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Between the paragraph and the word is the ‘line edit’

The final stages of ‘polishing‘ a draft before handing it in, involves focusing on ever smaller and smaller sections of text. The ‘structural edit‘ looks at the draft at the level of chapters, sections and paragraphs, to ensure that the scope, argument and logic of the text is correct. The polishing stage gets down to sentences, words, punctuation. Much of what we are doing at the polishing stage is about correctness: does this sentence meet the rules of English grammar, is the vocabulary suitable for academic texts, have I typed the right numbers here, does the formatting meet my style guide?

However, there is another intermediate stage of editing, which is typically called ‘line edits’ in creative writing. This is the edit that is all about style and grace, about flow, about clarity and voice. In other words, this the edit that is absolutely not essential and many academic writers don’t bother with it. It’s a ‘nice to have’, a cherry on the cake, which is why I haven’t written about it before.

Line edits mean going through the text, line by line, to see how you can improve the text to get the form of the writing to more closely match the meaning and intention of the writing. For example, in Your PhD Survival Guide, my co-author Peta Freestone did the line edits, and worked to make the text really clear and easy to read. In Luther and the Arts, my co-author Andreas Loewe did the line edits to make the writing ‘polished like glass’. In Writing Well and Being Well, I did the line edits too (hopefully!) make the writing hum with positivity and forward energy. It is helpful if one person takes on the line edits in a co-authored work, to ensure consistency across the text.

Line edits should not change the meaning or content of your writing, it should just make every line a little big stronger, a little bit clearer, a little bit glossier. Line edited work is more like to ‘sing’ or ‘flow’. We removed words that detracted from the book’s intended impact, and added words that helped us reach that goal. We adjusted the length of sentences, or the flow of clauses within the sentences. We tinkered with various connecting words and word placement, so that each sentence and paragraph hooked into each other, carrying the reader forward with the least friction. But we also added in signposting, hedging words and other ways to add in friction when the reader needs to slow down and go slow for material that needs careful reading or to navigate a difficult corner.

So line edits require three things:

  1. Being clear about the book’s audience and intended impact.
  2. Having an ‘ear’ for how the words contribute to that impact (or lots of writing training)
  3. Lots of time to go slow, and focus on these small elements

Everyone needs to think about audience and impact—but often the audience is ‘other busy academics who are only going to skim my article to check one detail they need for their research’, so it may not be worth your while spending hours line editing your writing. As I said before, this is not an essential part of academic writing. So if you don’t have the training, time or energy for the next steps, honestly it’s cool. However, if you are writing for the public, you will find your work has much greater impact if it is line edited.

If you do want to develop your writing for style, there are lots of resources:

  • academic writing guide books like Style: Towards Clarity and Grace by Colomb and Williams, The Elements of Style by Strunk and White, On Writing Well by Zinsser, or the (unfortunately named) Writer’s Diet by Helen Sword, or How to Fix Your Academic Writing Trouble by Inger Mewburn, me and Shaun Lehman;
  • any creative writing book, on my bookshelf are Stephen King, Ernest Hemingway, and Ursula Le Guin; or a local creative writing workshop;
  • journalism writing books, authors like Jack Hart, Tim Harrower, and Roy Peter Clarke are often recommended here;
  • and any book about writing, on my bookshelf are a lot of books about poetry criticism like Christopher Rick’s The Force of Poetry and William Empson’s 7 Types of Ambiguity.

Or you could use your ‘ear’ for a good line. Many of us recognise good writing, and reading your work aloud or listening to the computer read it aloud can help you use your literal ears to hear the rhythm, cadence and flow of the lines.

Listening to your work helps you slow down as well. Another strategy to help you go slow is to read your work backwards. Some people read backwards sentence by sentence—and this is an excellent strategy if you often make mistakes in spelling or grammar. But to line edit, you need to get the ‘flow’ right too, so I typically read backwards section by section.

Good academic writing is accurate, reproducible, rigorous, technical, logical and ethical. This is what really matters. But it’s always a pleasure to read work that is also elegant, sparkling or tight, so if you do choose to add in a round of line edits, your readers will be grateful for your generous gift.

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