Line Editing: Definition and Examples

Unless you're an editor yourself or you're deeply familiar with the writing and publishing industry, different kinds of editing can be confusing. People often use the terms line editing and copy editing interchangeably. Some consider developmental editing a form of substantive editing.

With all the different editing terms, it's hard to know what kind of editor you need, much less what you'll actually be getting when you hire one.

So, to dispel some confusion, we'll look at line editing in this article. Plus, we'll compare it to some other types of editing to help you decide what you need for your manuscript.

Note: We also have a whole series about the different types of editors and and how to find the right one. Check out our Master Guide on the subject.

In this article, you will learn:
  1. What line editing is
  2. How it differs from copy editing, developmental editing, or proofreading
  3. Examples of line editing

What Is Line Editing?

A line edit deals with the flow, style, and readability of your writing. Line editors comb the manuscript line by line, sentence by sentence, looking for ways to improve your writing. They don't worry so much about proper grammar, spelling, or punctuation errors.

Instead, a line editor looks at sentence structure, word usage, overall readability, and the flow of your prose. They look for run-on sentences, clichés, improper words, and confusing scenes. And they do it all with your writing style in mind. In fact, line editing is sometimes called stylistic editing for this reason.

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What Sets Line Editing Apart?

Now, let's look at line editing vs other types of editing. Then we'll get into some examples of what a line edit entails.

Line Editing vs Developmental Editing

A developmental edit is usually one of the first kinds of editing that a manuscript will undergo — if it needs it. Developmental editing deals with the overall structure of the entire book. This includes the character arcs, relationships, and the major plot points. A writer will often seek out a developmental editor if they are struggling during the writing process.

A line editor isn't concerned with such a high-level view of the book. Line editing takes a more concise view and focuses on clarity, tone, word choice, and stylistic factors. The author should only utilize a line edit if they are happy with the plot and structure of the book.

Line Editing vs Copy Editing

Some editors refer to line editing as a type of copy editing (also correctly spelled as copyediting). This is because many people use copy editing as a general term for editing a manuscript. But, in reality they're two different services that require very different editing skills.

Copy editing deals with the mechanics of the writing. Like a line editor, a copy editor is also down in the weeds, checking the manuscript on the sentence and paragraph level. But where a line edit is all about the writing style, clarity, and conciseness, a copy edit is about correcting punctuation, spelling, formatting, and consistency errors.

Copy editors work from a style guide, usually based on The Chicago Manual of Style or The AP Stylebook. They will often give you a style sheet to explain why they made changes that may not be clear to you.

Substantive Editing vs Line Editing

Substantive editing (also called content editing) is an editorial service that deals with everything from structure and typos to punctuation errors and inconsistencies. A content editor will look at the book at the chapter level, the paragraph level, and the sentence level, making a wide range of corrections and suggestions for the author.

A substantive edit includes line editing, although it may not be quite as detailed as a devoted line editing process. Plus, substantive editing is usually more expensive than line editing because of its wide range of services. For an author who wants a professional editor to take an overall look at their book, substantive editing is a good choice.

Proofreading vs Line Editing

Proofreading is like line editing in that a proofreader will look for mistakes on the sentence level. But proofreading is more concerned with making sure that the grammar, punctuation, and spelling are all up to snuff. It's not a proofreader's job to suggest changing the sentence structure or replacing one word with another (although some proofreaders do this anyway).

A professional line editor may make some suggestions that would normally fall under the purview of a proofreader (or a copyeditor), but this is not the editor's primary concern. So it's important to have a proofreader go over the finished manuscript before publication, even if you've already had a line editor work on it.

Line Editing Examples

Now let's look at some examples of things a line editor is likely to correct in a manuscript.

Fiction Example

“Sybil stood her ground, passionately breathing in deep, creaky breaths, waiting for the moment she was sure would come at any instant, the ground around rumbling like a threadbare engine on its last gasp of gas — her eyes peeked from under the shelves of her brows like small glinting sparkles.”

There are a few things here that fall under a line editor's purview. Let's look at each of them in turn.

  • Word Usage – A line editor may suggest using other words in this block of copy. “Passionately” may not be the best word to describe breathing in this instance. We can say the same for “creaky.” Likewise, “threadbare” is often used to describe furniture and clothing, but not machinery.
  • Sentence Structure – This is quite the sentence. An editor may suggest splitting it up and getting rid of the em dash.
  • Description – We're missing some context here, but describing Sibyl's eyebrows as “shelves” from under which her eyes are peeking seems a little strange. Unless, of course, she has prominent eyebrows and small eyes, in which case this may be an adequate description.

So, let's look at what the copy above may look like after a line edit.

“Sybil stood her ground, breathing in great, rasping breaths, waiting for what would surely come next. She hardened her normally bright eyes in preparation as the ground under her feet rumbled like an overworked engine.”

This second version is more concise, clearer, and less distracting than the original version. It's also worth noting that if the story takes place before the invention of engines, a line editor would suggest removing that comparison entirely and replacing it with another.

Now let's look at an example you could expect from a line edit of a nonfiction book.

Nonfiction Example

The whole entire point behind email marketing for authors is to turn your writing hobby into a writing carer. But it takes work. And you must learn a lot of things during the process that you wouldn't have thought about before the process. But, given this day and age, it's now possible for people without a publishing deal to become full-time authors and live a comfortable life in the process. But you must make email marketing your best friend if you want to do this!

The paragraph above needs some work. A line editor would first ask, ‘What is the author trying to convey? What is the purpose of the copy?” For this paragraph, the author is talking about the importance of email marketing for an indie author's career. But there are some issues. Let's take a look at them.

  • Clarity – The writer is jumping around a bit, which can make the overall readability of this piece of writing suffer.
  • Conciseness – This could be said in fewer words and in a manner that gets straight to the point.
  • Repetition – The most glaring misuse of repetition is the sentence, “And you must learn a lot of things during the process that you wouldn't have thought about before the process.” A line editor would clean this up.

Here's what the text would look like after a line edit.

Email marketing is the key to turning your writing hobby into a writing career. But, like writing a book, it takes dedication, perseverance, and a willingness to learn. Thanks to technological advancements, it's possible to live a comfortable life as an author without ever having to sign a publishing deal — so long as you learn the proper use of email marketing.

Note that, in this instance, the line editor corrected the typo “carer” for “career.” Although this isn't a line editor's primary concern, you can expect a professional line editing service to fix some basic mistakes like that when they see them.

Line Editing: Conclusion

Getting an edited manuscript back from any kind of editor can feel like a gut-punch, but don't take it personally. The editor isn't attacking your writing skills or trying to make you rethink your abilities as a writer. Keep in mind that an editor's job is to improve your manuscript.

Many writers find the line editing process especially difficult because it has a lot to do with your style as a writer. But a good line editor shouldn't try to change your style; they should work with it to not only maintain your voice but to enhance it and make it clear and concise.

Before you decide on an editor, see if they will do a sample edit for a small fee. This can help you determine if the editor is a good fit for you or if you should seek out another one.

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2 thoughts on “Line Editing: Definition and Examples

  1. Donna S. Cohen RN

    Dear Dave,
    Thank you for your much needed insights about Vellum. I published a book with, and although they did a wonderful job, it is the marketing that has stymied me.

    I have written three books; all nonfiction. One was an ebook on traveling to Colombia, which Amazon pulled, most likely due to lack of sales. However, the few that read it rated it with 4 stars.
    I will not pretend that I am a marketer. In fact, coming from a background in Nursing, emails are not something that I can collect readily.
    My last book, A Nurse’s Guide to Plastic Surgery, needs some marketing first aid. In order to wave a carrot in front of new readers, I did start a Vellum book as a thank-you present. You have answered some basic questions I had about Vellum, so I am signing up for your emails.
    Mandarin? That is impressive. In our corner of the world, the challenge is Spanish.


    Donna S Cohen RN

    1. Jason Hamilton

      Thanks for all the kind words. Hopefully you’ll find some more resources on your site to help with the marketing. We’ve got a lot that can potentially help.

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