Editing week, Level 3: Productive paragraph- and line-editing

Image: Huffington Post

Today’s question is simple: how can an editor and author collaborate to make a draft better? The editor must function as “first reader” and provide feedback that explains problems, not just solves them. That’s how you make writers smarter.

Assume you’re reading a draft as the main editor for a piece of writing. First, figure out what stage it’s at, and determine if it’s ready for a detailed line-edit:

  • If you can’t figure out the point of the piece, go back to ROAM analysis and idea development. Painful as it may be, the author is going to need to rip stuff up and rewrite. Resist the urge to line-edit; there’s no value in moving words around in a pointless draft.
  • If the idea is sound but the draft meanders, go back structural editing. Work with the author to figure out how to rearrange the parts into a coherent whole. Again, don’t line-edit; it’s pointless to fix the words until the structure makes sense.
  • If the sequence of ideas is basically sound, then concentrate on the words and paragraphs. This is paragraph- or line-editing.

What is line-editing?

I don’t distinguish between paragraph- and line-editing — once you’re fixing words and paragraphs, you’re line-editing. Here’s my definition:

Line-editing means reviewing a draft as a reader would, identifying problems in the text, and suggesting solutions.

Notice what line-editing isn’t: it isn’t just suggesting words to change. Your job is to identify problems and suggest solutions. Think of a baseball hitting coach who observes the hitter, notices that he’s lunging at outside pitches, and suggests repositioning the player’s feet. He has identified a problem and suggested a solution, but it is the hitter’s job to deal with feedback and implement the solution.

What the writer brings to line-editing

This is easy: the writer brings a draft.  But what sort of draft is ready for line-editing?

A draft worth line-editing is, as far as is possible, complete. This means it’s got the examples, the stories, and even some version of the graphics. It’s ok if something is missing (“I have to get two more examples for these bullets” or “Can’t figure out if I should include a short description of analytics here” or even “Not sure of the best ending.”) But every missing element makes editing less productive. So the author should paper over the weak parts with some text to allow the editor to evaluate the piece as a whole.

The writer should also include comments about the draft. Counterintuitively, as a writer, you should reveal your weaknesses. This tells the editor where to focus. You’ll get suggestions and you might even find out that the problem you imagined is not so bad. But unless you reveal your weaknesses, the editor can’t effectively help you to fix them.

[tweetthis]How to make a weak draft stronger? Reveal your doubts to your editor.[/tweetthis]

Here’s what not to put in the commentary on the draft: excuses. The reader doesn’t care if you were up late, you’re worried about corporate politics, or you had a competing urgent problem that messed you up at the last minute. And the editor shouldn’t, either. As an editor, I ignore these excuses and concentrate on the text. So don’t waste time making excuses for why things aren’t good, concentrate on making them better.

What the editor brings to line-editing

Editors start as writers. So they naturally want to rewrite what they read to fix it. This is the wrong approach. It does violence to the writer’s voice and teaches them nothing.

Editors: Don’t put yourself in the shoes of the writer. Put yourself in the shoes of the reader. Where the reader would have trouble, you should offer a solution.

This means you’re looking for all sorts of problems. Here’s an incomplete list:

  • Weak titles and openers. Suggest ways to focus the reader’s attention at the start of the piece.
  • Stuff in the wrong order. Where the logical or story flow is flawed, suggest how to rearrange things.
  • Stuff that belongs together. Find hidden themes and suggest ways to highlight them or turn them into sections.
  • Things to delete. Suggest getting rid of warm-ups, long transitions, redundant paragraphs, and generally, extra words.
  • Structure that needs to be more visible. Suggest places to use bullets, subheads, graphics, and other visible elements that clarify the structure of a piece of writing.
  • Stumbling points. Find words, phrases, and paragraphs that don’t seem to fit, or don’t seem to make sense. Identify why they gave you a problem. (“This confused me, because I though you were saying/going to say . . . “)
  • Unconvincing arguments. Point out where examples or statistics would shore up arguments that fall short.
  • Toxic prose. Become sensitive to passive voice, jargon, and weasel words. Suggest rewrites or cut them entirely. Every adverb is suspect.

How to actually do a line-edit

Read the whole draft fist, identifying problems as you go along. Then mark it up electronically on Microsoft Word or Google Docs (if you’re using a red pencil on paper, you’re in the wrong century). Use the comment feature liberally and the text-editing features less.

  • Where the text has gone wrong, explain your reaction. “I couldn’t figure out what this sentence meant.” “This whole section adds little. Could we cut it way back or lose it entirely?” Explain what you think is wrong.
  • Suggest how to fix it. “Pull all this stuff about the cloud up to the top and explain it there.” “These are not parallel. Rewrite as commands.” “Passive. Rewrite in active voice.”
  • When you edit words, explain why. Use the redline feature (track changes) to show what you are changing. Obviously, if you’re fixing a typo, just fix it. But if you have suggested a different set of words, explain why (for example, “This is a cliche. I’ve suggested something less hackneyed.”).
  • Write a note to the writer. When you’re done, sum up the biggest problems and clue the reader in on what they’re going to have to concentrate on. Avoid personal criticism — comment only on the text, not the writer’s shortcomings. And start and end with praise (the criticism sandwich). Here’s an example:

This was a very solid draft. I think we are in good shape here, and all the problems are fixable.

I really think you should move the stuff about changes in the governance to the top. That’s a really important point, and shouldn’t get its first mention two-thirds of the way in.

I’ve highlighted some problems. You need a better example of why a project failed; the one you use is not convincing. Your sections aren’t parallel and they should be. You’ve got a lot of extra prose that could get replaced with bullets or tables, and that will make things more readable.

You’ve also got way too much jargon. I’ve highlighted that and suggested alternatives.

You asked about whether you talk too much about corporate politics. I’m glad you brought that up; I think you do. You can keep about half the references, and delete the rest or recast them in different terms. It’s a fixable problem; I’ve suggested fixes.

Please throw yourself into these improvements. I know this is going to be great once we sand off those rough edges.

Finally, it really helps to walk through this on the phone, with both people looking at the marked up draft. It’s a way to for the editor to draw attention to specific element and answer questions where the writer is confused about comments. And it helps make sure important edits don’t get the “Oh, I didn’t notice/ignored that” treatment.

What to produce: another draft

The result of all this editing should be a draft that’s further along. Keep editing as long as needed.

If this process is working, editors will make more word-edits and fewer comments in each draft. This can be disconcerting to writers who see lots of redlines, but it’s a good sign. Word-edits mean that there are small, local, fixable problems, not broader issues that require rewrites. Ideally, this process yields a draft that won’t have any conceptual edits left. And at that point, you’re ready for copyediting.

Good editing makes writers better

Consider two approaches to line-editing.

In one, you just suggest words to change. The writer changes them. The resulting prose might be better, but the writer, unless they are very intuitive, learns little.

In the second, you explain why problems exist and how best to fix them. Every edit is a chance for the writer to learn ways to write better — a lesson. And when you’re done, not only is the draft better, but the writer is smarter.

Editing with reasons is more work for the editor, but it makes for better writers. And improving writers, not just prose, is every editor’s real job.

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  1. Wrong century? That’s harsh. Am I less capable if I get better results in some ways on paper than in digital formats? I think it’s fair to say that each has it’s place, and I use both, happily dancing between centuries, and just as efficiently!

    If I could afford a 12″ ipad and a kick-ass stylus, I might be convinced to dump my pencil case — but what if the power goes out? Happened. For days! Glad I had my pen then…

    I love your posts. I’m new to your blog but already hooked. Thank you!