What Is Line Editing? Line Editing vs. Copy Editing

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Nov 5, 2019 • 3 min read

Masterful writing isn’t just about telling a compelling story—it’s about finding the most effective language to tell that story. That’s where a line editor is indispensable. While the job has commonalities with copyediting and developmental editing, line editing is a distinct art and a critical part of the writing process.



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What Is Line Editing?

More art than science, line editing ensures that the sentences in a book or article are as effective as they can be. A line editor is attentive to the writer’s individual style (for that reason, the job is sometimes called stylistic editing) and approaches the manuscript as a careful reader.

A line editor works line-by-line, tightening up sentence structure so the language is sharp and clear. They look closely at how a writer’s word choice and syntax contributes to the tone or emotion of a piece of writing. Finally, a line editor is concerned with the overall pacing and logical flow of a piece.

Line Editing vs. Developmental Editing

Developmental editing occurs early in the writing process; a developmental editor considers the big picture arc of the project—from the relationships between characters to the themes to the way scenes and chapters are structured. Line editors, by contrast, are more concerned with how the writer uses language at the level of the sentence and paragraph.

Line Editing vs. Copy Editing

Line editing comes before copy editing. Where line editors are concerned primarily with questions of style, copy editors are concerned with mechanics. A copy editor ensures that the language in a manuscript follows the rules of standard English and adheres to the house style guide. While a line editor shares certain attributes with a copy editor—an attention to detail, an interest in the way language works at the sentence level—their jobs are meaningfully different.

Consider the following sentences:

Wiley stood out on his Montana porch watching the sunset ambiguously. The boiling orb descended under the palm-trees.

A line editor might look at the above passage and wonder if “boiling orb” is the best way to describe a sunset or if the adverb “ambiguously” contributes anything to the sentence. They might ask what the thematic import of this moment is meant to be and whether there isn’t a clearer way for the writer to convey it.

A copy editor would likely point out the missing comma between “porch” and “watching.” They might also mark “under” as the wrong preposition and delete the needless hyphen in “palm trees.” They might even point out that palm trees aren’t typically found in Montana.

While a line editor will often catch mechanical errors in passing, it’s ultimately the job of the copy editor to comb a manuscript for typos and other mistakes before it goes to print. That’s why copy editing comes after every other part of the manuscript has been finalized. A separate proofreader may be hired when there is the luxury of time before print, but proofreading and copy editing will often fold into one step if the project is on a tight timeline.

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How to Line Edit

A line editor goes through a manuscript sentence by sentence, asking questions about how the language itself is working. For example:

  • What is the tone of this passage? Do the words successfully evoke that tone?
  • Are there any extraneous words or needless digressions?
  • How do the sentences fit together? Do they flow naturally from one to the next?
  • Is the language precise and free of clichés?
  • Is there a consistent point of view? If the POV shifts, does it do so in a logical, consistent manner?

In addition to the edits themselves, a line editor may be responsible for working directly with the writer to talk through the edits, resolves disputes, and address questions about the writer’s intent. The actual line editing process can take the form of a single pass by a trained line editor, but it may also involve several rounds of back-and-forth between the writer and the editor.

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