What, Why, and How of Line Edits

13 Jun

Line edits have dominated my writing time of late.

What are Line Edits?  These are the sentence-level edits — trimming and rearranging words without losing content, clarity, or voice.

Why Line Edits?  I aim for what I’ve heard termed “window pane prose” — clean prose that doesn’t draw attention to itself, but displays the story to the reader.  Trimming unnecessary gunk allows the prose to flow smoother and the story to shine.

How to Line Edit? There are lots of ways to edit at the sentence level.  Reading out loud can be very helpful — the tongue trips over things the brain doesn’t.  Often I do this, but I tend to get wrapped up in the story and miss the trees for the forest.  Sometimes changing the font can help the manuscript look new.  I know some folks who start with the last sentence in the book and work their way to the front, but I’m not coordinated enough to do that.

So I keep a list of potential “problem” words, then search through the manuscript for every instance of it.  This helps me ignore the story and focus on the words.  My awesome husband recently programmed me a macro for Word to streamline the process, and kindly shared his work here.

I don’t always cut the words on my list.  They’re not bad words.  Sometimes they’re even the best word.  But I’m often able to find cleaner prose by cutting them.

Filtering Words: Wondered, Hoped, Thought, Realized, Considered, Could see/hear, The sound of, Saw, Watched, looked

I believe I have Janice Hardy’s excellent blog to thank for this list.  All of these words appear in my manuscript, but I cut most of them.  Often, these words act as a filter between the reader and the POV character, instead of letting POV pull its own weight:

Example: Lizzie glanced up at the diner clock and sighed.  She realized she was late for the night shift again.

Lizzie glanced up at the diner clock and sighed.  She was late for the night shift again.

Result: Cut two words, kept everything else.  Tighter POV. -2 words.

Example: Lizzie stared down at the open ring box in Rick’s hand.  She thought about his offer.  She wondered if she’d be happy with him.  She could see that the pawn shop ring was gold, with a small diamond, inside a velvet box that looked fancier than the ring itself.  Her throat tightened.  No, she shouldn’t accept — she never could convince herself that their relationship was anything more than a second-hand love in fine trappings.

Lizzie stared down at the open ring box in Rick’s hand.  Could she be happy with him?  The small pawn-shop diamond and its gold band gleamed coldly in a velvet box fancier than the ring itself.  Her throat tightened.  She should say no.  Their relationship had never felt like anything more than second-hand love in fine trappings.

Result: Rearranged the prose to let the description show time spent thinking and reinforce her emotional state.  -18 words.

Example: “I saw Rick proposing outside,” June said, handing Lizzie a fresh mug of coffee.  “Want to talk about it?”

Result: Without the “I saw”, this sentence would read like June is trying to relay new information to Lizzie, when Lizzie obviously knows this.  Clarity, content, and voice are the goal, so this stays.

Overused Words: was, were, just, very, a little, started, began, even

I’ve cobbled this list together over time, noting words that I either use too often, or that could often be replaced with stronger, better words.

Example: Lizzie was going to lose her job over this, but feeling badly about dumping the boss’ son just wasn’t going to pay the rent.

Lizzie would lose her job over this, but moping about dumping the boss’ son wouldn’t pay the rent.

Result: More clarity, -6 words.

Example: Lizzie started to drink a little of the coffee.  “Just what I needed.  Thanks, June.”  She knew that she was smarter and stronger than this.  Tomorrow, she would start applying for every job that she was qualified for.  Rick wasn’t in control of her life anymore.

Lizzie sipped her coffee.  “Just what I needed.  Thanks, June.”  She was smarter and stronger than this.  Tomorrow, she’d apply for every job she could.  Rick didn’t control her life anymore.

Result: Note that while I cut a lot, I left the “just” in the dialogue, because deleting it didn’t make sense, and rewording it would sound stilted (“This is exactly what I needed”).  -15 words.

Going through the manuscript, cutting one or two words here and there takes time.  But in the end, I get a novel that’s easier on reader’s eyes.  Time well-spent.  The more I search for problematic words, the more my lazy brain refuses to type them in the first place.  Anyone else have a list of line edit words they keep?  Any other favorites to watch out for?


Posted by on June 13, 2013 in POV, Revising, writing craft


10 responses to “What, Why, and How of Line Edits

  1. Janis McCurry

    June 13, 2013 at 7:12 AM

    Nice macro. Thanks to hubby. I often find myself using “pet” words and have to go back and delete. Excellent examples, MK. Thanks.

  2. stephanieberget

    June 13, 2013 at 8:08 AM

    Reading aloud does help me find my overused words. It seems like little fits into nearly every sentence. Thank you husband for the macro. I’m off to implement it now.

  3. Judith KeimJ

    June 13, 2013 at 8:10 AM

    Thanks so much for a wonderful blog, MK. You’ve done a wonderful job of showing how line editing can add a lot of power to the writing! Appreciate it!!

  4. Marsha R West

    June 13, 2013 at 8:43 AM

    Oh my goodness, MK! Thanks so much for the macro instructions. Give your hubby a hug for me. I sure hope I can set this up. I have 75 words/phrases that I always check with Find and then go through the entire ms for each of those words. Talk about time consuming! This should make it all go faster. Some of the words on the list are ones I don’t use, but still I check for them. Makes me feel good when I don’t find them. 🙂 I use a print out sheet with the words listed in two columns and write down how many I start with and how many I end up with. Gives me a real sense of accomplishment to seeing in a 92 K ms: “just” went from 260 to 27 or “was” from 749 to 389 (Still a lot, but you want dialogue to sound natural. “Started to” from 8 to 1. “Began to” 11 to 1. 🙂 Think I’ve got the hang of the “start/begin” thing, but others are still a challenge. The goal is to write in the first place without so many of “those” words. I hope I can make the macro thing work. Thanks for sharing. I’ll be FBing and Tweeting this one.

  5. Jennifer

    June 13, 2013 at 8:46 AM

    Great blog! The examples were really helpful. “That” is one of the words I overuse.

  6. mkhutchins

    June 13, 2013 at 12:01 PM

    Thanks for all the kind comments! Anyone who’s trying to install the macro, I’d be interested to hear how easily it did/didn’t load up. I’m hoping the instructions are clear.

  7. Lynn Mapp

    June 13, 2013 at 8:08 PM

    MK, thanks for the wonderful blog. I wrote down the overused words and the filtering words on sticky notes and put them above my computer screen. I loved your examples. Thank you so much.

  8. Corina Mallory

    June 14, 2013 at 8:35 AM

    What a great blog post! I use a lot of filtering words in my first drafts and cutting them always feels so satisfying during editing rounds. The word that seems to make its way into every darn sentence I write is “just.” I’m hoping that eventually my first drafts will be cleaner and require less line editing.

  9. maryvine

    June 18, 2013 at 3:55 PM

    This one is a keeper, MK. Thanks very much.

  10. Peggy Staggs

    June 19, 2013 at 8:43 AM

    I’ve always got what I call, my word of the day. When I go back and edit I find them. I too keep a list of words that are problems for me. I also have a list of useless words that I do a search for when I edit.


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