Is Line Editing a Lost Art?
August 13, 2019 9:20 AM   Subscribe

The duality arises from the word: line. Line suggests a sense both mercurial and typographic. A line is poetic and literal; where the hope of intention meets the reality of the page. Line editing is the ultimate union of writer and editor; the line-edit means we cede control, and the pen, to someone else. It is a gift of trust, and it must go both ways. "A great teacher is a gift. A great line editor is a miracle.".

Line editors are often mistaken for copyeditors. Copyeditors tend to polish and perfect work at a later stage, but the confusion is telling. George Witte, editor-in-chief at St. Martin’s Press, has said “many copyeditors do the work that line editors should have done.” Often copyediting is done from a distance, but [...] line editors have a direct relationship with the writer. They are a book’s “ideal reader,” according to Witte, and because they have often been the writer’s acquiring editor, are also the writer’s “source of money, the point of contact, the guide through the publishing process, the cheerleader, the writer’s advocate, the person to cry to, or, perhaps, to complain about, the lunch or drinks companion, sometimes the friend, and above all the most attentive and most honest reader of an author’s work.”
posted by philip-random (18 comments total) 24 users marked this as a favorite
 
Over in fandom, people are line-editing each other's work in great numbers, every day, for free. Just sayin'.
posted by praemunire at 9:33 AM on August 13 [4 favorites]


Over in fandom, people are line-editing each other's work in great numbers, every day, for free. Just sayin'.

But as a population, are they good line-editors? Do they bring the intelligence and sensitivity needed to the job? I don't know, that sounds snarky now that I say it (I need an editor for my comment!), but fandom (and relatedly, self-publishing) seems to have an overwhelming number of volunteers for editing and beta-reading but not necessarily the skills this piece is talking about, an artistic but also collaborative but also sorta antagonistic relationship.
posted by mittens at 9:45 AM on August 13 [9 favorites]


I think it depends on your relationships with your betas. I know a number of writers in fandom who have co-authors where the writing process is collaborative at this extent, but they also often collaborate from the plot on up to make things happen. I also know a lot of people w

(I have done writing projects like this, and I really love them. When they work, they work so very, very well.)

But there has to be a lot of trust between the writer and editor to cede this level of control and effort. There's got to be trust and commitment to a fundamentally collaborative process, and there needs to be an acknowledgement of resolving conflict that revolves in part around how strongly one of the two people involved feel about a given issue.

I'm currently really frustrated with a different, nonfictional writing project, and I think that one of the things that has me so angry and frustrated about it is the existence of a power dynamic that makes me wary about advocating for things I feel strongly about when there's a difference of aesthetic opinion. If I want to fight hard for something, I don't have the leverage that a writer who is writing for free with a friend does. I don't have the power to set boundaries around the things in the work that matter to me, and that's really a crummy position to be in.

I have to wonder whether the reason I see more of these very close writing relationships in fandom than I do elsewhere is in part because fandom, being noncommercial and choice-based, takes some of that power differential off of an editing relationship and distills it down to being about the work itself.
posted by sciatrix at 10:02 AM on August 13 [4 favorites]


Oh man, book publishing is such a weird process. It's a business, which means there has to be an eye toward the audience and sales and so on. And the vast majority of books are just shoveled out without much regard to quality beyond "professional looking." And then there's the top-shelf stuff that people take seriously, that's supposed to win awards but not necessarily make money. The stuff people call "art" whether or not it's significantly different from the other stuff.

And there are tons of talented writers out there, but not so many with the endurance and thick skin it takes to get published, or with a "hook" that allows the story of their book to stand out. People seem to succeed at random, whether deserving or not.

Working in publishing was a big reality check after majoring in English. It's true that only a butcher can enjoy how the sausage gets made.
posted by rikschell at 10:30 AM on August 13 [9 favorites]


takes some of that power differential off of an editing relationship and distills it down to being about the work itself.

Oh man so much this. Working with an editor in this way feels like a fundamentally different process, to the point where it’s a different art entirely. And that’s fine! But maybe not so much when it’s in the context of a power imbalance. That turns it into something else again entirely.

I also want to note that editors as really close collaborators tend to be erased when we talk about great fiction, and they were often the wives of the “great writers.” So. There’s that, too.

Anyway. I tend to think this kind of collaboration, as it’s own art form, probably can’t be forced. If you find someone you work with like this, great. But it’s not necessary for fiction. It’s just different.
posted by schadenfrau at 10:38 AM on August 13 [2 favorites]


For the last few years my main income has been freelance copyediting for academic presses. Single-author books and edited collections in the humanities and social sciences.

many copyeditors do the work that line editors should have done...

This, a thousand times this. There are no more dedicated line editors at the presses where I work. Instead, I'm expected to de facto line edit the books, as well as proofread them after typesetting. The mandate for copyeditors has become "doing whatever will enhance the clarity of the writing" – a capacious description that encompasses everything from perfecting an author's argument to imposing house style for hyphenation. So I put my PhD to work on their sometimes-abominable writing, and get credited as a hyphen janitor.
posted by Beardman at 10:50 AM on August 13 [17 favorites]


But as a population, are they good line-editors? Do they bring the intelligence and sensitivity needed to the job

It's a big group. I'm sure talent levels vary. I've seen people edit the hell out of each other's work, though. I wish I had people like that to edit my professional written work, rather than bosses who have more complex motives.
posted by praemunire at 2:11 PM on August 13


Once in my writing (so-called) career, I've had what I'd call a proper line-editing experience. It was long ago in an undergrad creative writing class where the prof (who knew his shit) took my first submission and truly went to town on it. He wasn't cruel but he was firm. "If you want to be taken seriously as a writer of creative prose, these are all the things you can't do." It wasn't easy but I learned more from that one assignment than pretty much anything else I'd ever encounter in any course or workshop (and maybe all of them put together). He took a look at the mess of stuff I'd given him, intuited what I was really trying to accomplish, and communicated that back to me, word by word, line by line.

I suspect you'd be absurdly lucky to come across such a thorough and competent and professional read (and response) from somebody you happened to cross paths with online.
posted by philip-random at 5:51 PM on August 13


Line editing is a true joy with a good writer. I have done it several times on lengthy and short things, and when it was with a good writer, such a pleasure. With a great writer, a fucking high.

Done with someone professionally, you have to be super-polite and careful and it's much more restrained. Still enjoyable if they're good. Done in fandom, it's a little like Pacific Rim.
posted by dorothyisunderwood at 10:04 PM on August 13 [3 favorites]


I've had to do line edits a lot, and almost always with people I'll never have any direct contact with, which can make things tricky (like that time I just cut half a page from a book). I always include justifications, etc. It's mostly worked out, and of course the writer reviews things before anything is published.

But yes, copyeditors do every damn thing now. I'm technically a production editor, but 95% of my job these days is copyediting, and I'm expected to do *everything*.

I did have one bad experience with line editing, though, from the other side of it, where the fiction editor for a journal worked with me to produced what I thought was the very best version of my piece--we went over the suggested changes together, I made some additional adjustments based on feedback, and we both agreed they made the work stronger, and I was sent proofs for approval, which I reviewed and approved--and then the editor printed something that had a significant line edit done to it *after that process* that I hadn't seen or approved, and it wound up erasing most of the adjustments we'd agreed on, making substantive changes, and also significant stylistic changes that I felt made some things much weaker. I was some pissed, I can tell you.

Line editing is one hell of a balancing act, and even a lot of professionals don't understand how to make it work or have the skills to pull it off.
posted by Fish Sauce at 6:28 AM on August 14 [1 favorite]


I read the piece, but I am still not sure what distinguishes "line editing" from just "editing". Please hope me.
posted by thelonius at 6:34 AM on August 14


I suspect you'd be absurdly lucky to come across such a thorough and competent and professional read (and response) from somebody you happened to cross paths with online.

You know the same people are online as off, right? As an example, one person I know who does this for her friends online is, in fact, a professional literary agent for SF writers you will have heard of, who does a lot of this same kind of work prior to submission for her clients. And you can't throw a rock without hitting someone who has the same formal qualifications as any junior person doing this work might have (e.g., literature degrees from good schools). But, putting aside bourgeois and timid credentialism, one thing fandom has a lot of is people who love texts, who spend a lot of time thinking about them, who write themselves, and who may have been doing all this for years. The ability to work with texts isn't a super-power or a technical accomplishment accessible only to professionals, it's a skill you develop over time if you happen to care and pay attention. (For most of human history, we haven't had professional line editors, and yet somehow...) And another thing fandom has is people who care a lot about your particular subject matter. You'd be unbelievably lucky to find a line editor who cares personally about your novel in the way that a fannish beta will care about your Aziraphale/Crowley story being the most awesome version of that story possible.
posted by praemunire at 7:45 AM on August 14 [4 favorites]


Fannish stories tend to be (although are not always) much shorter. I'm way happier to line edit, for example, a 8,000 word piece about Aziraphale throwing a particularly satisfying strop for free than I would be to be someone's goddamn novel. (Which isn't that I wouldn't do this for a novel--honestly, the odds are that I'll do that at some point, I know way too many writers--but it's that you have to pay someone to do that kind of work accordingly, and if it's not in love it had better be in cold hard cash. Shorter works are easier to do.)

It's also much more likely that if someone is doing something like that on a fannish work that they will get way more acknowledgement in discussion of the work, up to and including co-author status in some cases. If someone else is shaping the plot and arguing with you about what scenes to include, not just going over and sanding down the language itself... most fic writers I know would be collaborating with that person closely enough to go "fuck it, this is both of ours" and acknowledge co-authorship. That kind of editorial collaboration, at that level of investment in the work, is

(Also, man, who do you think is hanging out online? What kinds of folks do you think are sitting in the room with you? Because fannish spaces in general aren't actually any less articulate, eloquent or highly thoughtful than Metafilter is--and actually, my personal fannish spaces draw an awful lot of overlap with the sorts of folks and interests I find here. Yesterday's set of conversations in one of those spaces for me included:
-a compare-and-contrast of Superman vs. Captain America in the context of the experience of marginalization; a very sharp discussion about the importance of voting despite voter suppression that would not have been out of place on one of our old megathreads
-several reams of thoughtful meta about what certain, very specific scenes in the Good Omens miniseries conveys about the mindset and emotional experiences of characters
-two different discussions about those in the context of queer experience and how specific scenes can be interpreted in line with that experience, and what a universal queer experience might be anyway
-a very long discussion about the potential uses of adapting very old Classical stories to new contexts in order to say things about modern experiences, why that's valuable, and different approaches to doing so
-my own gleeful exclamation of joy over a fanfiction that included a joke about being an eromenos vs erastes in ancient Greece
-four potential interpretations of someone's half-considered scene involving an elf looking at a human's math, bursting into laughter, and saying "oh, I can't WAIT to see how this turns out" before leaving. These revolved around dissecting possibilities involving both the correctness of the math itself and the elf's potential motivations for being mysterious about it
I have also spent the last three weeks listening to a librarian friend I know from fannish circles gleefully rip through a quite enjoyable SFF series (premise: Napoleonic Wars with added dragons) whose author got her start in fandom writing. There are a lot of people these days who are published authors of original works who started out in fandom learning to write there, and that's actually how I got into following SFF publishing stuff like the drama around the Hugos in the first place.)

What on earth makes you think that fandom doesn't include people who have both the writing skill and the editorial skill to make this kind of line editing possible? You're here listening to a bunch of randos on the Internet talk about their interpretations of this piece. Why do you think other communities of randos on the Internet might not be willing to do this sort of thing in exchange for similarly enjoyable pieces of art?
posted by sciatrix at 8:38 AM on August 14 [4 favorites]


thelonius: "line editing" is a thorough, line-by-line review with suggested changes (or in some extreme cases, partial re-write) of individual sentences and words, primarily for style and "voice". Copyediting is basically tweaks to grammar and punctuation (mostly for consistency and clarity), and substantive editing is for the logic and flow/tone of the piece of writing as a whole.

Most of the time line editing doesn't happen at all, or when it does happen copyeditors are roped into doing it for free/lower rates than what you'd charge for a line edit, even though it's much more work. It's sometimes called "copyedit plus," although I've had that include fact checking as well.

I've type-type-deleted like 1,000 words on the fandom vs professionals argument, but I don't want to derail too much. Suffice it to say that both sides of the argument piss me off more or less equally.
posted by Fish Sauce at 9:06 AM on August 14 [6 favorites]


What on earth makes you think that fandom doesn't include people who have both the writing skill and the editorial skill to make this kind of line editing possible? You're here listening to a bunch of randos on the Internet talk about their interpretations of this piece.

Because almost everything you just described sounds like "fun" to me, and in my experience, line editing feels like work -- ie: something you can't just let drop if the going starts to get difficult, frustrating, like a surgeon can't just decide to pull out of a particular surgery half-way through. Because like surgery, I guess, I think of line editing as extremely delicate work. It's not just about having the tech skills and an artistic temperament relevant to the piece in question (I have no doubt that fandom has a lot of this), but there's also a bunch of almost undefinable interpersonal stuff involved, because if a line editor is doing it right, they're pretty much dissecting a living thing (the piece) which can't help but include aspects of the writer's psyche-soul etc.

Line editing is one hell of a balancing act, and even a lot of professionals don't understand how to make it work or have the skills to pull it off.

I suppose I've had screenwriting story-editor experiences that are similar to line editing, yet necessarily different because screenplay and prose are such different forms, with such different goals. A fairly recent one that comes to mind started out brilliantly, but after a few sessions, it started to bog down. I felt he (the story editor) had shifted incrementally from someone who shared my goals for the movie in question to somebody who was pursuing stuff that was outright antagonistic to some of them. Finally, mid-session, he put a stop to it. "I need to take a break," he said, "I've lost my objectivity. Which is why I'm on the job in the first place."

Maybe a month later, we started up again and everything went fine.

I've type-type-deleted like 1,000 words on the fandom vs professionals argument, but I don't want to derail too much. Suffice it to say that both sides of the argument piss me off more or less equally.

Well, this particular comment of mine hasn't burned through a thousand words yet, but I hear you. And looking back on it now, the temptation is just to delete it and move on. But nah, it's Metafilter, I think I'm still allowed to be an amateur here. Final thought on the pro-am argument. Way back when while editing a sort of elevated fanzine (ie: I was getting paid) I made an absolute hash of somebody's think piece. That is, I thought I knew where they were going with it. I thought I could help get it there. But the print deadline came up before I had succeeded and I ended up signing off on something that made significantly less sense than his original submission. And, of course, I left his byline on it. What a blunder!

That was not professional.
posted by philip-random at 9:26 AM on August 14 [3 favorites]


Ah, yeah, and you'll note a line in my first comment here including a sentence I meant to finish and didn't, which is hardly professional myself. I think I primarily object to the notion that skill, rather than effort, is the thing that's hard to find in a gift economy. You can find both, but I think it's much harder to get great effort when your currency is ephemeral and folks gotta eat. Especially experienced effort.

That said... I don't know, where's the multidimensional line between work that's done for fun and work that's done for pay and work that's done out of the desire to see the finished piece hit an audience and hit a reaction? It isn't always clear to me in the moment.

I'm also not really thinking about line editing as a discrete entity between the discrete entities copy editing and authorship, but a place along a continuous or near continuous spectrum of investment with and engagement with a work in progress. I think that this spectrum exists on a orthogonal axis to effort, though. Longer works take more effort, but not in a way that scales past a certain point of effort.... hm.
posted by sciatrix at 9:53 AM on August 14 [1 favorite]


thanks, Fish Sauce! INFORMED.
posted by thelonius at 11:13 AM on August 14 [2 favorites]


Because almost everything you just described sounds like "fun" to me, and in my experience, line editing feels like work -- ie: something you can't just let drop if the going starts to get difficult, frustrating, like a surgeon can't just decide to pull out of a particular surgery half-way through. Because like surgery, I guess, I think of line editing as extremely delicate work. It's not just about having the tech skills and an artistic temperament relevant to the piece in question (I have no doubt that fandom has a lot of this), but there's also a bunch of almost undefinable interpersonal stuff involved,

I have to tell you, it just sounds like you're having a really hard time imagining that fandom has a significant supply of smart, experienced, committed people (writers or editors). Because:

because if a line editor is doing it right, they're pretty much dissecting a living thing (the piece) which can't help but include aspects of the writer's psyche-soul etc.

Exactly on what basis do you conclude that cannot be what happens when the people aren't getting paid cash money? It doesn't devalue your work if women do it for free out of love, friend.
posted by praemunire at 1:13 PM on August 14 [2 favorites]


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