What is a line edit?

 

Line editing involves making changes to a manuscript at a sentence-by-sentence level. 

A thorough line edit can crank up the tension in your work, by making the prose punchy and to-the-point. The purpose of this is to improve the storytelling. Part of learning to edit your own work involves standing back from what you’ve written to assess it with a dispassionate eye, and to make changes which pull the reader in. The following line edit shows how this can be achieved. 

 

Original: John didn’t do much on a Saturday morning; It was a day to be lazy, to read his favourite blogs, to shuffle through the takeaway menus and decide what film he might watch later. His brother Steve usually phoned some time around late morning, but his friends tended not to. Not because of John’s plans, or lack of, but because they were all married and ‘sprogged up’, in John’s words. In short, they all had something much better to do. 

John hadn’t resented this at first; he’d actually felt quite sorry for his friends. No sooner had they met a nice girl than the socialising had stopped and they’d been consigned to a few beers at home and the odd family BBQ at weekends. Then the bump appeared and life as they knew it was over, period. No, John hadn’t minded this – he’d driven past the buggy strewn driveways and seen the toddler on board car stickers and he’d raised a wry eyebrow and smiled. But as the years wore on, and more of his mates succumbed to the shackles of marriage and the inevitable patter of tiny feet, John began to wonder if there might be something wrong with him. Why didn’t he want this for himself? Was it unnatural not to be married at 39 years old? Was he unattractive to women? 

And so, that Saturday morning as he flicked through the entertainment channel and reached for the menus he kept on the coffee table ready for Saturday evening, John made a decision, he needed an adventure. Something life-affirming, something he could talk about when the work-chat about teething and griping and first steps got too much. Something to make his life different. John flicked off the TV and got his coat. 

End of extract.

 

Detailed line edit - red = to be removed: John didn’t do much on a Saturday morning [If he didn’t do much, is it worth drawing our attention to this? Not a strong opening sentence. The semi-colon is best replaced with a full stop so that the first sentence is short and punchy]. It was a day to be lazy, [Saturday mornings were John’s lazy day.] [Shorten the occasional sentence to vary the rhythm.] to [He] read his favourite blogs, to shuffle [shuffled] through the takeaway menus and decide what [picked a] film he might [to] watch later. [I’ve removed some words which aren’t necessary to the unfolding story; the intent is the same, but the sentences are now less cluttered.] His brother Steve usually phoned some time around late morning, but his friends tended not to [this sentence doesn’t tell us anything dynamic – remove]. Not because of John’s plans, or lack of, but because they were all married and ‘sprogged up’, in John’s words. In short, they all had something much better to do. [John sounds a bit whingy here, so I’ve struck through these two sentences. We need to be drawn in by some impending crisis or adventure. Rephrase to: The solitude had crept up on him. This makes us wonder why – it’s a hook. It keeps us guessing.] 

John hadn’t resented this at first; he’d actually felt quite sorry for his friends. [Don’t tell us this. Show us instead – can we work it out ourselves, from his behaviour? I think so, from the next sentences] No sooner had [I’m uncluttering this sentence by removing words that don’t really tell us anything] [When] they met a nice girl than the socialising had stopped and they’d been consigned to [. Then, they’d only commit to] a few beers at home and the odd family BBQ at weekends. Then [Because there are two repeated words in bold close to each other ('then'), I’ve changed the second as follows.] [When] the bump appeared and life as they knew it was over, period. No, John hadn’t minded this – he’d [seen] driven past the [hyphenate next two words] buggy-strewn driveways and seen the [add inverted commas to enclose words on car sticker] ‘toddler on board’ car stickers and h[.H]e’d raised a wry eyebrow and smiled. But as the years wore on, and more of his mates succumbed to the shackles of marriage and the inevitable patter of tiny feet, John began to wonder if there might be something wrong with him [Again, don’t let your reader become irritated by John’s choice of words – we need to build up some reader-narrator trust here, so I’ve made subtle changes to convey the same thing without John sounding quite so unpleasant]. Why didn’t he want this for himself? Or did he? Was it unnatural not to be married at 39 years old? Was he unattractive to women? [John’s worries that he isn’t attractive will interest the reader, because a flawed character with insecurities is easier to like. I’ve removed one sentence which didn’t tell us anything new and slowed the narrative down.] 

And so, that Saturday morning as he flicked through the entertainment channel and reached for the menus he kept on the coffee table ready for Saturday evening, [removing unnecessary words which don’t add anything to our understanding of the scene will speed the narrative up] John made a decision: [use a colon here because you're revealing the decision] he needed an adventure. Something life-affirming, something he could talk about when the work-chat about teething and griping pains and first steps got too much. Something to make his life different. John flicked off the TV and got  [reached for] his coat. [I’ve swapped a static word for an ‘action’ word, here, because it seems to fit much better.] 

End of extract. 

 

The result will always benefit from a further tightening up of the prose, but with much lighter touches now. These small changes are shown in brackets/words to be deleted shown in red: 

 

Final result: Saturday mornings were John’s lazy day. He read his favourite blogs, shuffled through takeaway menus and picked a film to watch later. [But] the solitude had crept up on him. 

John hadn’t resented [didn't resent] this at first. When they [his friends] met a nice girl the socialising stopped. Then, they’d only commit to a few beers at home and the odd family BBQ at weekends. When the bump appeared[,] life as they knew it was over. John hadn’t minded this – he’d seen the buggy-strewn driveways and the ‘toddler on board’ car stickers. He’d raised a wry eyebrow and smiled. But as the years wore on, and more of his mates succumbed to marriage and the inevitable patter of tiny feet, John began to wonder if there might be something wrong with him. Why didn’t he want this for himself? Was it unnatural not to be married at 39 years old? Was he unattractive to women? 

And so, that Saturday morning as he flicked through the entertainment channel and reached for the menus on the coffee table, John made a decision: he needed an adventure. Something life-affirming, something he could talk about when the work-chat about teething and griping pains and first steps got too much. Something to make his life different. John flicked [turned] off the TV and reached for his coat. 

End of edited extract

 

The end result is that the story reads much more energetically, with some of the unimportant detail removed. The sentence rhythm is more varied, and John doesn’t seem to be quite so whingy. 

I always include a short sectional detailed line edit in clients’ reports and coaching projects – if you can learn to line edit your own work strictly, then your writing will improve as a result, and your final product will be much more sophisticated.

 

Happy writing!

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