How to Critique: Part Two – Line Edits

By | July 23, 2010

(This is part two of three in my series of blog posts on how to critique. I recommend reading part one before part two. Part one, on general comments, is the post right before this one. It’s called, conveniently, How to Critique: Part One.)

Line edits are slightly more controversial than general comments. A lot of people don’t bother with them, and some people even refuse to read them. But even when I don’t pass line edits along, I’m virtually guaranteed to do them, and I wholeheartedly recommend them to anyone else working on a critique.

So, what’s so great about a line edit? Well, especially with a final draft, line edits are great for those small problems that lose the reader. Grammatical errors, awkward sentences – these will lose the reader and someone needs to read closely enough to point them out. That’s your job as the critiquer. But that stuff isn’t anywhere near as important in the early drafts, yet I still consider line edits to be essential to my critiquing process.

Here’s why line edits benefit me as the critiquer:

For one thing, it forces me to really experience the story, every line, and think about it. If the story loses me, is it the plot’s fault, or is it really just that phrase? More importantly, though, it lets me see not just that the plot (or the characters, or the setting) doesn’t work, but when and how it doesn’t work.

When I go through a story, I comment frequently to see what’s going wrong with the experience and the story. If I find myself in the middle of a page with no idea what’s going on, I mention it. If I realize the twist ending halfway through, I mention that too. When I get to the end, my line edits will tell me when I figured everything out, and whether being confused was too frustrating. I’ll remember why it was that I decided I just didn’t like the main character. All of that lets me give feedback that is precise and detailed, rather than vague. “The plot didn’t work for me” is an acceptable critique, but “The plot would have worked had I not figured out the twist on page six when Alphonse cryptically shouted ‘No, they’re alive!’” – that’s actually helpful. That’s something specific the author can change. And if I hadn’t marked it in the text, I would have had to do a reread, trying to figure out when it was that I figured out they were alive (or when it was that I decided Alphonse was too stupid to live, or why the whole middle of the story was confusing, or whatever the problem actually was).

Now, you guessing the ending, hating a main character, or being totally confused – that might be the author’s intended effect. They want you to watch the horror unfold slowly, knowing it will go wrong. They want you to hate the main character so you will laugh at his pain. And they plan to clear up all that bewilderment in half a page. That’s entirely possible. On the other hand, they might think they’ve kept you guessing until the end; they might think Alphonse is inherently lovable; and they might imagine they’ve been clear in that passage. Either way, they should know whether it’s working.

Sometimes, when I get to the general comments, I realize I’ve found a major problem with the story halfway through. I can then take entire paragraphs of commentary out of the line edits and move them to the end. Rather than being distracted by trying to remember just what I’d thought, I make a note in the margin (or, on a computer, using track changes or parentheses). Then if it turns out to be really important, I leave only a quick note in the text, and put most of the suggestion into the general comments at the end.

So, that’s what line edits can do for you. They allow you to give precise, helpful feedback instead of generalities, and they serve as reminders to you as you’re writing the general comments.

Here’s my process for what to do in line edits and how.

Grammar. It’s the least important thing to look at in line edits, because the entire section might vanish with a plot revision, but while you’re there you might as well take care of it. If the story is actually moving toward a final draft, then this is definitely something to keep an eye out for.

Awkward sentences, confusing phrasing. This is only a slightly bigger deal than grammar. Again, this is something to save for final drafts or just to note in passing in earlier drafts. The main reason to look at this in before the final draft is if it’s a recurring problem. If the author constantly switches between the past and present tense in the middle of scene, that’s worth mentioning. If the characters “shriek” or, worse, “ejaculate” instead of “say” things? Maybe make a note of it. On the whole, though, this isn’t all that important except in a final draft, or if the author asks for help on this specifically. (Note: I tend to do this anyway, because I find it helpful. I’ve discovered over years of writing fiction and essays that sentences which sound perfectly logical in my head don’t always make it in translation. I’ll read and reread them hearing only what I meant, and then someone will come along and tell me it’s ugly and incomprehensible, and that really helps me. So I comment all through on awkward phrasing. Up to you.)

What’s going on? This is where the confusion stuff comes in. I once read a story where I kept coming up with theories of what was going on throughout – things I thought were strongly plausible from the text but weren’t true. Going back, I realized the things I totally misinterpreted were supposed to be valid hints about the Actual Truth. Whoops. So I marked throughout what I thought those hints meant. My confusion doesn’t make it wrong, but it’s important for the author to know that even though you’re reading closely and really thinking about the story, you have no idea what’s going on. This applies also to getting the “twist” ending really early in the story, or to places where the prose becomes so dense it’s impossible to tell what’s even happening.

Places where the experience isn’t working. Did I think that death scene was funny? Was I bored during all the action scenes? If I don’t think I’m reacting well, I’ll point that out.

Notes toward general comments. If I see a problem with plot or a character or something, I’ll put it in here as well as in the final, general comments, so that the author can look back and see what I meant when I referenced a specific moment. More on this in my post on the general story comments, at Part One, and in my list of questions you can ask as you critique, at Part Three.

It’s important to note with all of these line edit suggestions that they can be positive or negative. The majority of your comments should be constructive criticism, pointing out where things don’t work. But if a specific phrase really dazzles you, or there’s a section of dialogue that’s perfectly natural, or everything suddenly comes clear in the last page – let them know. It’s nice for them, and it helps them see the difference between what works and what doesn’t work in the story.

Now that you’ve done line edits, what’s next? See my post on what a critique should be, back at Part One (that’s the post directly previous to this one), or a list of questions to ask yourself when you critique, at Part Three: Questions (that’s be the post right after this one).

So what do you think? What’s the best critique you’ve ever gotten? Still think line edits are garbage? Talk amongst yourselves in the discussion section! I’d love to hear your thoughts.