Thursday, May 17, 2012

Content & Line Editing: "Paving" Your Nature Trail

Trails need some form of paving to exist. That might be a bunch of folks treading over it, to make the dirt stay through the years. That might be asphalt.

But they need something.

So. Analogies tend to fail at some point, and here's really where my analogy of your story as a nature trail gets a tad wonky, because I'm having to combine content editing (a "big picture" type of edit) with line editing (the most in-depth form of "little picture" edits).

Let's start with the definitions:

Content Editing
makes sure your story's content flows properly and is internally correct (for story coherence).
Line Editing
makes sure your story's text flows properly and is grammatically correct (for your writing style).

For further definitions, see this post.

When you look at them that way, my combination of the two of them in this lesson makes a bit more sense, doesn't it? Content editing could be the decision about what type of paving the nature trail will have, while line editing could be considered the verification that the entire trail is paved that selfsame way.

So. Making sure your plot's logistics make sense? Verifying that your character's red hair doesn't suddenly change to blond for no apparent reason? Analyzing when you need more description, more dialogue, another scene with the two main characters? That's all content editing.

Making sure what's on the page all flows grammatically? That the style works? That your sentence fragments actually are functional, rather than producing choppy writing that's irritating to a reader? Line editing.

Remember my post about the two types of editors? Everyone specializes in either "big picture" or "little picture", and remember above, how content and line editing fall into different "picture size" categories?

That means editors specialize in line editing or content editing.

Can a content editor notice and make recommendations that fall under the realm of content editing? Yes.

Can a line editor notice and make recommendations that fall under the realm of content editing? Yes.

But don't confuse the two tasks, and don't expect the same person to be able to do it all. There is a difference. Editors (and readers) do specialize.

(That's why comments saying "This book needs an editor" can be a pain in the neck. Unless the commenter gives examples, you don't know what they disliked about a story, to know what kind of editor they think it needed—and sometimes, readers pitch fits over things that aren't errors. Case in point: Hart's Hope by Orson Scott Card is intentionally written in an archaic "tell"-heavy style, and I've seen a review that called it bad writing by definition because of that. Er, no. It's just a non-modern style, which fits the non-modern story. Fact is, a lot of things called "bad writing" are merely "bad" to modern sensibilities, sometimes because newbie writers commonly screw them up. Even so, breaking those "rules" tends to be a bad idea unless you're willing to be publicly ridiculed as an idiot. Even Stephanie Meyer's adverb-heavy prose in Twilight did its job of reaching her intended audience.)

/Rabbit trail.

Of two types of editing I'm addressing here, you want to perform content editing first. Remember all those posts I did about structural, plot, character, and setting editing? Those are forms of content editing.

The line gets a bit more blurry when you're looking at transitions. Transitions between chapters. Transitions between scenes. Transitions within scenes. Are they content editing or line editing?


Some types of transitions are content editing. (Hey, when did this person enter the hospital? Last I knew, he was in his car.)

Some types of transitions are line editing. (Hey, let's rearrange this sentence so it's in the correct order for what I'm trying to say.)

That blurred line means that you should consciously look at transitions as part of both content and line editing. Is it any wonder that transitions are often a bane of writers? ^_^

Line editing tends to work better when it comes after content editing. (Why spend time cleaning up a scene that's only going to be redone and re-edited?) (Unless you're like me and have trouble seeing content when there are too many typos and line mess-ups.)

Line editing looks at every phrase, every clause, every sentence, every paragraph, every scene—and makes sure the language flows. (And if you don't know the difference between a phrase and a clause, you probably have comma splices and maybe even other types of run-on sentences in your writing. Just saying.)

Line editing also considers writing style issues. Things can be grammatically correct and still be problems.

Take the sentence "His eyes dropped to the table." Grammatically, it's fine. Stylistically, it's not.

Why not? It's inherently unclear: Did his gaze land on the table, or did his eyeballs plop out of his head and land on the table? Some readers will get the first meaning, some the second. Therefore, autonomous body parts shouldn't be in your writing unless they're like Sally's limbs in A Nightmare Before Christmas.

Can you choose to write with autonomous body parts? Sure. You'll cut out a portion of potential readers whose automatic comprehension of something tends to be literal rather than figurative, but you can do it. Will some folks complain about "bad writing"? Probably. Does that complaint make autonomous body parts bad? No.

Autonomous body parts are "bad" because they're inherently unclear.

What's the purpose of writing? To get your point across.

Autonomous body parts interfere with that purpose. That's what's makes them bad writing.

But what if you intend to omit the audience of folks who would be confused by autonomous body parts? Suddenly, there's nothing wrong with them.

A line editor has to keep an eye out for stylistic things like that and catch actual "hard" errors, like dangling modifiers. ("Hard" errors being things that are errors regardless of your genre and intended audience.)

Example: "Falling hard, the table hurt her wrists."

That sentence says that the table fell hard and hurt "her" wrists. The most likely intended meaning is that she fell hard and hurt her wrists on the table. But that's not what the sentence is actually saying.

That makes dangling modifiers a "hard" error.

What do you think of the blurred line between content and line editing? Which type do you think you're geared towards? Do autonomous body parts bother you?


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