Thursday, June 14, 2007

Principles of Line-Editing

A writer over on the teenlitauthor listserv asked me what question I've never been asked that I would love to answer, and while I'm not sure how exactly one would ask me a question about this, I love love love talking about editorial craft. And I'm in the middle of line-editing a fabulous fantasy translation right now for Summer 2008, so I've been thinking a lot about that particular aspect of the work. These, then, are the loose principles that guide my line-editing (with the very large caveats that every novel has its own voice; you can doubtless find examples of violations of all of these in the novels I've edited; and literary rules are made to be broken):

  • a) While voice and atmosphere and description are all important, always keep an eye on the ultimate informational and emotional points of the scene and make sure everything in the scene serves those (or serves scenes yet to come).
  • b) Same principle as (a), but replace the word "scene"with "novel."
  • c) The first chapter should be action, with just enough information about the characters and setting to make the reader interested; the second chapter should be backstory.
  • d) Just as scenes often benefit from "establishing shots" setting up where the characters are going and who is present, paragraphs often benefit from "topic sentences" that establish what the paragraph will be about as the reader moves through it.
  • e) A scene (and often a paragraph) should end on the literary equivalent of a fermata: a summation or gathering up of everything that's come before it, the final note you want the scene to hold in the reader's consciousness; but also something you don't want to hold too long -- something to tip the reader into the next scene.
  • f) Be very suspicious of all descriptions of feelings and adverbial dialogue tags, as the action and dialogue should carry those; and cut both wherever possible.
  • g) Watch for repetitive rhythms, particularly in dialogue; it's easy to fall into the pattern [Character A says something], [Character B thinks about it], [Character B responds verbally], [Character A's facial expression is described], [Character A says something], [repeat all]. Vary the patterns of speech and response, and cut internal responses and facial expressions if they're redundantwith the dialogue.
  • h) Unless there is a very good reason for this to be otherwise, the protagonist of a book should have positive energy, especially if the protagonist is also the narrator. Positive energy is generated by the character taking action and being funny (even sarcastic) or hopeful or helpful or smart or kind or a sharp observer -- someone we can root for, for whatever reason. Watch for things that undercut that energy -- the character being described as "whining" or "complaining"; too much of the character's pessimism in speech or thought; the character being overly self-deprecating or self-righteous or passive to the point where we start to lose respect for him/her -- and keep those to a minimum, especially at the beginning, when the reader is still getting to know the character.
  • i) Make limited use of dialogue tags other than "said."
  • j) Within reason, try to avoid passive voice.
  • k) But for goodness' sakes don't have every verb in active voice.
  • l) Explanations are odious.
  • m) Every word counts.


  1. Great advice...I printed this one out to keep. Thanks!

  2. This was really helpful, Cheryl!!

    Keep blogging!

  3. Ah ... so THAT's what you meant when you said that my MC from Symphonians should have positive energy!

    Thanks for the list.

  4. *Very* helpful, Miss C!

    And don't forget: kill your babies!

  5. Thank you, thank you! I'll be using your points to look over my work.

  6. Wow. Thank you so much. I feel like I should hang this over my desk, aka, regular table at Starbucks.

  7. c is a good thing to know. Wish I would have known this a few years ago.

    Could you give an example of d and e?


  8. Thanks again for your insight this week on the teenlit authors listserv!

    I live overseas (6 hours ahead of E.S.T.) and a few times I saw your answers pop up in the morning (for me), which meant you were up LATE answering our's wishing you plenty of sleep this weekend. :-)

  9. Lizzy, here's an example of a topic sentence and a fermata, both in asterisks, both from SORCERER'S STONE:

    D) "**Nothing like this man had ever been seen on Privet Drive.** He was tall, thin, and very old, judging by the silver of his hair and beard, which were both long enough to tuck into his belt. He was wearing long robes, a purple cloak that swept the ground, and high-heeled, buckled boots."

    Such topic sentences aren't necessary for every paragraph, of course, but they're useful in paragraphs of narrated action or description like this one; they orient the reader or tell him/her the significance of the information, and the rest of the paragraph fills out the details.

    E) [end of Chapter 9] "But Hermione had given Harry something else to think about as he climbed back into bed. The dog was guarding something. . . . What had Hagrid said? Gringotts was the safest place in the world for something you wanted to hide -- except perhaps Hogwarts.

    ***It looked as though Harry had found out where the grubby little package from vault seven hundred and thirteen was.***"

    This pulls all the clues given in this chapter together into a dramatic conclusion, and most certainly gives you a reason to keep reading!

  10. I had to go out of town midway through your guest week at teenlitauthors, and when I got back it was over. BUT. I'm printing everything out to memorize and tattoo onto my brain. THANK YOU, THANK YOU, THANK YOU for all your thoughtful answers (and for coming back to my question about the mss that almost make it)!

  11. Oh, so helpful, thank you!

    I recently attended a conference where Dial Editor Nancy Mercado said she considered facial expressions, body language and the like a form of telling, rather than showing. A real eye-opener for me! Interesting to see you reference something similar here.

    Like they say, if it were easy, everyone would be writing kids books!

  12. Great post! It reminds me how HARD writing is! (okay, I hadn't actually forgetten that.) This is the kind of thing I always HOPE to get out of an SCBWI workshop and don't always get -- lists of concrete things. Thank you!

  13. (Oops! signed into my other blog. That was from me!)

    (And I just reread Sorceror Stone this week so it was fun seeing your examples there.)

  14. Thank you, this is wonderful advice!

  15. I liked reading this very much. Thanks!

  16. Very interesting. I think it is fascinating to learn about what goes on on the other side of the fence as it were. I love, love, love finding about craft.

    I enjoyed the article about you in the Carletonian, and finally got around to trying discover more.

  17. Hi there--I followed a link from Janice Hardy's blog, so I haven't read your posts before.

    You gave some great tips here, but the one that startled me was saying that chapter two was supposed to be backstory. I'll have to go through some of my books and look for that pattern for myself.

  18. I've picked up a couple of points that I had been overlooking. Thanks for sharing.