Sunday, September 7, 2008

A Line Editing Tip

Most of us believe that what we read is what we wrote. That’s not always true.

Sometimes what we read is what's in our head.

We write a chapter or passage, we read it, we make changes, we polish it, we give it to our critique group. They read it and bleed red all over it or can't make sense of it. How is that possible?

I'm not talking about the big picture here -- the reader doesn't understand the motivation of a character or his or her arc, or maybe you've described a setting and the reader can't picture that setting or follow a sequence of events. I'm talking the actual words.

You get the piece back from your critique group or a reader and you're amazed to see that you left out complete words, small words like "the" and "of," big words, vital words like "eligible" or "most." Or perhaps you substituted words like "ever" for "every."

Words that you should have caught. But you didn't. Sometimes even after multiple readings.

That's because you're "reading" what you thought you wrote instead of what you actually wrote.

As the editor of your own work, how do you prevent that?

There are several things you can do. One is to put the work away for a while. That way, when you take it out to read, it's "new" to you and what you had in your head has had time to dissipate, so you're, in effect, reading it as a disconnected critiquer.

But, let's face it, not many of us have the time or desire to give each chapter or passage time to sit and simmer. We're on a roll, we're inspired, or we're taking advantage of the muse while it's visiting.

Another thing you can do that's faster than setting aside your work is to slow down.

You can still read what you wrote, getting wrapped up in the emotions and the eloquence of the words. But once you feel like it's done, it says exactly the emotions and shows the sensual experiences you intended, you're ready to really read it. Word by word, slowly, deliberately.

Sounds easy, but it may not be for you because it's not a natural way to read. Our brains insert words and letters that we know should be there, even when they're not. In order to see what we're missing, we have to slow down and read each word deliberately, preferably out loud.

May not be as much fun as when you actually wrote the words, but line editing is more about accuracy than fun. It's about perfection. Maybe you have a critique group or reader who will catch those things for you. But they can get as tired of bleeding red as you do in getting back the marked up pages. And if you don't have a reader to catch those things, you better catch them yourself. Most agents won't overlook these mistakes; they'll overlook the entire manuscript.

Helen Ginger is a freelance editor and writer. You can visit her website and blog, follow her on Twitter, or join her newsletter, Doing It Write.


  1. This happens to me a lot. Also, since I do lots of typing on my laptop computer, sometimes it's hard to see where I've put a period or comma or left one out.

    I don't mind revising what I've written, in fact at times I enjoy it. However, I very much dislike editing my punctuation. It's one of those chores that won't go away even though I don't like it.

    Morgan Mandel

  2. Also, reading out loud into a recorder and playing back is a good way to hear the flow of your paragraphs.

    Good post, Helen!


  3. Excellent. The bane of writing!

    Other tips:

    1) Make it a text file and have a text-to-speech program read it to you (you can also make it a podcast to listen to while commuting!).

    2) Read it on a different screen: your phone, PDA, or eBook reader.

    I think all the words I intended are here...

  4. And a previous tip from a reader that goes right along with Mike's good tips - print the manuscript in a different font... maybe even a different color. That's if you can get over the environmental issues of all that printing and colored ink.... I like the recording idea better for the materials savings.

  5. Good tips, Helen. Thanks for sharing them. Eons ago before computers when I edited a slick quarterly magazine, the senior editor taught me a trick. He had me read each story line by line, covering the rest of the story with a blank sheet of paper. Worked well for a feature article, but not sure how to do that on a computer with a whole book. :-) But your suggestion to read slowly works.

  6. I usually record a full manuscript. Not so much for the line editing, but to get the feel of the flow of the story, the pacing, the sound of the words, I'll put it on cassettes and then listen to it in the car.

  7. Okay Mike. You're gonna have to teach me how to create a podcast. I haven't a clue.

  8. I like that idea Maryann. Reading line by line with the rest covered up would definitely slow you down enough to focus on the words.

  9. This happens to me so often, I think my brain is made of Swiss cheese. What scares me is that more and more it seems to be the most important word in the sentence I leave out.

    One tip I heard from an editor is to read the passage backwards, sentence by sentence, beginning with the last sentence. That way you take the flow of the story away and your brain can't cover up holes by anticipating what's next.

  10. I'd rather pay someone to edit than read the story backward! After so many drafts, I start to lose interest.

  11. Helen,
    I'm notorious for leaving out words. I just re-read one of my most popular blog posts and discovered I'd left an important word out in a sentence. Talk about embarrassing for an editor!

    I allow time between edits on manuscripts, but I definitely need to slow down on blog posts.

  12. You're so right; we do read what we *think* we've written, rather than what's actually on the page. This week I photocopied a chapter from my novel for all of my writing group colleagues, and then read a passage from it. To my amazement, everyone around the table picked up on the fact that I read straight through a mistake without realising it was there. I read what I *thought* I'd written, but everyone else read what was actually there. Great post!


The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.


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