line editing – learning from editors

If you are writing a book, it is highly likely that the publisher will send your manuscript to an editor. Most academic publishers these days do not engage editors who do a lot of developmental and structural work. So it won’t be one of those editors. OK then, what does the editor that academic publishers generally use actually do?

Academic publishers generally employ editors who make sure a manuscript is fit for publication. And these editors don’t just proof read the text, they line edit. (Well sometimes these days they do copy editing rather than line editing but I don’t want to get into that here, and I apologise for the commercial link – I was in a hurry. )

Fit for publication? Well that applies to a thesis or paper too. You may be able to employ an editor to go over your thesis text – some universities have funds that PhDers can access for professional editing. You are generally expected to say at the front of the thesis if your thesis has had a professional editor work on it. And what the thesis editor also largely does is to line edit. Papers? Sorry, you’re generally on your own. DIY editing.

The editor who looks at your book manuscript wants to make sure that the text is readable, internally consistent and is free of grammatical and factual errors. The thesis editor does the same, although they have to be even more careful about not letting a look at internal consistency stray into something substantive. That’s your job to sort out, not theirs.

So what do editors look for when they line edit? Editors don’t approach your text with an open mind, looking to see what jumps out at them. No, editors take a systematic approach, which involves having a set of criteria in mind. It’s pretty helpful to understand their systemised approach, and to add this perspective to your own revising strategies.

I have a cousin who is a professional editor, so I frequently browse her editing books. I was recently looking at material about line editing. I stopped at one book, The Editor’s Companion, where the author, Janet Mackenzie, offered a set of questions that she asked of every sentence. Yes, she asked questions of every single sentence in any text she was working on, regardless of text type. Here are her questions:

  • Is this sentence needed?
  • Does it belong in this paragraph, under this heading, in this chapter?
  • Does it follow logically from the one before?
  • Is it precise and succinct? Is it well-written and grammatically correct? 
  • Is its content probably accurate?
  • Does its content need to be supported by referencing?
  • Does the sentence contain any specialist terms that need to be explained, either in the text or a footnote, or a glossary?
  • Does it contradict statements made elsewhere in the book?
  • Is it consistent in terminology and style (spelling, capitals, hyphens) with the rest of the book?
  • Does it contain any cross-referencing (to another chapter, a table, an illustration) that needs to be checked? Or should a cross-reference be added? 

Now I am sure that you can see from these questions that line editing takes time. And it’s much more than proof-reading. Line editing is what it says on the tin – you have to take each sentence one by one. Line editing is slow work.

If you are writing a book you can assume that the professional editor will do this slow work, but you still need to have a good stab at it yourself. The editor should follow in your line edit steps.  If you are writing a paper or a thesis and not using a professional editor, then there is no-one to fall back on but yourself. Or a friend you might persuade to do it for you.

I know it’s very tempting to rush through the line edit stage. Particularly after a really big or tough bit of writing work. You may be exhausted and over it. You just want to press the button and send it off. But poorly edited text is really off putting to the reader. And you really don’t want a reviewer or examiner to see you as a sloppy scholar. So it is pretty important to summon up your last reserves of patience and, armed with the questions above, or something similar, take the time to make your text the best it can be.

Line by line it will get better.

Photo by Daria Nepriakhina 🇺🇦 on Unsplash

About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
This entry was posted in line editing, revision, revision strategy and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s