Writing Excuses 4.29: Line Editing

By popular request, here’s a ‘cast where we demonstrate line-editing. A word of warning, though: we demonstrate this process on the very first book Brandon ever wrote. Not his first published, book, mind you. No, we’re working on an ancient, unpublished manuscript, and it needs a lot more help than just line-editing. For the purposes of this exercise, we shall pretend that the story edits are complete, the darlings have been killed, and all that remains to be done is a final pass to tighten the prose.

Suspend your disbelief, please.

Audiobook Pick-of-the-Week: The Mote in God’s Eye, by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle

Writing Prompt: A man stumbles through the desert and is aided in some way by a headless monkey.

The Number of Minutes Required to Fix This Book: More than fifteen. Many, many more…

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57 thoughts on “Writing Excuses 4.29: Line Editing”

  1. The addition of headless monkies honestly makes this sound more like a Jonathan Coulton song than anything else. Maybe I’ll write you guys a song instead of prose. :P

  2. Oh: Regarding the lack of a name thing, I think it’s a shot at cheap mystery. A “figure” that stumbles its way through the desert is automatically more interesting Bob, who reels drunkenly through the desert… Or, well, I think that’s the beginner’s logic anyway.

  3. This was a really helpful podcast. Revision takes a lot of time and effort, but it always feels good to know that you story is getting better as you do it.
    Lots of good advice all around. Thanks for the podcast.

  4. Great podcast. You hit upon several things that I discovered while doing my own line editing. One trick that I do is have Word find all my ‘was’, ‘-ly’, and ‘then’ words. I highlight them in different colors and evaluate each one to see if those words were really needed. I find I can cut at least 80% of them or reword things so they make more sense.
    Ain’t modern technology like so goodly?

  5. @Brandon: It was very brave of you to do this. That sounds like a backhanded compliment but it isn’t. Great episode.

  6. Can he eat the headless monkey?

    Off hand, even as bad as it is, I’d love to hear a synopsis of where this tale was going… If you’re willing.

  7. Sorry, double post.

    Not to say that it was bad, but more that you probably wouldn’t be willing to put out a copy of it like Dan did with the Vampire Bunny Story (which I loved by the way!), and I’m always interested in finding out what my favourite authors wrote in their first million words.

  8. It seems to me (based entirely on my own experience) that overwriting the opening is something that brand new writers tend to do on their very first book because they don’t know how long of a book their idea will become, and they don’t want to finish writing their huge idea in less than 50 pages, so they tend to stretch things out at first just to make sure the book ends up being long enough to be a “real book”.

  9. Hmm, headless monkeys. Sounds like something that comes from a monkey island game. Anyone remember those games? “Epic” hilarity. They even had a bodyless head guide you through an area in the first game…though it was, admittedly, a human head. Course, humans are primates too, and monkey is often used in a rather general sense.

    As for Brandon’s pet words, I think “maladroit” was the favored adjective for Elantris and Mistborn. Certainly not as obsessively as “stoic” was in this opening, but it was noticeable…possibly just because it’s a fairly unusual word and it catches my eye, and partly because I consumed those two books at an alarming rate, which is pretty common for me with newly discovered and totally awesome writers.

    As always, great podcast. Thanks, guys.

  10. Good podcast as always. The only drawback I saw to this one is that you were (As you pretty much said) line editing a novel that needed either a full revamp, if not a lit match. :)

    Perhaps a later ep can re demonstrated the line editing process using one of your published novels, starting with an earlier draft, showing the change, and why those changes took place.

  11. I mean this the best way but im kind of happy your teenage story was kind of bad:P It makes me more optimistic, lol maybe in a couple of years I might get past the three page character description

  12. Wow. Thank you, Brandon, for being brave enough to share that with us! I know of more than one aspiring writer who will benefit from this ‘cast ;)

  13. This is a great episode. Sometimes other episodes get too bogged down with what we should be doing, rather than how we should be doing it. This was really helpful thanks to the specific examples and comments.
    Thanks guys!

  14. Going to agree with everyone else. I’m a good ways from needing to do line edits but it already has me thinking, and I can just come back and reference it later :)

    Also agreeing there’s a certain comfort in knowing an author as successful as Brandon really was as bad as the rest of us when he started, lo those many moons ago.

  15. Fantastic podcast – I was in shock when you said the fifteen minutes was up!

    Would you consider doing a ‘cast where you take this same book and start with some of the other edits that Howard and Dan were oh-so-tempted by? Namely, the story edits? Some of the best writing tips I have ever heard came to light in this episode (as well as an excellent highlight of my foulest prose-crimes!)

  16. Great podcast! Thanks, Brandon, for being such a good sport.

    I think showing the content editing is helpful, too, along with line editing, if you want to do some more of that. :-)

  17. Minor grammar quibble:

    “It was across these stoic sands that the form stumbled” vs. “The form stumbled across these stoic sands” isn’t actually an issue of passive vs. active voice.

    Active voice means that you have a subject, a transitive verb, and a direct object. (In English, you can basically define a transitive verb as one that can take an object without an intervening preposition.)

    E.g., “The form crossed these stoic sands.”

    Passive voice means that you start with the object of an active sentence, plus the appropriate form of “to be,” plus the past participle of the verb, plus (optionally) “by” and the subject.

    E.g., “These stoic sands were crossed (by the form).”

    The trick to checking if a sentence is truly in the passive voice is whether or not the original subject can be completely removed without making the sentence ungrammatical. “These stoic sands were crossed” is grammatical, while “It was across these stoic sands that … stumbled” is not.

    Which is not to say that I don’t agree with Dan’s rephrasing of the sentence, and I even agree that it sounds more active, but it isn’t technically a case of active vs. passive voice, as such.

  18. “The figure was not really all that unnatural(,/;/.) many found themselves whether by accident or intention within the sun’s sandy domain.”

    I’d cut off the first clause completely. “Many” already implies “not really all that unnatural.” Cut “sun’s” as well; we’re humanizing the desert not the sun.

    “Many found themselves whether by accident or intention within this sandy domain.”

    I’d cut “whether by accident or intention” but it seems to fits the established tone so it could stay.

    I’d also love to see/hear the three of you tackle a couple of entire pages, even if only in a side by side Source/Revision text post.

  19. This has probably been one of the most beneficial episodes yet. Very informative. Having read one of Brandon’s books, it gives me hope to see that he once was like the rest of us. Great podcast.

  20. As much as I love Writing Excuses in general, and Brandon, Howard and Dan for their tireless efforts in particular, this episode left a lot lacking. I thought last week might have been a fluke, but after a second week of lackluster ‘casting, I’m disturbed enough to post a comment. Guys, you’re just phoning it in at this point. Maybe it’s because Dan’s got a book out and he’s working on another; maybe it’s because Brandon has about a billion; maybe it’s because Howard is…well, Howard seemed fully present so I’ll leave him out of this rant.

    Suffice it to say, the overall planning and execution of this podcast failed. A podcast on editing it great, and it needed to be done, but not in this scattergun method. Take some time to establish the fundamentals of editing, like copy-editing and grammar. Why is it important to kill your adverbs? Why are they considered weak writing (more than that, why are they weak writing?) Why should writers use the active, instead of the passive, voice. How are sentences and paragraphs best constructed to convey information. All of these things are best addressed at the fifth-grade level, but new writers need to hear why they’re important, not just that they are. You stand in a unique position to edify and enlighten–you’ve done that for me these last three seasons–but by failing to support your assertions with knowledge, all you’ve really done is confuse and detract.

  21. 21 comments already? Sheesh, this was a really popular episode.

    LOL at Brandon’s first book. I don’t mean to be disrespectful, but I nearly busted a gut when I heard that first line. Don’t worry, 1994 version of Brandon, you’ll get better…in about a decade or so.

    Yeah, I know, I’m a mean person. :P

  22. I would like to give a big Thank You to Brandon, Dan and Howard for this podcast. I always have to do a lot of line editing with my writing style and I like to see active examples. When I begin writing a first draft from my outline, I generally write only narrative and the dialog and omit descriptions of characters and setting until the second edit. It is kind of like drawing a picture first then coloring it in later. I would love to see some of your early stuff that never made it to print. I believe it is very uplifting for us new writers to see that our hero’s are indeed human and used to write crap as bad as the stuff we might be writing now.

    @Katya, Thanks for the grammar tip. I believe that you are quite correct.

  23. Awesome episode, once again.

    Katya, to correct your grammatical correction, the active voice does not need to have a transitive verb with its attendant direct object. “Fire was opened” is passive voice, with an omitted subject, which is what defines the passive voice. “Sgt Tymcon opened fire” is active voice.

  24. @Steven McLain: I see where you’re coming from, but dude… LOOK AROUND. This ‘cast was one of our most popular, and we weren’t “phoning it in.” We were trying something new, and it worked quite well. In fact, it rocked.

    It didn’t rock YOU, and that’s fine. Some of the people, some of the time, etc.

    We’ve talked about editing and prose in general terms before. That’s all theory. Our listeners demand actual examples from time to time, and as evidenced by the overwhelming majority of responses here, the examples we provided were right on the mark, and exactly what people wanted and needed.

  25. Ed,

    How are you analyzing the phrase “Sgt Tymcon opened fire” if you’re not calling “opened” a transitive verb and “fire” an direct object? (OED definition 14a of the noun “fire” agrees with the verb + noun analysis and Michael Swan’s Practical English Usage supports the definition of passive voice as being tied to verb transitivity. What are your sources?)

  26. Katya,

    Once again: active voice doesn’t need a transitive verb. “Sgt Tymcon fled” is active voice.

  27. Stumbling stoically out of the desert, a writer who writes like a headless monkey, discovers the wisdom carefully disseminated by the cast at writingexcuses and becomes inspired and comforted.

    This podcast could not have come at a better time for me. Having recently discovered writingexcuses, I have been going through the existing podcasts and have learned much in the past few weeks. I appreciate the work you guys do here, and since I am a new writer who is still struggling to learn the craft, it has helped me to better understand what is good and what is crap. I hope that I can progress to writing more good, and less crap.

    I would like to see more podcasts on the subject of editing. How do you go from draft to polished story?

  28. Katya, I believe Ed is correct. “Sgt Tymcon opened fire.” and “Sgt Tymcon fled.” are both active voice.

  29. Thanks for the podcast. It was completely awesome.

    I have only line edited short articles for newspaper and magazine, so it was nice to learn that it’s basically the same with a long story.

    @ Brandon: My mom says the reason your first story turned out the way it did was because you shouldn’t have been writing books on your mission anyways. :) I then reminded her that you are the third person I have heard of doing that, and that I could never spend a year and a half without writing, so I plan to do the same.

    @ Reathe: Oh yes! Write a song!

  30. @ Katya, Ed,

    Active and Passive Voice for Idiots

    I am NOT an english major. (gasp! cringe! flagellate!) Being the illiterate yokel that I am, words like “transitive” make me think of gender-inappropriate clothing. So here is my way of understainding active/passive in layman’s terms.

    In your story, someone does something to someone else.

    Let’s say – – Sgt. Tymcon punches Bob.

    In that sentence, the Sergeant is “active” – he does something. Bob is “passive” – something happens to him, but he does nothing. So to write in active voice, we write about the guy who’s being active. And vice versa for passive.

    Active voice: “Sgt. Tymcon punched Bob.”
    Passive voice: “Bob was punched by Sgt. Tymcon.”

    This is usually bad – but not always. We frequently speak in passive voice. “What happened to Bob?” “Well, he was punched. By Sgt. Tymcon, no less.”

    Sentences like “Sgt. Tymcon fled” are active, to me, because the good Sergeant is being active. He is fleeing. The fleeing is certainly not being done to him.

    That would probably not satisfy an English professor. But, thank God, I’m not writing for them. My audience is a bunch of illiterate yokels just like me.

  31. I enjoyed this ‘cast a lot. It hit points on line editing that I’ve learned by trial and error over the years but I learned some new stuff too. Hearing practical editing done out loud was fun.

    If you guys do a follow-up ‘cast on editing, I’d like to hear from Howard about line editing in regards to comic strips since he has to work with space limitations for his word balloons.

  32. I am new to to writing and a huge fan of the podcast. This episode was extremely useful. Please revisit this topic again.

  33. I had the same English teacher for two consecutive years in high school (I’m in college, now), and she refused to allow us to use more than four or five passive verbs for any project we did for her class, regardless of length. I have since kept a close watch on everything I write to ensure that I correct as many passive sentences as I can. I’m glad to hear that this is something published writers like yourselves do, as well. At least I’ve got that part right. :)

    Also, I wondered if there are instances in which it is acceptable to leave out a character’s name for an extended number of pages. For example, what if this character had amnesia and couldn’t remember his or her own name? Of course, this particular part of the story is from said character’s point of view. I didn’t lead with “form;” I described the character and situation briefly. The reader should know who the character is based on that, as the character has already been a part of the story for some time. The situation alone should reveal his or her identity, actually.

  34. Just weighing in to say that I too enjoyed this cast. It was very weird to hear something by Brandon so overwritten given how tight his editing is, but I imagine similar things would happen to all of us if we went back to our early work.

    Cheers. :)

  35. More on the grammar quibble.

    “It was across these stoic sands that the form stumbled.”

    This sentence is actually a cleft sentence. Other examples of a cleft sentence would be something like, “I am not the one who is trying to start an argument,” or “These are the time that try men’s souls.” A cleft sentence is used to focus some part of the sentence. I am a new listener, and I really like this episode of the podcast, but I just love this interesting grammar stuff. So cleft sentences are not always out of place. I suspect that this instance was a pivot sentence from the description of the desert to the introduction of the person crossing the desert, so perhaps it was appropriate here for that reason.

    “It was stubbornness that guided him now” is another example of a cleft sentence. Maybe this one is starting to be past the limit and drawing attention to the cleft sentence form.

    Anyway, my two cents.

    – Paul in Raleigh

  36. @Howard I stand corrected. Thanks for taking the time to address my concerns.

  37. @Steve McLain–

    I don’t think it was so much that these guys were “phoning it in” as that they were targeting a specific segment of the Writing Excuses audience: namely, the youngest and most inexperienced (at least craft-wise) of the aspiring writers who listen to the show.

    I’m with you in that I personally didn’t get as much from this episode as from others, but I think that’s because of where I am as a writer, not because of any fault of theirs. Most of the advice on this episode is stuff that I’ve heard (and practiced) many times before, and while it’s interesting and useful to hear it again, for me personally it wasn’t as engaging. That said, I can totally respect that many of the other listeners got exactly what they needed.

    As to “phoning it in,” I agree that Brandon, Dan, and Howard’s style is getting much more informal, but I’m not convinced that that’s a bad thing. So long as they’ve got their objectives clearly defined, I tend to think that the informal style is good because it helps them to open up and be more genuine. If they were to do like some other podcasters and record an episode where they all get drunk while talking about whatever random crap comes into their heads, I would consider that taking it too far, but considering how they’re all Mormon, I don’t think that’s going to happen anytime soon. :)

    @Howard, Brandon, and Dan–

    I agree with the guys who say you should do the same thing you did here, except with a story edit instead of a line edit. Maybe in another episode you could run through some of your original outlines for Mistborn or I Am Not a Serial Killer or something. And of course, when are we going to get that hero’s journey episode?? I’m looking forward to that one.

    Keep up the good work guys!

  38. Good episode guys. As usual it was too short though. I’m sure you gays are extremely busy, but It would be nice to have a longer format. Maybe you could have special long format shows every once in awhile for topics like this?

    PS. I posted my version of the writing prompt on the forum.

  39. I just love doing line editing and this was a good episode on it.

    I used to do some lineediting first trying to cut down the scripts size 5% or so because this forced me to prioritse what the core of the story is and then do a story edit, and then line edit again.

    But this episode has made me question my method.

  40. Well honestly, I was thinking during the last cast that it would be cool if one of you guys shared some of your earlier stuff – you know – just to give us writing mortals an inkling that you didn’t start out by writing brilliant.

    Thanks for sharing this, really you’ve no idea just how much this helps. And no that doesn’t mean that these snippets sucked it’s just cool to know how unpolished it was at that stage, heh heh.

  41. Since Howard has used the Jerry Pournelle anecdote several times (it’s a good anecdote so this is an observation rather than a complaint), I thought it might be useful to provide another one for how tight line edits can make a work timeless — and how that can be undone. That is: The Dark Tower: The Gunslinger

    If you compare the original edition with the revised and expanded, the original is much more timeless — and that’s mainly on the level of the line (although there’s some content edits — or in this case expansions — that have an effect). I personally like it better. I understand why other fans of the series would prefer the later edition for its expanded content and better tie-in to the later books. But, in my opinion, the first version has this dry, desperate feel that’s really cool and a touch more literary.

  42. @ Ed

    Ohhh, I see what you’re saying. My bad. Yes, verbs in active voice sentences can be transitive, intransitive, copular, etc.

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