Principles of Line-Editing

A writer over on the teenlitauthor listserv asked me what question I've never been asked that I would love to answer, and while I'm not sure how exactly one would ask me a question about this, I love love love talking about editorial craft. And I'm in the middle of line-editing a fabulous fantasy translation right now for Summer 2008, so I've been thinking a lot about that particular aspect of the work. These, then, are the loose principles that guide my line-editing (with the very large caveats that every novel has its own voice; you can doubtless find examples of violations of all of these in the novels I've edited; and literary rules are made to be broken):

  • a) While voice and atmosphere and description are all important, always keep an eye on the ultimate informational and emotional points of the scene and make sure everything in the scene serves those (or serves scenes yet to come).
  • b) Same principle as (a), but replace the word "scene"with "novel."
  • c) The first chapter should be action, with just enough information about the characters and setting to make the reader interested; the second chapter should be backstory.
  • d) Just as scenes often benefit from "establishing shots" setting up where the characters are going and who is present, paragraphs often benefit from "topic sentences" that establish what the paragraph will be about as the reader moves through it.
  • e) A scene (and often a paragraph) should end on the literary equivalent of a fermata: a summation or gathering up of everything that's come before it, the final note you want the scene to hold in the reader's consciousness; but also something you don't want to hold too long -- something to tip the reader into the next scene.
  • f) Be very suspicious of all descriptions of feelings and adverbial dialogue tags, as the action and dialogue should carry those; and cut both wherever possible.
  • g) Watch for repetitive rhythms, particularly in dialogue; it's easy to fall into the pattern [Character A says something], [Character B thinks about it], [Character B responds verbally], [Character A's facial expression is described], [Character A says something], [repeat all]. Vary the patterns of speech and response, and cut internal responses and facial expressions if they're redundantwith the dialogue.
  • h) Unless there is a very good reason for this to be otherwise, the protagonist of a book should have positive energy, especially if the protagonist is also the narrator. Positive energy is generated by the character taking action and being funny (even sarcastic) or hopeful or helpful or smart or kind or a sharp observer -- someone we can root for, for whatever reason. Watch for things that undercut that energy -- the character being described as "whining" or "complaining"; too much of the character's pessimism in speech or thought; the character being overly self-deprecating or self-righteous or passive to the point where we start to lose respect for him/her -- and keep those to a minimum, especially at the beginning, when the reader is still getting to know the character.
  • i) Make limited use of dialogue tags other than "said."
  • j) Within reason, try to avoid passive voice.
  • k) But for goodness' sakes don't have every verb in active voice.
  • l) Explanations are odious.
  • m) Every word counts.