What do I mean by line editing?
To me, line editing is not just catching typos and correcting grammatical errors, although it’s certainly includes that. It’s about improving and tightening your prose. It’s about killing your darlings, cutting unnecessary words, and rewriting first draft sentences with stronger, more precise language.
So, as much as I want to, I’m not going to school you on proper comma usage. There are plenty of places to go on the Internet for that. And this article from Diana Urban does a great job explaining unnecessary words to delete: 43 Words to You Should Cut From Your Writing Immediately.
For example, this sentence contains several unnecessary words:
I just really think that he’s wrong.
Let’s improve it:
I think he’s wrong.
Ah, much better.
But, like I said, line editing goes deeper. There are so many ways to trim your prose and make it more effective.
Let’s start with a pre-test.
The sentences below are not grammatical incorrect. But they could be improved. How would you revise them?
- She crept slowly down the hall.
- On the sand lay a dead, bloated, gelatinous, pale grayish-purple jellyfish.
- He walked aimlessly through the store, picking up random items from the shelves then putting them back in the totally wrong places.
- “I can’t wait until Friday!” she exclaimed jubilantly, flapping her hands with excitement.
- “So, hey, look, I’m…uh.. I’m just really sorry,” he said apologetically.
- “I didn’t, like, actually want to break up with you,” he said, staring down at his shoes.
- Walking down the sidewalk with their hands in their pockets, no words were said as they headed towards home.
- Her cheeks were flushed with heat, and she was covered in sweat.
- He extended out his hand and took the money from her hand.
- I stepped into the room, which was cool from the air-conditioning, and walked over to the the table, which was covered in delicious food.
Lesson 1: Adverbs and Adjectives
First, a famous quote from Ursula K. LeGuin:
“Adjectives and adverbs are good and rich and fattening. The main thing is not to overindulge.”
When line editing, you want to hunt down every adjective and adverb and make sure they’re pulling their weight. Too many qualifiers can clutter your prose, making it sound clunky or childish.
- A strong verb is always better than a weak verb paired with an adverb.
- A specific noun is always better than a less-precise noun paired with an adjective.
As for multiple adjectives in a row? Choose the very best and delete the rest.
#1 She crept slowly down the hall.
The verb “crept” already carries the notion of slowly, so we don’t need the adverb:
slowlydown the hall.
#2 On the sand lay a dead, bloated, gelatinous, pale, grayish-purple jellyfish.
These are great descriptors but, whoa, six in a row! Let’s see what we can delete. Jellyfish are gelatinous by nature, but that’s also a great word. If the jellyfish is on the sand, we might assume it’s dead, but maybe not. Do jellyfish get bloated when they die? Not sure. Pale grayish-purple… is there a more specific color we can use? Maybe compare it to something pale grayish-purple? This one is tough, but here’s my answer:
On the sand lay a dead
, bloated, gelatinous, pale grayish-purplejellyfish, its gelatinous body the color of a faded bruise.
Notice I still used gelatinous (it’s such a great word!), and in fact this sentence still has three adjectives (dead, gelatinous, and faded), but they are not squished together in a row.
#3 He walked aimlessly through the store, picking up random items from the shelves then putting them back in the totally wrong places.
Walked aimlessly… Is there a strong verb we could use instead? I’m okay with the qualifier of “random,” but do we need the word “totally?” Also, there are some who might think we need a comma before “then,” but we don’t. (I know, I said I wouldn’t teach about commas, sorry!)
walked aimlesslymeandered through the store, picking up random items from the shelves then putting them back in the totallywrong places.
Want to learn more line editing lessons and get the “answers” to the rest of the pre-test? Come subscribe to my writing-resources newsletter and check out Line Edit Lessons Session 1 and Session 2, along with lots of other great online courses, such as:
- Cultivating a Regular Writing Routine
- How to Find the Right Literary Agent
- Getting Started on Your Novel
- Souped-Up Suspense: How to Write a Super-Twisty Mystery, Thriller, or Suspense Novel