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.

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