Home » How (and why) an author’s self-edits differ from an editor’s line edits

How (and why) an author’s self-edits differ from an editor’s line edits

by Sue Brown-Moore
Line Editing Lesson on how to self-edit as an author, featuring Pure Satisfaction Rebecca Hunter from Harlequin DARE

For the past few Line Edit Lessons, we’ve focused solely on my edits, changes I’ve suggested for the author.  But I haven’t shared what changes the authors might have made on their own, and self-editing is a crucial step in your draft process. The cleaner, more succinct version of a story you send your editor, the more boost your manuscript will gain from their feedback.So in this month’s Line Edit Lesson, I’m showcasing two sets of edits on the same story excerpt—mine and the author’s. Here are the key takeaways to look for:

  • What perspective does the editor (person doing the editing—author vs external editor) bring to the story?
  • What is the editor’s goal for the edits?
  • When is it safe to change a line? What constitutes a risky change to the author’s “voice”?

Line editing for indie authors
Rebecca Hunter is an award-winning author who pens super sexy contemporary romance for Harlequin’s DARE line. She is an experienced author who is both traditionally and independently published, so Rebecca has worked with her share of editors throughout the years. As you look through the differences in our revisions below, try to frame the changes through the lens of the editor (me vs. the author). Remember, in any edit, the most important question to ask yourself is what am I trying to achieve?

When approaching line edits, both editors and authors should ask themselves, “What am I trying to achieve with this change?”   

 I’m sharing this excerpt and sample of line edits with the permission of the author. Pure Satisfaction will be available on December 1, 2020 as the third story in Rebecca Hunter’s Fantasy Island series from Harlequin’s DARE line.

This post is going to be a bit lengthy, so I’ll reveal the excerpt in pieces with each edited section. If you want to take a read through the whole excerpt first, see the full version here. Here’s how to read these edits:

  • Rebecca sent me two versions, one that was her original draft and one that was her self-edited draft. I have never read any portion of this story before, so I approached my edits from a first-time-reader perspective.
  • I edited v1 of the story and did not read v2 until after. My v1 edits are what you see in the “My edits” sections below. The author did not see my version of the edits before doing her own.
  • Rebecca’s self-edits resulted in v2, and you can see her changes in the “The author’s edits” sections below. Here’s her technique for self-editing: “After letting a section sit, I print out smaller chunks of my books with the comment field showing (so there’s a lot of white space on the page), and I make a ton of changes–as you’ll see from v.1  to v.2” 

My edits

My goal throughout this entire exercise was to clean up the prose without doing any harm to the author’s natural storytelling voice. I also wanted to avoid editing any characterization or story world discontinuities into the story, so I tried to avoid making assumptions where possible.

Text too small? See the full size here.My main concern in this opening section was to keep the prose simple and approachable while still allowing the character’s natural voice to come through. In Rebecca’s version below, notice how her changes addressed my concerns about the “boss’s boss” line and clear up who Kathleen is.

The author’s edits

Text too small? See the full size here.Although I didn’t make any changes to the meat of the paragraph, like the author has, I do like the elegance of v2. My approach above was to err on the side of light line edits, so unless a section was egregious, I left it alone. As the author, you have more leeway in making bigger changes like Rebecca did in her version. You know the story and its possibilities better than your editor does, so don’t be afraid to make impactful changes to your wording. Sometimes  little tweaks make a big difference in a reader’s experience. For example, Rebecca added a new character theme with the addition of the champagne, and it works quite nicely. Since not all people (or characters) enjoy champagne or even drink at all, I (as the external editor) would not have felt comfortable making a change suggestion like this without having read the full story first.The yellow highlight in my version points out a section that read as a bit cumbersome. However, it works much better in Rebecca’s version, adding fun atmospheric details rather than bulking up the narrative.

My edits

Text too small? See the full size here.In this section, I talk about how the scene does a good job of giving character and story universe clues. I didn’t make any suggestions for rephrasing because I didn’t feel any were necessary. As the editor, it’s not my job* to try to make a passage “sound good” (flow better, yes) or manipulate the author’s voice toward my personal stylistic preferences. My focus is on readability and layering in character and story clues.*Quick note: If you’re working with editors at a publishing house, expect them to take more creative freedoms with your work than a freelance editor might. Publishers shape stories to fit the feel and tone of their lines, so sometimes you have less say over line-level changes when you sell your story to a house. That said, good editors will always preserve your storytelling and character voices and should only request significant changes alongside specific concerns.

The author’s edits

Text too small? See the full size here.Rebecca’s changes here are strong. She not only loops in the (newly added) champagne reference, which ties the opening of the story to this transition sequence, but also delves into more whimsical visual detail, like the dubbing the pens on the floor as “lost”. This small mention clues us into the possibility that Ruby may be particularly detail oriented, as well as a bit of a dreamer.This version (v2) loses some of its casual feel (and sacrifices a line that I felt was a solid “deep POV” moment—”Why the last-minute, off-the-schedule meeting?”) but has a much crisper and cleaner cadence. This is an example of two editors revising with a different goal in mind.

My edits

Text too small? See the full size here.My comment on the first line of this snippet is a good example of a common line editing suggestion. Unless a particular phrasing supports characterization or world-building, editors will revise toward simplicity and readability. These are the sorts of changes authors are less likely to catch in self-edits because the revision skews more grammatical than colloquial.My third comment above is truncated. Here’s my full in-line suggestion:

The phrasing here is a bit wordy and takes a bit to sort through. The first spot that slows down the reading pace here is the repetition of “by”: “by the by-the-book”. The second potentially confusing term is “hothole”. If this is terminology specific to Ruby and/or the story universe, keeping it in is wise—as long as there’s no other confusing phrasing alongside to trip a reader up, this is a good, subtle way to start building vocabulary. Else, changing it to something less questionable (or more familiar) might be safer.

Here’s a potential rephrasing:

…which was why they’d been caught by hothole CFO Adrian Wentworth. Who happened to be Raj’s by-the-book boss. Some notable copy-related changes:By removing “the” from “the by-the-book hothole CFO, Adrian Wentworth”, there’s no longer a need for the comma separating CFO and his name because “hothole CFO” becomes an adjective phrase that modifies “Adrian Wentworth”. In the original phrasing, “the by-the-book hothole CFO” is an appositive for his name, “Adrian Wentworth”. The comma there is necessary because his name is nonrestrictive—the comma shows that Ruby knows the man’s name, and that including his rank is part of her way of expressing her dislike of him. If she hadn’t stated his name, the reader would still recognize that she does know it (and simply didn’t include it). That’s what makes this appositive nonrestricted—knowing his name is not integral to understanding the statement. Hence the comma.

To learn more about how to recognize appositives (restrictive and nonrestrictive) and when to use commas with them, reference The Chicago Manual of Style, v16* section 6.23. Note that I’ve only addressed a copyediting concern here because it is in direct relation to a change I made. Else, I’d leave any copy errors for correction in the copyediting pass. Line editing is not copyediting. Can you make copy fixes in a line edit? Sure, just don’t agonize over them.

Remember, even though they can seem similar and share foundational principles, line editing is not copyediting. Know your edits!

*Quick note: Yes, I realize there are newer versions of CMoS, but I trained in copyediting on version 16, and since I don’t do any serious copy editing these days, I haven’t bothered to stay current on this beast of a style guide. I’m told the changes between v16 and the newer ones are minimal. You can play it safe (and save yourself a chunk of cash) by just referencing the online version (it’s always up to date, it’s searchable, and it won’t take up shelf space). 

The author’s edits

Text too small? See the full size here.The author’s changes in this section are typical of a line-editing pass. She’s tweaked the prose in small ways that better represent the style and tone she wants to set. While it’s still not perfect—honestly, stories rarely are, so don’t stress about that—and there is at least one copy error, I would change very little about this version. Both versions of the edit are strong, and a good example of how two different editors might produce different results even with the same goal in mind.

My edits

Text too small? See the full size here.I didn’t have any change suggestions for this section. In fact, from a first-time-reader’s perspective, I appreciated how much it told me about Ruby as a person and the expectations of the company she works for. I would expect the tone set here (and the small clues about how the job sometimes cuts into her personal time) to be followed up on later in the story.

The author’s edits

Text too small? See the full size here.However, the author’s tweaks in v2 demonstrate how she had some different ideas for Ruby’s relationship with her job, and the overall affect is softened, revised toward a slightly different tone. In v1, the reader might assume Ruby resents being asked to work over the holidays, but v2 shows her as more flexible (and subconsciously trying to compensate for her loneliness).As the external editor (meaning, not the original author), I would likely only suggest the more substantial changes Rebecca has made in v2 if I had already read the full story and felt comfortable adding more shading and nuance to Ruby’s characterization.

My edits

Text too small? See the full size here.This is the first section where my edits clearly diverged from the author’s self-edits. My first and second comments in this snippet focus on improving pacing through strategic cuts and moves. Since both comments are only partially shown in the screenshot above, here’s the full text:For the section “so she focused on her achievements”:

Here, however, the narrative dips a little into “telling” territory, and the pace of the scene drags a bit. Ruby is pretty worked up by this point, and likely so is the reader, so while she might try to bolster her courage in some way, it’s unlikely she’d need to go into this level of mental detail to do it. That makes this sentence come across as the author telling the reader something about Ruby’s history, rather than adding in more subtle references to “show” this information later. My recommendation here would be to cut this section almost entirely, except the following revision:Instead of “so she focused on her achievements…” (and the following sentence) Say something like: “so she steeled her spine and forced her feet across the expensive tile, heels clicking and teeth gritted”.

For the section “he was thirteen years older”:

This is another example of good information to share with the reader, but placed in a way that slows down the pace of the scene. I would recommend cutting this from its current location and moving it to a later scene, where she’s directly interacting with Adrian (ideally, somewhere she’s fighting the attraction). That will give the insight a more logical flow and will preserve the pace of this part of the scene, where Ruby is headed to what she believes might be her ruined vacation.  It’s fine to draw out the suspense here, but try to do it through personal actions rather than rumination about other characters (even if he is, ultimately, her romantic partner in the story).

The author’s edits

Text too small? See the full size here.The changes to the first paragraph are excellent. After that, Rebecca’s revision choices split into a different direction than mine had.Even though my editorial spidey senses urged me to delay revealing the depth of Ruby’s attraction to Adrian, the author’s choice to double down on it here is also a sound strategy. By putting the attraction right up front, the story is telling readers exactly who to expect as the focus of the romance. If you wanted to take a subtler approach or minimize the narrator’s introspection in favor of a more quickly paced scene (which lends itself to “deeper POV”), you could wait until Ruby and Adrian are in conversation to fully explore her feelings.

My edits

Text too small? See the full size here.I had few revision suggestions for this section of the scene. I did seriously consider whether the adverb “strangely” needed to be there—adverbs always catch my eye—but I was otherwise happy with the general flow of the prose.The adverb comment is truncated in the screenshot above, so here’s the full text:

Adverbs have a bad rep among editors, and many authors are understandably averse to using them in any way. This one did catch my attention, and I ran through a few potential revisions of the surrounding sentences, looking for better ways to phrase that didn’t use an adverb, but I ultimately decided to leave it as is. Could there be a different way to show this without depending on the adverb? Yes, but none of my revisions were simple, and the author hasn’t depended heavily on adverbs so far in the scene, so I decided to leave it. Don’t be afraid to use an adverb now and then, especially when it is the most effective choice for your prose.

Finally, take a close look at my last comment. While it’s important to show off your skills for readers, editors, and agents, ending on a bit of a tease will leave your audience wanting more. 

The author’s edits

Text too small? See the full size here.All of the changes above are strong. Some of them, like the expansion on Kathleen’s marriage, I (as the external editor) would not feel comfortable suggesting during a first-read edit—I don’t know enough about the characters yet—but these are smart additions on the author’s part. Rebecca’s revisions in the second paragraph are also healthy and enhance the heat of the attraction even at this early stage. Most of these changes are also tweaks I, as a first-read editor, would (again) feel uncomfortable suggesting—from the original version, I don’t know for sure that Adrian returns Ruby’s attraction just yet, so recommending enhancing that element of the scene would be risky (for me). But this sort of revision is completely within the author’s purview.

Whew, that one was intense! Now that you’ve seen all three versions of the story excerpt, do you have any questions about the choices I made? The choices the author made? Suggestions for additional (or different) tweaks you might have made?

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