The Art of Line Editing.

Nick Ripatrazone describes the fine art of line editing for LitHub (but are those editor’s changes rather than Orwell’s in the image of the MS for 1984?):

Anyone in the business knows books are not solo acts. Toni Morrison, who was also edited by [Robert] Gottlieb, said she never wrote “with Bob in mind; that would be very bad for me. He isn’t the ideal reader for the product, but he is the ideal editor for it.” Line editors are not readers in the public sense; they are private practitioners, whose profession operates on a sense of both trust and authority. Gottlieb calls the receipt of a writer’s manuscript as an action of “emotional transference.” The days and weeks before hearing back are fraught, but writers know line edits are worth the wait—and the emotional weight.

Line editors are often mistaken for copyeditors. Copyeditors tend to polish and perfect work at a later stage, but the confusion is telling. George Witte, editor-in-chief at St. Martin’s Press, has said “many copyeditors do the work that line editors should have done.” Often copyediting is done from a distance, but as with Erskine and Ellison, Gottlieb and Heller, line editors have a direct relationship with the writer. They are a book’s “ideal reader,” according to Witte, and because they have often been the writer’s acquiring editor, are also the writer’s “source of money, the point of contact, the guide through the publishing process, the cheerleader, the writer’s advocate, the person to cry to, or, perhaps, to complain about, the lunch or drinks companion, sometimes the friend, and above all the most attentive and most honest reader of an author’s work.”

Line editors tighten sentences when tension and clarity is missing, but they also give sentences breath when constrained. Beyond removing clichés, they excise a writer’s pet words and mannered constructions. Line editors help sentences build into paragraphs, and paragraphs flow into pages.

There are good stories and quotes in there, and my copyeditor’s heart warmed when I read “many copyeditors do the work that line editors should have done.” Very true. (Thanks, Trevor!)

Comments

  1. To tell the truth, I’d never heard of line editing. It sounds excruciating, though.

    It’s very difficult to edit one’s own work, even if it is not ‘fine literature’. When I write (I don’t think I’m totally exceptional, although I seem to be worse than some of the excellent commenters on this blog), the product on the page is often a groping attempt to put jumbled thoughts into words, filtered through a miscellany of habits and mannerisms. No matter how you try, the faults of the original attempt remain. Months, even years later I read what I’ve written and cringe. How could I have missed that jarring, tortured phrasing, those completely repetitious statements? How could I not have seen that what I wrote is hard to make sense of? How could I not have seen the illogicalities and gaps in my thinking? How could I not have seen the topsy-turvy organisation of arguments, the less than seamless transitions between sections?

    It takes a third perspective to see what you have written through completely fresh eyes. Yes, line-editing sounds wonderful but excruciating.

  2. Bathrobe, past is a foreign country. Writing in the moment captures your mood and interests and they will not persist. Treat your own writing as somebody else’s and try to understand the stranger. Sergey Dovlatov ones wrote to his editor or publisher that some parts of his Zone* were lost when he tried to smuggle them out of Soviet Union and that he cannot rewrite them because the crucial thing was he himself at the point of life when he wrote it, the person that no longer existed and the one he cannot recreate.

    That said, writers of yore, lacking the benefit of a line editor and if they were not working under a deadline, used to let they work stay in the drawer for some time before editing and correcting it. At least, that’s what I remember reading about Gogol.

    * In English translation the full title is The Zone: A Prison Camp Guard’s Story. Couldn’t they come up with something less clunky, like The Prison Camp: A Guard’s Story

  3. David Eddyshaw says:

    When it comes to this blog, I generally notice my non sequiturs, fatal ambiguities and unaccountably omitted negatives three seconds before the editing timeout.

    Five minutes later I notice that John Cowan has already made the point I was trying for, about forty-five minutes earlier and with exemplary clarity.

  4. John Cowan says:

    You’re not the only one, nor is that notice one-sided.

  5. AJP Crown says:

    I agree with Bathrobe. Why, years later, can you immediately see the mistakes in construction or in thinking that weren’t apparent at the time you wrote the sentence? It’s similar in the visual arts; now I shudder when I see where I went wrong in a drawing or a design I made thirty years ago. It wasn’t evident at the time and not for want of looking.

  6. David Marjanović says:

    Bathrobe, past is a foreign country. Writing in the moment captures your mood and interests and they will not persist. Treat your own writing as somebody else’s and try to understand the stranger.

    It’s interesting how widely people differ in this. I’ve known someone who occasionally wakes up and is a whole new person – he can’t empathize with his past decisions at all; he remembers them, but it all feels like everything happened to someone else. At the other extreme, I often read an old thread here, find something to comment, and then find I made that exact comment years ago, sometimes down to the wording.

    three seconds before the editing timeout

    For me it’s between when I hit “post” and when the page actually refreshes… but that can happen twice in a row when I edit.

  7. he remembers them, but it all feels like everything happened to someone else

    When I find some comment online written by me many years ago, I am usually amazed at how smart I was back then (and how stupid I must have gotten over the years)

  8. David Eddyshaw says:

    Years ago I discovered some psychology essays I wrote in my first year at university. They seemed surprisingly good, though it was difficult to be sure, because the knowledge I apparently possessed at that time had vanished like dew in the morning as if it had never been. The subject matter was utterly unfamiliar.

    The handwriting was also remarkably legible. Perhaps they were somebody else’s essays.

  9. David Marjanović says:

    Ah, knowledge is another matter, where my comments here keep surprising me.

  10. January First-of-May says:

    Why, years later, can you immediately see the mistakes in construction or in thinking that weren’t apparent at the time you wrote the sentence?

    It’s worse for me, because as much as I thought my English was fluent, or even close to fluent, in the late 2000s, it was a lot worse than it is now (I won’t be surprised if it’s still not fluent, but that’s another question). So when I find comments I wrote in English in the late 2000s, I end up cringing at the terrible English quality.

    Fortunately, to the best of my knowledge, the oldest English comment by me that survives online is from February January 2008 (on the Wikipediholism test’s discussion page). I know that I’ve posted some in 2007 and even 2006 (and possibly even earlier than that), but as far as I’m aware, none are still extant.

  11. January, you should be happy to have proof you’re getting better at something.

  12. January First-of-May says:

    Well, to be fair, that 2008 comment is so ridiculously bad, that if I was any better at grammar (or whatever is actually applicable), I would have seriously been thinking about what those errors mean, and whether they’re just the influence of my native Russian or something else entirely.
    (In fact, I’m already wondering about that, I just don’t have the knowledge to do it properly, and the comment itself is so short, and so full of quotations, that it doesn’t make for much of a case study anyway.)

    To be honest, some of the phrasings there sound more like pidgins/creoles than anything else to me… and they don’t appear to make much more sense in Russian grammar, anyway.
    But maybe I’m just thinking of wrong parts of Russian grammar, and/or don’t have enough of a grasp on English grammar to figure out exactly what went wrong in the first place. (And it’s not like I know that much about pidgins or creoles, either.)

  13. Athel Cornish-Bowden says:

    No matter how careful your proofreading, no matter how many other people have proofread the same book or article, no matter how many times you have done it, you will find an error that escaped correction within the first few minutes of seeing the final printed result.

  14. Evan Hess says:

    “No matter how careful your proofreading, no matter how many other people have proofread the same book or article, no matter how many times you have done it, you will find an error that escaped correction within the first few minutes of seeing the final printed result.”

    The chances of this happening are in direct proportion to the size of the print run.

  15. “you will find an error”
    And it will cut you, and you will bleed.

  16. John Cowan says:

    When I bleed it is blood, when you bleed it is tomato sauce.

  17. Stu Clayton says:

    three seconds before the editing timeout

    I have patented a method for avoiding edit stress on longer comments. It involves composing the text in a different editor, and copying it to the edit box here only when I am finished. Details on request.

  18. David Eddyshaw says:

    That would spoil the excitement.

    Sure, there wants fire where there are no lively sparks of roughness.

  19. Stu Clayton says:

    I would rather roast my interlocutors than toast my typos.

    Rough Duchesses are hard to please:

    Speak roughly to your little boy
    and beat him when he sneezes
    etc

  20. John Cowan says:

    composing the text in a different editor

    I find that that doesn’t help. It is only when I see the text exactly as it will appear to others that the glaring fnord right there in the third graf becomes apparent to my horrified eye.

  21. Is it the copy editor’s responsibility to re-word
    sentences to get rid of orphans, the word at the
    end of a piece of text that takes up a whole new
    line?

  22. LL just wrote about a new book in the works, Because Internet, by Gretchen McCulloch. She writes in her website on the progress of the book: “I’m moving from developmental edits into line edits (aka, from battling a horse-sized duck to battling a hundred duck-sized horses)”.

    I’m imagining that I get it.

  23. David Marjanović says:
  24. David Marjanović says:
  25. A horse-sized duck walks into a bar, a story for which the world is not yet prepared.

  26. I’m imagining that I get it.

    If what you don’t get is the horse/duck thing, this may provide helpful context. (If it’s the nature of developmental vs line edits, it won’t be of any help.)

  27. The correct answer to giant duck questions is always given by “From Gustible’s Planet.”

    – via “Linebarger-In-Jokes Hat”

  28. I wonder if translators ever get line editors?

  29. I suspect it would be a difficult process. Any English-language line-editing without a knowledge of the original could turn out to be frustrating.

    LE: “I think it reads better this way.”

    T: “But that’s not what the original says.”

    LE: “But my edit means exactly what you wrote, only it reads better.”

    T: “@%&*. Let me go back and see if I could translate it differently / if that’s what the original author wants to say.”

    LE: “Ok, on to the next line…”

    This is not to deny that it wouldn’t be a useful exercise, but the translator could end up tearing his/her hair out. One partial solution, of course, is to team up with a native speaker to make sure the translation accords with the original, which might iron out some problems before the line-editing stage. Still, there are complexities involved in the very nature of translation that could make line-editing a difficult process.

    At any rate, my suspicion is that most translators don’t use either solution, that is, they don’t team up with native speakers, nor do they use target-language line editors, except in an informal way (that is, they ask someone to read it through).

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