The Value of Line Edits (and when to do them)

I was recently asked:

Do I pay attention to every single word when I’m writing?

When I’m doing a first draft, no. It’s basically all get it on the page, move on, and keep going. When you’re writing a first draft that may end up being 150k on the first draft, you’ve got to make sacrifices. Self-editing as you go is one of those sacrifices. If you keep stopping to evaluate and re-evaluate your work, you’re not making progress—you’re getting stuck.
But when I’m revising? Hell yeah. I try to, anyway.
I overshoot the optimal word count in my first drafts. It’s a hazard of putting yourself on a daily word count goal. Sometimes you write a bunch of fluff, but hey, at least you’re writing.
But paying attention to those words on a micro level is something you naturally end up doing if you’re trying to condense word count. It makes your prose tighter, more efficient, and stronger. That’s why I do the Show Don’t Tell series, where I provide examples of bad writing and show how to make it shine a bit brighter.
I hear agents say it all the time: you can fix a bad story, but you can’t fix bad writing. So I try to make sure my story is as strong as it can be on my own. I only go to others when I feel like I’ve really reached my limit. (note: this does not count the number of times I go to people to rant at them about plot-related issues, which is always.)
What I try to do, and what I always advise others of doing, is to be mindful of wanting to extend your limits, learn, and do better.
So far, my editor and agent have taken steps to help me make the story flow better so it makes more sense on a macro level. We haven’t gotten to line edits yet. But honestly? Other people can only really tell you what isn’t working as opposed to how to make it better.* They can give suggestions, but it’s ultimately up to you to decide what works best and how you want to put your plan into action. You need to be your and your story’s best advocate.
And maybe I’m a weirdo, but I love LOVE line edits. If I can make this passage make sense just because of the way it’s communicated as opposed to big picture changes, perfect! If I can whittle down the word count without losing the story, then I should. In fact, I often find that when there’s a misunderstanding of plot, it doesn’t always stem from the plot itself but can stem from a text-level miscommunication.
The best way to illustrate this is when someone says: “I don’t understand why X happened.” Your gut response might be to say: “It says so right there on the page! Or: It’s implied by this moment/scene right here!” Chances are that you know what you want to say, but you’re not saying it right.
I’m a big big BIG believer in the power of line edits. They make the story stronger. It’s tough to reshape a story without paying attention to both the bones AND the meat.
In fact, I’ll often do a round of line edits *before* big picture edits, because it’s easier to get at the bones of the story when there’s less fluff.

So when should you do line edits?

If you’re like me, you might start right after finishing the first draft.
First drafts are ugly beasts that need lots of TLC. They’re like a golem that slipped in the mud and broke its arm. Yes, you want to treat the injury, but you might need to clear away some mud before you can see the extent of the damage. You have to clean a wound before you can treat it.
There’s an added benefit to doing them right away: it gets you into the story, it allows you to get that easy, low-hanging fruit like typos and tense issues out of the way, and it’s a good way to get into your story and read it again.
But you definitely want to do your line edits before submitting your work anywhere, because it’s easy to overlook a bad story, but it’s difficult to overlook great writing. Great writing = great revision.
*and let me tell you, when your editor occasionally underlines one of your sentences and puts two or three exclamation points beside it because they loved loved loved it—that’s the moment when you run around like a maniac with a dopey grin on your face and proclaim to the world: LOOK AT THIS BEAUTIFUL SENTENCE. I WROTE IT AND IT’S AWESOME AND AND ANDD I AM A WRITER—LOOK AT ME WRITE.**
**this is of course followed by a note  a few pages later that makes you question an entire thread of the plot, which in turn makes your stomach sink and your mind fall into a pit of buzzing bees until you can find a solution***
***and then when you find a solution, refer to asterisk #1
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3 thoughts on “The Value of Line Edits (and when to do them)

  1. Pingback: Bad Story, Great Writing | words — and other things

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