I used to think that line editing was when an editor went through your work looking for typos and grammatical errors line by line. I was wrong. There’s some overlap, but that’s the job of the copy editor.
In the counter-intuitive world of publishing, the line editor is actually the big picture person. S/he reads your manuscript looking for errors in plot, for timing gaps, for things that are confusing or just don’t work.
The process is this: the line editor gets your manuscript and reviews it. They send you a tracked copy with hundreds of suggested changes. Some of these are changes in wording to improve flow; others are to strengthen weak sentences. You may find something in the tracked comments like: “I think you should cut this. You don’t need it.” Or, “I think this should be a new chapter.” Or simply, “I’m confused.”
You don’t have to agree with all the changes your line editor suggests but usually they flag an underlying problem that requires some kind of attention. And so you go through the tracking review, “accepting” the changes you agree with, making the small (and larger) tweaks and indicating where you don’t wish to change something and why.
Sometimes it turns out you simply haven’t explained the story well enough, and the line editor thinks you meant A when you meant B. This still usually requires a change so that the reader isn’t confused either.
After that, the line editor (or at least mine) arranges a phone call to go over the parts you haven’t changed and you have an interesting back and forth where s/he tries to persuade you as to why the changes are needed. Most often you come up with alternate wording. Sometimes it’s easier to just cut the offending part altogether.
In my first two books, I was more inclined to dig in. My editor, the brilliant Alex Schultz, and I agreed that the process is faster now. My writing itself has changed over the years, but we also have fought some of these battles already and know where we stand. It’s the old, resistance is futile. I think we both give in more easily than we did in The Beggar’s Opera.
About the only running debate that Alex and I have every year is my occasional use of the present tense for my characters’ thoughts. I think it brings immediacy. He found an instance where it followed a flashback and made it confusing as to whether the character was still in the memory or in the present. We found a way of rewording it to clear that up.
Overall, the line editor plays an extremely important role. S/he makes sure your plot is consistent, that the voice works, that the story is sound and that the facts you’ve presented are both accurate and make sense. It took me two days to go through the tracked changes; a three hour call yesterday, and we’re done. It’s a better book for it. Thanks, Alex.