One of my favourite words (after ‘semi-autobiographical’, ‘unputdownable’ and ‘wibbling’) is ‘palimpsest’. It refers to a manuscript whose surface has been written on and scraped away and written over many times, revealing odd fragments of old text underneath the latest one.
You can use it for other things too: ‘her face was a palimpsest of tragic experiences’. Not flattering, I admit, but she is a fictional character and she’s not going to read it. ‘His desk was chaotic, revealing a palimpsest of abandoned projects’. Type of thing.
How does this explain line editing, you ask? Well, I shall tell you.
The line editor hits her stride once the text is more or less OK. You’ve done the original draft and taken on board your editor’s list of ‘suggestions’ (roughly translated as hair-tearing ‘oh my god if she goes with that we’ll never be able to hold our heads up in publishing again’ moments). You’ve done the rewrite. You have, potentially, done the re-rewrite and the re-re-rewrite. The voice is there. The story is there. The characters are there. Your editor (who assured you she LOVED the first version, but just had a few ‘tweaks’ to propose) is THRILLED. In fact, you think you’re done.
But after several rewrites, the text of a novel becomes a palimpsest. Each time I do a rewrite I try to make it self-contained, but to a careful reader glimpses of previous drafts peek through. Sentences are suddenly out of context. Repetitions appear in unexpected places. Characters’ motivations have disappeared, or (as I’ve just found) they accidentally get motivated twice , because you’ve moved things around.
The line edit is the bit before the copy edit (be prepared – they keep sending the damn thing back to you for MONTHS), where a careful reader points out inconsistencies and annoying stylistic tics. She could be your original editor, or someone who specialises in this sort of thing. She works on the text you sent her and sends it back with track changes switched on.
Have you ever had an English essay back with red pen all over it and comments in the margins? Well, line editing is like that. Some changes are obvious: ‘him’ when you meant ‘her’. Some are interesting. I used ‘jigsaw’ as an analogy twice in book 3. Some are easy to fix. Some are VERY depressing. Two of my favourite scenes were cut to nearly nothing because they were slowing down the plot. (My editor had suggested I lose them in the last rewrite, but I’d ignored her. Hah! Comes back to bite you in the end.) You don’t have to agree with everything, but you have to justify yourself if you don’t. Sometimes the line editor points out an issue and leaves you to fix it in your own special way.
I follow the advice of Nathan Bransford (who is hotter than he sounds, by the way – check out his photo) and sit on a line edit for a few days before working on it. Otherwise you find yourself shouting at your computer screen a bit too often. Then I run through it, only looking at the changes, and accept all the obvious ones. I park all the tricky ones, or the ones I don’t agree with, then I go back and read through the text again, because some changes can only be made in context.
In book 3, there was an element of the plot that had bugged me from the start and I took the opportunity to rewrite it, which meant my track changes had even more changes and comments in than the version the line editor sent to me. This is good because it will make the book better, but bad because it means we have to do another line edit and go through the process again.
Then will come the copy edit. Spelling and punctuation. Line spacing. Simple stuff like that. With the original Threads, I enjoyed the main edit because I liked the challenge of rewriting, but I hated the copy edit, because I became very passionate about the use of the hyphen. I hope that by now, the copy edit will be a formality. Mind you, that’s what I think every time …