Ruth E. Walker. When I first started writing, I didn’t know the difference between a line edit and a copy edit. After some workshops and lots of reading, I learned there’s similarity between the two. Which is good to know because not only do I edit my own work, I edit other people’s work.
Both line editing and copyediting skills zero in on how you are using words. When done properly, they both give you helpful notes and editing marks on your manuscript. Check out some of those marks with a free download from Writer’s Digest of 11 Editing Symbols All Writers Should Know.
It’s so easy to miss errors in your own writing. That’s why I’m immensely grateful to have a consistent critique group. Even so, my editor at Seraphim Editions caught things my colleague writers missed. But he commented that mine was a cleaner manuscript than he often sees. Yay critique group! Yay me!
My editor, George Down at The Book Band, still asked some tough questions and challenged some of my choices. But a good editor is supposed to make you think hard about your work. I was pleased that he didn’t have to spend too much energy on copyediting and line edits. Instead, it was more about substantive editing: he pointed out missed opportunities in the manuscript — areas where I needed important connections, transitions or back story. More on substantive editing in a future post.
So what is the difference between a line edit and copy edit?
A line edit focuses on the creative side of writing: your style, how you use language in each sentence and paragraph. A line edit helps you achieve clear meaning that helps you connect with your reader.
Line edits eliminate unnecessary words, phrases, sentences:
- • weak modifiers (such as: very, really, so)
- • adverbs (such as: suddenly, slowly, allegedly, terribly, utterly)
- • vague references (such as: this, that, those)
- • repetitions (such as: saying the same thing in different ways)
- • clichés (such as: straight as an arrow, dead as a doornail)
Line edits identify weak verbs that could be more active:
• she walked by
• she sauntered; she ambled, she strode…etc.
Line edits alert you to awkward sentence structure and unnecessary details:
• He looked up into her face above him, for a moment.
• For just a moment, he looked up at her face.
Copy edits zero in on the technical aspects of all writing:
Are you correct and consistent in when and where you capitalize words? Have you missed hyphenations, quotation marks or commas?
If you’re writing non-fiction, a copy edit should catch where you don’t have your facts straight. Accuracy and consistency is important for fiction too: If the moon is out in the beginning of the scene, how come it’s snowing at the end of the paragraph?
I have a confession to make.
I cannot keep my editor’s eye on only one kind of edit. If I’m doing a line edit on someone’s manuscript and I notice a typo, I’m going to point it out. I’ve tried to look the other way, but I want the work to be as good as possible, so I mark the error. Similarly, when asked for a copy edit, well, if the sentences are stumbling over clichés and characters are moving through physical impossibilities, I will mark that too.
But my first pass on my own work is to bring a line edit focus. And it should be the same for your work: focus on the craft, on the language you’ve used, on the images you’ve included, on the mood you want to convey. This focus strengthens your creative voice. You are the chef, so help your sentences offer the kind of magic that swallows your reader’s imagination whole.
Don’t spend your energy (or editing budget) on just getting the spelling perfect. That won’t matter if your story doesn’t hold anyone’s attention. And it won’t reflect what you want it to: a great story that connects with the imaginations of readers, editors and publishers.
At our Spring Thaw writers’ retreat, we kick off the weekend with a feedback session. Both Gwynn and I receive, in advance, up to ten manuscript pages from the writers attending the retreat. We each review those ten pages and make line and copy edit notes for the writers. And then we meet with them for a one-on-one chat about their work. We love hearing more about each writer’s plans. We talk about plot, about character development, about markets and agents. And sometimes, writers use that one-on-one to discuss an outline or query letter.
I think Gwynn and I enjoy it so much because we have both benefited whenever an editor or mentor met with either of us to comment on our work. It can make all the difference to be able to ask a question and feel safe in doing so.
If you have any editing questions, why not write to Dr. Edit? The Doctor is always “IN” and ready to take your questions. Send an email to email@example.com with Dr. Edit in the subject line; the Doctor will answer you directly and we’ll feature your questions and our answers in upcoming posts.