What is Line Editing?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 26 September 2019
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Line editing is a stage in the editing process in which a manuscript is edited for tone, style, and consistency. This stage of editing is extremely important for documents of all types and lengths, and a good line editor is a crucial individual in news rooms, publishing houses, and other organizations which produce printed material. Line editors can also be found working as freelancers, taking in work on a case by case basis.

As the term “line editing” implies, a line editor literally goes through a written piece line by line, taking the time to be extremely thorough and meticulous. Line editors may read a piece several times to ensure that it has been thoroughly edited, often starting with a rough pass to look for basic issues like spelling and grammar problems and then digging in deeper with each successive pass.

A variety of environments can be used for line editing, with individual editors having different work habits and preferred environments for work. Many line editors prefer quiet, because it allows them to focus, and while they may listen to music, they often choose music without vocals, so that the words are not distracting. The written material is typically printed so that the editor can go over it with a pen, although it is also possible to line edit on the screen, and line editors use a specific markup language to communicate about issues with the piece.


In addition to checking basic spelling and grammar, line editing also involves editing for style and consistency. In organizations with a style guide, the line editor makes sure that the guide is followed, and checks for common stylistic errors, like non-conventional spellings of words, failure to spell out weights and measurements properly, and so forth. A line editing session also involves a check for formatting errors, which are especially common when documents are passed between multiple computers.

Finally, line editing is also about tone. Line editors keep a close eye on word usage, looking out for mis-used words, overused words, words used as crutches, and words which do not belong. Many authors tend to rely on specific words, using them over and over again, and a line editor seeks those words out and eradicates them or recommends replacements. Line editors also read for flow and tone, thinking about how a piece reads and editing to keep it smooth and enjoyable.

While line editors are not fact checkers, the line editing process may also involve an eye to citations and the information discussed in the piece. If information seems unlikely or exaggerated, a line editor may suggest that the author confirm the information and provide a citation. Likewise, a line editor will tone down hyperbole and add emphasis where it seems merited.

After line editing, a document should be much tighter and smoother, and it can progress to editors who edit the actual content, looking for errors and other issues.


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Post 7

I enjoyed the definition of line editing and copy editing and all the comments. I want to read more. I helped an ornithologist, Bertin Anderson, on a couple of books on White-cheeked geese (Canadian g.) with editing work.

I didn't know anything about editing or geese. In my opinion he did an incredible publishing job on a two-volume work left in rough shape by an ornithologist. I'm hoping now to help a gentleman with a law project.

Post 6

@anon279886: Believe it or not, you're the exception, not the rule. I have a B.A. in English and have worked for a newspaper for nearly 20 years. I edit copy every day and the journalism majors usually need much more work done on their copy for basic grammar than the English majors do. Of course, even the English majors are slipping now, because grammar is not stressed in college classes.

Even though I don't hold an editor's position, it's acknowledged in the newsroom that I'm the grammar nazi (in a good way), and if someone wants his or her copy edited and cleaned up, it comes to me -- often before an editor sees it.

In years past, the English majors

took classes where grammar was stressed, while journalism majors often were never required to take even basic grammar. They took freshman comp 101 and 102, some literature classes, and the rest were their journalism classes. That has changed, I realize, but in 20 years at a newspaper, it's usually been the English majors who made the better copy editors, just because their grammar skills were generally better.
Post 5

@GiraffeEars: No, you do not need a strong background in literature to become an editor. Having such a background can bring added value to a position, but it can also be a hindrance, because literature is often wordy, excessive, and colorful, while nonfiction (including journalism) is concise, straightforward, and to the point. I have a B.A. in journalism, and I am a far better editor than colleagues who have advanced degrees in English.

Post 4

Regarding chicada's post: Copy editors look for consistency and fix errors at the sentence and paragraph level. Line editors do a bit more than that. The whole-picture editors are commonly called developmental editors or substantive editors.

Post 3

@ Alchemy- From my understanding, a line editor looks at the minute details that make a piece whole, much like the article said. Line editors want to make sure that each sentence is as good as possible as well as ensuring the transitions between sentences and paragraphs are appropriate.

Copy editors, on the other hand, look at the whole picture. They are looking at character development, the flow of the overall story or piece, how engaging the piece is and how well the story progresses. They look more at the thematic elements of a piece, and try to make a piece as exciting and engaging as possible. This is what I know and I hope it helps.

Post 2

I am not sure how to become an editor, but I know that you need a strong background in English and literature as well as varied knowledge on other subjects. I would also recommend reading books on editing mark-up language, style manuals like Chicago style, MLA, and APA. Become familiar with all of the different styles. I would also recommend taking a course or two on editing.

I know my university offers editing courses through the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism. This would probably give you a solid foundation in editing, and help you pass any copy editing test that a potential employer might give for correction. You also might want to offer your services at a university or for a blog site to help build your editing portfolio.

Post 1

How does one learn how to copy and line edit? I have thought about learning editing skills since I like to write, but I have no idea where to turn. Additionally, are line and copy editing the same thing? Thank you to any wiseGEEK that can answer my questions.

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