers wielding pens, filling pages with red marks as they go through. And you’d be right: This type of editor really does approach manuscripts in this fine-grained way. Instead of working in broad strokes — say, by rejigging the relationships between chapters and arcs or playing with the overall worldbuilding in a book — they operate, like their name suggests, on the level of lines.
Overall, line editors examine manuscripts for word choice, the economy of language, and consistency of content while making sure they evoke the appropriate reader response. You won’t have to worry about the process making your book soulless or generic — the point isn’t to turn out robotically “good” style that reads like everybody else; it’s to help you sound like the best version of your writerly self.
Let’s take a closer look at what this looks like in practice. Say you’ve just finished writing an 18th-century paranormal romance called State of Blood. The action-packed story seems destined for the big screen, and the star-crossed lovers feel so vivid we hear them talking to us when we dream. The grammar is flawless, and spell check has been working overtime. However, the prose could use some… finessing. So you hand your manuscript over to a line editor. Here are four of the main ways they’ll review your book.
1. Polish the prose 💎
The editor will ensure you’re using strong, precise word choice — and no clichés.
“As star-crossed lovers, Clothilde and Janus felt like the whole world was against them. It felt bad. Thinking about her fellow vampires’ negative response to the Janus’ meaty fragrance in her underground chamber, Clothilde couldn’t help but weep tears of freshly consumed blood.”
- “Star-crossed lovers” and “the whole world was against them” might accurately describe the state of your characters’ relationships, but these are clichés you’ll likely want to avoid. Try to use stronger, more specific language that brings their situation to life. Instead of telling us how they feel, can you show us in detail?
- “bad” — weak word choice, too general
- Is “fragrance” in “meaty fragrance” really what you want here? Why not “scent”? If the response is negative, do the vampires find it repugnant? Then try “odor.” Maybe they don’t like the smell because it’s distractingly appetizing and makes them want to drink Janus’ blood. If that’s the case, make sure that comes across clearly.
2. Trim the fat 🔪
The editor will ensure the syntax is clean and that there are no wasted words.
“Janus was on his way to a meeting of the wizard’s council when he saw the broadsheets being passed out on the street that clearly had something to do with the embezzlement case Clothilde was investigating, even if he couldn’t see the lettering very clearly. Clothilde’s investigation of the embezzlement was not going well. His trip to the council meeting was also now going to be similarly derailed.”
- The first sentence is really long and unwieldy. To make it easier for readers to navigate, try breaking it up and condensing the language. Maybe something like: “On his way to a meeting of the wizard’s council, Janus saw broadsheets being passed out on the street. He couldn’t make out the lettering, but they clearly had something to do with Clothilde’s embezzlement case.”
- Unnecessary repetition. You don’t need to write about “Clothilde’s investigation of the embezzlement case” right after talking about “the embezzlement case Clothilde was investigating.” (Repetition does have a place in your prose, however!
- In the last sentence, you don’t need “also” and “similarly”.
3. Fill in the holes 🕳
The editor will look for plot and character consistency.
“Clothilde gagged at the smell of blood. Janus regarded her, now clearly in pain, with mild disinterest.”
- Isn’t Clothilde a vampire? Her gagging at the smell of blood seems to be inconsistent with that.
- Why is Janus responding to her pain with “mild disinterest”? Aren’t they supposed to be deeply in love?
4. Mood and tone 🎭
The editor will ensure your writing is not making readers laugh when you want to make them cry.
“‘Clothilde!’ Janus screeched, as her eyes dimmed and dulled. The stake stuck out of her shapely chest at an angle that made it look like a light switch in the off position. The embezzler giggled. Janus glared at him indignantly and pulled the stake out with a squelching sound.”
- This is meant to be the book’s tragic climax, but the tone is off, making it come across as unintentionally funny. Try retooling your diction to convey the gravity of the moment. Take an especially hard look at things like “screeched,” “giggled,” “glared at him indignantly,” and “squelching sound,” which read a bit slapstick and make the stakes feel low.
- Is her death scene really an appropriate time to comment on Clothilde’s “shapely” chest?
- The light switch simile is out of place because of the novel’s historical setting — as an 18th-century wizard, Janus wouldn’t know what a light switch is!
Why hire a professional line editor?
Maybe your manuscript isn’t in as rough a shape as State of Blood. But you still want some help tightening it up and making sure there aren’t any gaffes that slipped past your notice. Do you have to shell out for a professional editor, or is this something you can DIY?
The truth is, you may be too close to your own project to really give it the scrutiny it deserves. Have you ever said a word so many times that it starts to sound funny, or loses its meaning? Once you’ve poured enough time into it, your whole manuscript can feel like that — obscuring not only its issues but its charms. That’s where professional editors come in! Not only will they be able to approach your sentences with fresh eyes, they’ll bring experience and industry savvy that you won’t be able to match.
How much does professional line editing cost?
According to stats from the Reedsy marketplace, the cost of professional copy editing comes out to an average of $17 for every thousand words. Reedsy copy editors will take care of stylistic issues for you, so that’s the ballpark figure you’d be looking at for a professional hire. Of course, lots of factors go into getting a quote, including the editor’s experience level, the overall shape of your manuscript, and the genre you’re working in.
Dos and don’ts of editing your own work
Say you’ve thought long and hard about tagging in a professional editor, but you’ve ultimately decided to go it alone. What’s next? While there’s no substitute for having a professional go through your prose, there are a couple of best practices you can follow to make the most of your DIY edit.
✔️ Set your manuscript aside for a couple of days— at least— before you go over it. Let your own language, likely as familiar to you as your heartbeat by now, to become new to you again. Only then should you approach it as an editor.
✔️ Read everything out loud to yourself. Do your sentences flow well? Does their order make sense? Does the dialogue sound natural coming out of a human (or vampiric) mouth? If you find yourself gasping for breath before the end of a sentence, consider slicing it up. If you stumble over a certain word, rework or cut it.
✔️ Do a style audit for your own, personal clichés. Of course, you want to avoid actual clichés — expressions like “in the nick of time” and “raining cats and dogs” can make any piece of writing feel boilerplate. But writers should pay attention to their own stylistic quirks as well. These idiosyncrasies are a good thing, up to a certain point: they are the hallmarks of personal style. Just make sure you’re not overusing them to the extent of irritating your readers. Do you use more em dashes more than full stops? Are your characters addressing each other by name so much your dialogue feels stilted? Do they constantly “chortle” instead of laugh or “declaim” their words instead of saying them? Maybe you have a good reason for making these choices. But maybe it’s time to consider making some changes.
❌ Become a thesaurus junkie. When it comes to precise and varied word choice, a writer’s favorite reference tome can be extraordinarily useful. But signs of egregious thesaurus use are obvious and damning — transforming blue eyes into “ultramarine orbs” and bad feelings into “substandard affections.” The resulting, tortured constructions read more freshman composition than Pulitzer Prize.
❌ Insult your reader. In editing your manuscript for clarity, you may be tempted to make some insertions in order to, well, clarify your prose. But don’t go too far and end up unnecessarily spelling things out. Your readers are smart. They should be guided through the text by a similarly discerning author — not stuck with interpretive training wheels.
❌ Avoid asking for any help, ever. You’ve decided not to hire a professional, but that doesn’t mean you’re doomed to edit alone like a hermit in a tiny cell. Consider seeking out beta readers, sensitivity readers if necessary, or even running your writing questions by a friend, on- or off-line.
Now that you’ve learned about this crucial type of editing, you can use that knowledge to turn out a book as polished as your ideas deserved! Whether you end up scouring the marketplace for professional assistance or engaging your inner editor, your manuscript will thank you for it.