What Happens In Between: Line Editing for Manuscripts

So it’s not a developmental edit?
No. It’s not. While developmental editing does look at language as a function of the entire manuscript, its primary focus is on larger structural functions of the story like timeline, pacing, character development, and authenticity. Developmental editing is taking a macroscopic look at the book, while line editing is applying a mesoscopic (middle or intermediate) lens to the content.

And it’s not a copyedit?
Nope again. Copyediting is the final microscopic lens of editing. Copyedits correct errors in spelling, punctuation, grammar, fact-checking, word usage, and style. A copyedit wants consistency, and it seeks to eliminate glaring language errors that will distract readers and pull them out of the story.

What might a line edit look like?
There might be some elements of both developmental editing and copyediting involved in a line edit, especially because the goal of this type of edit is to upgrade the language for clarity. A reader will not achieve that blissful feeling of sinking into your text if it has glaring inconsistencies. So along the way, line editors will likely address any or all of the following elements:

  • Words or phrases that could be changed to enhance meaning
  • Suggestions for improving scene pacing
  • Redundancies from repeating the same information in different ways (you’d be surprised how often authors don’t trust their readers to retain important details)
  • Scenes with confusing or slow-paced action sequences
  • Bad transitions, especially between chapters
  • Shifts in tone and awkward phrasing
  • Bland or uninspired language
  • Confusing breaks in narrative
  • Overused or superfluous words and phrases
  • Run-on sentences
  • Opportunities to tighten up paragraphs or dialogue (especially by eliminating filler words like that, can, feel, and see)

Why is it important to know the difference?
You might be looking to hire a freelance editor for a manuscript, and they’ll likely be versed in a wide variety of editorial services. You need to know the right one to select for your manuscript and how to most effectively communicate your desires. Of course, any freelance editor worth their salt is going to help you select the right service from the get-go, but arming yourself with knowledge even before approaching a contract is highly suggested.

Or, if this is your first time stepping into the publishing world with a manuscript, folks are going to be using these terms to inform you of the next steps in their process. And once any type of editing is done, it’s up to the author to incorporate, apply, or revise. Some edits are much more time-consuming than others, and line editing falls into that middle territory. You’ll need to parse through all the individual edits, but it’s not nearly as complicated as a developmental edit. On the other hand, you likely won’t just be clicking “accept all” for all the spelling and punctuation errors to be magically fixed. You’ll want to investigate each line edit, and it might even require some work on your end.

The ultimate goal of a line edit is not only to elevate the manuscript, but also to improve the craft of the writer. A writer cannot address their tics if they can’t see them. They won’t know about the potential power of certain words or phrases until someone looks at their writing and points these things out. All editing seeks to improve a manuscript, but line editing in particular has the ability to have a long-lasting effect on writers themselves.

Is freelance editorial work right for you?

As the publishing industry evolves, media and publishing independents have witnessed the dissolution of the full-time copy editor. Among magazine, news media, and book publishing entities, an in-house copy chief is often considered a luxury of days gone by. The expense of the full-time position is often too difficult to justify, and the responsibility of clean copy can fall on in-house production teams.

Enter the outsourced editor—the freelancer. Everyone needs an edit, and freelance work in a variety of editing formats often goes to the bravehearted independents. Hence, the world’s copy editors of 2018 often find themselves living the dream of the remote entrepreneur, the freelance copy editor.

According to an article in World Economic Forum, “freelancers represent 35% of the United States workforce … freelancing is on the rise worldwide.” And when numbers of independent contractors continue to grow among the labor force as a whole, those numbers may be even higher among professional editors.

“We are still at the leading edge of a once-in-a-century upheaval in our workforce,” states the October 2015 Monthly Labor Review for the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. “The freelance surge is the Industrial Revolution of our time.” And whether as a side hustle or main squeeze, freelance work may be in your future, too.

And why wouldn’t editors try going it alone? It’s the American editor’s dream. Freelancers responded voluntarily to an unscientific poll, and offered what they viewed as the most beneficial aspects of their own experiences in the field:

“Most editing work requires a certain level of concentration that is almost impossible to achieve in an office environment,” wrote one respondent. “Being able to work from home, set my own hours, and be more selective about the projects I work on are by far the best aspects of freelancing for me.”

“Being able to set my own rules and guidelines,” another editor wrote. “I dislike following house style rules, especially if they make no sense whatsoever. Also, I have a chronic illness, so being able to work from home is vital.”

However, freelance editor testimonies also convey more complicated scenarios than these. At a glance, freelancing appears to offer attractive alternatives to the traditional office cubicle grind, and in many cases it does. But the reality is that there’s more to freelancing than meets the eye.

Being your own boss requires self-discipline and time management. Freelancing can often require the editor to edit work immediately as it becomes available. Fast-breaking copy can require the entrepreneurial editor to juggle life around the edits, not the other way around.

Regarding marketing and business promotion, freelancers claim the best means of advertising and growth is still via word-of-mouth reputation established among repeat clients and relationships developed over time. And while landing a full-time, steady position as an editor has become less likely, the opportunity to nurture long-term relationships with a few key clients can add up to a healthy revenue stream for a small business. However, when a freelancer delivers shabby work with lackluster results, they develop a poor reputation and do not last long as independents.

Just as any house marketing professionals would, freelancers make use of all the free marketing tools available to them—all social media vehicles within reach. They use Facebook, Twitter, and others. Freelancers also attend industry seminars, writer conferences, and stay abreast of changes in the industry. And it’s not all fun and games. Editors commented that the return on time invested in marketing can feel negligible.

Other potential pitfalls:

“There’s certainly a level of anxiety that comes from pursuing an inconsistent line of work. I’ve also had clients that expect far too much of my time for the rate they are paying me. I think it’s often hard for people employing freelance editors to remember that their project is probably one among many for that editor, and that because most freelance workers don’t have taxes or benefit costs withheld from their pay, the rate they’re paid ends up being far less than it may seem.”

Freelancers also need to maintain the standard in premium editorial services and the prevailing wage among the professional community. Editors advise the following:

“In the vein of pricing, I set my prices based on [Editorial Freelancers Association] standards, but even if I put that in a contract, about 50% of prospective clients still don’t understand the parameters for ‘reasonable prices.’ Many clients will try to argue or haggle over estimates, despite my contract specifically pointing to the EFA.”

“Don’t expect to get your best clients right away. It takes a lot of work and shameless self-promotion to get a solid list of clients. Until then, you should probably have another job on the side, because you won’t make beans for the first couple years.”

Additional editorial advice:

“Don’t let anyone refuse to pay you for training. I once, quite regrettably, sunk hours into unpaid training for a client who had a particular way of doing things. The training was so specific to their process that it was hard to transfer the skills I acquired for that client’s work to other projects.”

“Get qualifications, business experience, and a portfolio before even considering it. I prepared for six years before becoming freelance.”

“Have a business goal that will attract people to you. Find that one thing that makes you stand out.”

Whatever your entrepreneurial ambitions with editorial work might be, do your research, learn your market and its potential, and be persistent. Good editors make good writing happen.

The Hybrid: When the House Style Guide Creates a Frankenstein

Opinions are like. . .you know: everybody’s got one. House editing style guides and preferences are no different. Browse through any random collection of imprint house publications, periodicals, or online articles, and you’ll witness a menagerie of guides, including The Chicago Manual of Style (CMOS), the Associated Press Stylebook (AP), and a smattering of personal preferences seemingly chosen at random. The resulting style format can resemble an amalgamation of spare parts—something akin to a Frankenstein’s monster of house style. The curious aspect is the specific, obscure details individual editors decide to take a stand on—the hills upon which they choose to fight and die.

The minutia editors sometimes battle over regarding their in-house style guides is often actually arbitrary. As Amy Einsohn identifies in her seminal work, The Copyeditor’s Handbook: A Guide for Book Publishing and Corporate Communications, an editor’s chief concern is consistency. Unless a specific punctuation format, page layout issue, or capitalization question muddles an author’s intended message, the specifics of style are subjective. What matters most is developing a house style that nurtures familiarity for readers, a reliable format that endears readers to a publisher’s signature style.

Consider The New York Times, one of the most successful newspaper publications of all time. Many aspects of the paper’s articles adhere to AP style; some do not. The paper’s headlines, for example, resemble a format closer to CMOS regarding capitalization, but the effect is one of the Times‘s most endearing characteristics. The purpose of a house style guide is to engage repeat readers with a given consistency of style.

The concept bears keeping in mind the crucial constituency Einsohn defines: Copy editors must serve the author, the publisher, and the reader (3). An editor’s process begins with the careful initiation of her relationship with an author. “Nothing is so painful to the human mind as a great and sudden change,” (178) writes Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley in her classic work, Frankenstein, and an author experiencing the inner conflict of style choice changes made without their consent can feel personally slighted at the abrupt modification. When an author’s submitted manuscript is suddenly rearranged into a formatting style contradictory to their comfortable darlings, the sudden shift can feel like a wound.

With this in mind, consider the ongoing struggle between prescriptivist and descriptivist grammarians. Carol Fisher Saller writes in The Subversive Copy Editor, “The sad fact is, in spite of their enthusiasm for imposing rules on other people’s copy, copy editors are not always aware that some of their long-held rules are controversial or have even been discarded” (51). In other words, building a monster of style choices harvested from CMOS, AP, and personal preferences doesn’t have to be a blasphemous move away any be-all end-all of standards. A copy editor has to know the rules to break the rules, but as long as the resulting publication serves the constituency, the product isn’t broken.

So, copy editors of the world, as you build your own house style, feel free to unearth your preferences from a range of sources. Borrow a head from here, an arm from there, and bolt it all together into your own, unique monster. As long as the house style guide serves the writer, the publisher, and the reader with a consistent, reliable format, a hybrid of styles is nothing to fear.

Line Editing: The Last Great Publishing Mystery

When I decided to start my own freelance editing business, I was faced with a very important question: what editing services would I offer? I knew that developmental editing covers big picture issues, and copyediting tackles grammar and other sentence-level issues. But what about line editing?

Here at Ooligan Press, we don’t typically do line edits. We go from developmental editing to copyediting, and we’re not the only publishing company that does this. This is reflected in the graduate program curriculum. In addition to the introductory Book Editing class, there are courses in developmental editing and copyediting, but not line editing.

Books about publishing also tend to skip over this step in the editorial process. When they do mention it, there is some inconsistency. As acknowledged in Editing Fact and Fiction, discussing “different types of editing isn’t easy because no firm boundaries separate them.” The authors go on to define line editing as “substantive work on the manuscript.” They give examples that include checking for clear transitions, consistent tone, natural-sounding dialogue, and repetition.

In The Book Publishing Industry, author Albert Greco waxes poetic about line editing being undertaken “quietly and alone, often in small windowless cubicles,” but turns practical when describing the line editor’s primary goals “to read the manuscript for errors, inconsistencies, themes or issues that need additional explanation or elaboration, extraneous material that could be deleted, unclear sentences” and so forth, with a secondary aim to “determine whether the manuscript is clear, readable, and stylistically acceptable.”

In contrast, Developmental Editing by Scott Norton asserts that developmental editing “is sometimes called substantive editing or line editing,” equating the two rather than drawing distinctions.

An internet search turned up a more consistent definition of line editing: it’s all about the writing itself at the scene, paragraph, and sentence levels. But that does not eliminate all confusion. A developmental edit focuses more on issues related to the story, characters, and overall structure, and the copyedit concerns itself with rules and consistency at the level of spelling, grammar, punctuation, and other sentence-level issues. The reason the line edit is so nebulous is because it overlaps both of these other steps; it too is concerned with big picture issues, albeit on a smaller scale, and with the more nitpicky issues where they are most glaring.

Given that there is overlap between the different stages of editing, and the fact that some smaller presses forgo line editing altogether, why should we even care about it? It’s a legitimate question. I think the line edit holds an important place in the publishing process, even if it doesn’t get the benefit of being a distinct procedure.

The issues that line editing addresses have to be addressed somehow. Presses that do not line edit may make up for it with an extra round of developmental edits, a heavy copyedit, or by only accepting manuscripts by authors who are either very strong writers or good at self-editing. Whether a formal line edit is undertaken or not, the results of line editing must be achieved. Having a separate step for this process can be helpful to authors, managing editors, or both.

The bottom line is that line editing is hard to explain. It’s a bit of a catch-all. In addition to being the last chance to catch developmental issues and the first pass at a copyedit, I like to think of it as polishing the manuscript.