After working out the plot points, developing characters and reading notes from beta readers, the time arrives to go through the manuscript line by line. Take off the writing hat and don the editor’s cap because line editing demands total ruthlessness. Yes, time to kill those darling sentences, replace passive verbs with active ones and delete entire sentences, even paragraphs if they fail to move the story forward.
I actually enjoy this part of the writing process. The most challenging part of writing a novel is writing the first draft and including the plot points. But since I’m line-editing my fourth novel now, I’ll stay alert to common writing errors in future novels. So when we play the role of cleanup crew, what gremlins require ghost-busting?
While going through each sentence, read them out loud. Does the sentence sound clunky? Do you find yourself tripping over words? Can you draw up a distinct image or does the sentence appear foggy? Does the sentence propel the story forward or cause you to yawn and skip a few pages of details? Imagine if you feel this way the readers will also lose their patience.
You have two choices if the sentence doesn’t fit the above criteria (clear, concise, moves the story forward or provide imagery for the reader), rewrite the sentence or toss it.
Do you find long passages of the character musing about the past or their current feelings about a situation? The readers expect some musing from your characters, but they don’t want to drown in it. This is a good time to shorten the passage(s) by condensing sentences by using active verbs. Also look for repetition of sentiments, combine sentences or ideas into one sentence. Your readers will get your point.
Do you have too much dialogue? I have trouble with this myself because I tend to write chatty novels haven fallen in love with talky French movies. One solution is to cut up the dialogue by adding body language responses such as, “he shrugged,” “she pouted,” or “she jutted out her chin.” And if we listen to real dialogue we would notice that few people speak in full sentences unless they’re lecturing a class or giving a speech presentation. Characters cut each other off, complete each others’ sentences or if they’re nervous, stumble over their words. No one speaks in the Queen’s English any longer. So sharpen dialogue to get us into the characters’ head space or hearts and to move the story forward without dumping too many details on readers.
Decide how much description is absolutely necessary to give readers an image of the characters, setting and story. Some authors (such as myself who started out writing screenplays) tend to leave out important imagery details while other authors wax on like some literary giant of the golden era. Beta readers help with this process. This is why it’s a good idea to give beta readers a list of questions to answer. I like to include questions about imagery (too much or too little?), tone, pacing, character development, plot twists and this all depends on the beta reader’s background.
Finally, fact check your manuscript. Then look for silly errors (we all make) such as with the characters’ actions lacking congruency. For instance, while line-editing my current novel “Love Quadrangle” I noticed that in an earlier scene my character Miranda ambled away from Pierre’s Jeep but later, she slams the door of the Jeep. I chuckled and then fixed that glitch. You might notice that at the beginning of the novel a character has red hair and green eyes, but halfway through the novel she’s now blonde with blue eyes.
It’s actually easy to make these errors and not because writers are lazy. Some writers get caught up in their stories as if they are watching a movie. I often feel swept away by my characters and instead of seeing the finer details, I’m engulfed by the bigger picture. We space out and lose the plot or we ground ourselves so deeply in the story that we fail to give the story its breath or heartbeat.
The last thing I’ll mention is if you have professional characters, research those professions and find a beta reader who can give you advice on the details of their profession. Better yet, go to a site that represents the profession, check out the space, pay attention to the rhythms, colors, tones and nuances while also interviewing the professional. I’ve even heard of writers/authors doing this in medical and even police settings, so if you have an in, use it. Find these professionals on social media then follow through.
By doing our initial line-editing, we have a better chance of landing deals with agents and publishers. We prove that we are willing to sharpen both our writing and editing skills, and that we don’t mind the learning curves thrown at us. As authors, we get better and better with every book or novel. And who says that each step of the process doesn’t provide some treasure. Just like polishing furniture brings out the natural grain of wood, line-by-line editing brings out the essence of a novel.
Originally published on Bonjour Bellingham