Line-Editing, Grammar-Pouncing, and Spell-Checking, Oh My!

A very common approach when we are giving critiques, especially when we only have a few pages to review, is to line-edit, or grammar-check, or even spell-check—homonyms, for example, are such pesky beasts. This focus on the nitty-gritty makes sense to me. When faced with a snippet of a larger work, and perhaps not even knowing where the writer is in the process of creating the novel, we critiquers do not have much big picture data to go on. So basically we go straight for the trees and ditch the forest, because the forest in all fairness is a little hard to see when we are looking at three to fifteen pages of a novel.

So, I get it and have certainly gone there. Even so, I feel the need to highlight potential weaknesses of this approach – weaknesses in the sense of the quality and usefulness of information we are providing to the critiquee – and how we might round out our feedback.

Note: Critiquee is not a word, nor is critiquer, but dang-it, I’m finding it tedious to write the hyphenated critique-receiver and critique-giver in these blogs, so at least for today I am declaring those two nouns legit.

Weakness #1: It could be too soon for line-editing.

The writer may still have some big picture items to sort out. If all the critiquing jumps to line-editing level, the writer might go merrily along thinking, “Well, the big picture is working because no one said anything about that, so I’ll just tinker a bit longer on my prose.”

Now, I know I just mentioned the challenges of seeing the whole based on a short snippet. Still I am standing by my position that this is a valid weakness in our critique, i.e., if we are only providing detailed line edits.

How to counterbalance this weakness? Even if you are providing line-edits, also tell the critiquee what questions you have about the plot, the character, the setting, etc. Questions that demonstrate where you are curious and where you are confused are great soft ways to get an author thinking about something that perhaps was missed.

That said, if you still want to give line-edit corrections, then be sure to also spend time highlighting the parts of their prose that you love. Successful people in general focus on what they do well, using that loop of positive reinforcement to give them the chutzpah needed to learn new skills—and I mean the serious chutzpah needed, because it sucks not to be good at something, right? Less successful people, in general, dwell on their weaknesses, and then get demoralized and can spin in a non-productive negative loop. So, let’s all be of service to our fellow writers by ensuring our critiques are, no matter what, weighted in favor of feedback that encourages and builds their confidence. Support the positive looping. 

Weakness #2: You could be cramping someone’s style.

Voice and style are not always grammatically correct. Commas are sometimes optional. I once was told in a critique that middle grade novels should not use semi-colons. And, I still have a hard time using dialogue tags other than said for all the times I’ve been told, “Don’t use dialogue tags other than said.” Yet I’m reading a delightful novel, and the author *GASP* uses dialogue tags other than said. What a rebel!

In the end, no matter what our actual grammatical adeptness is, when we start line-editing, our own style preferences/biases leak onto the page. That is not necessarily a bad thing. One of my writing/critique partner’s prose is elegantly sparse in comparison to my enthusiastic effusiveness. It has been a gift to have her line-edit me so I can see where her brain would streamline, as she naturally streamlines better than I do. And on the flip side, she has been appreciative when I have looked at one of her chapters and saw multiple ways something that was feeling thin (even to her) could be expanded.

But—and this is key—we didn’t start doing that level of critiquing/editing on each other until we had known each other for years. So, to be clear, I am definitely not saying line-editing should not be done or that it automatically cramps someone’s style, but I will say if you are feeling the need to land grammar corrections on a writer, ask yourself two questions:

(1) Are you suggesting the line edit only because you know the correct grammar rule? i.e., can you own that you might be channeling some grammar police energy? Or,

(2) Are you suggesting the edit because it will increase clarity or pump up the emotional impact of the prose?

If I can honestly say to myself that my line edit is for the latter reason, I am more likely to put the suggested edit in the critique, while explaining why I think it will strengthen the passage. If, however, I’m just feeling a tad holier-than-thou in my grammar chops, then I tell myself, “Get over yourself, girlfriend. Refocus on being of service to this writer, because seriously, love, it is really not about you or what you think you know.”

A special sub-note to Weakness #2

I’m not even sure if what I’m about to share qualifies as line-editing  as it seems more like line-absconding, but it feels connected to my thoughts today, so I am putting it in. In general, I do not recommend taking a hunk of someone’s prose, telling them how you think it should be written, and then actually rewriting the whole section for them. Yes, I have actually seen this done in a workshop setting where we were all complete strangers. Blew my mind, it did.

This approach breaks a cardinal intention of The Critique MD’s philosophy about critiquing which is to help the writer write the story she or he wants to write. And the corollary: Do not tell the writer how you would write that story; it is not yours to write.

A way to minimize this weakness? If you are noticing a recurring grammar glitch that might impact the writer’s success, then point out the pattern and always use word softeners. So instead of just line-editing the perceived glitch over and over, you could highlight those lines and make a single comment such as, “I’ve noticed this pattern in your writing. I’ve highlighted examples. The sentences might be clearer if . . .” That frames your feedback more as invitation than sledgehammer. And sets it up for a more effective landing with the writer, i.e., increasing the chances that the writer will receive, digest, and consider what—if anything—they want to do about your note.

Weakness #3: You could be wrong

I’m a voracious reader with a generally bad recollection of titles and author names. My theory about the root cause of this failing is that when I was a kid, I inhaled books so fast (hours not days) that I never really interacted with the cover. The point of this little personal reveal being that if I do remember a book title, especially of a non-fiction book, something is going down in that book. Like it got me and got me good. And this bit about you could be wrong is a factoid I learned from a book I read in my twenties, Selling the Invisible by Harry Beckwith, and it and the title (and even the cover design!) has been imprinted on me ever since.

The factoid is in a section called The Fallacy of Confidence. It talks about studies done with subjects who are authorities on a given topic. Consistently, the studies show that even when humans are 100% certain they are right, 15% of the time they are flat out wrong. Wowza.

This factoid flew into my brain during a critique when I watched (in awe) as critiquer provided feedback to the writer on the spelling of lightning, as in lightning in a thunderstorm.  The critiquer told the writer that the correct spelling was lightening. Uhm, no. And the thing is that the critiquer was so certain that she was correct, she miscorrected the writer’s correct spelling twice in the line notes. Yikes.

What is the alternative here? Peeps, I share with you what Harry Beckwith suggested in Selling the Invisible. Carry a little piece of paper in your pocket that says, “I could be wrong.” And in the moments where you are feeling all yummy and righteous in your absolute certainty about some detailed edit of someone else’s work, pull out that piece of paper and read it. Five times if needed. Whatever it takes to get you into a place where you are suggesting with softeners instead of trouncing with certainty. And for goodness sake, if it’s a spelling thing, check the dictionary before you land that correction.

Once again, those dang pesky homonyms—they’ll get you every time.

Okay, that’s what I’ve got for today, folks. I hope your 2020 is kicking off with productivity and delight. And as always . . .

Onward in kindness,

Christine Carron, The Critique MD

P.S. Look for news coming soon about The Critique MD’s first live webinar course: A Whole-Brain Approach to Giving and Receiving Critiques.

Be sure to read our Kindness Code before commenting.

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2 comments On Line-Editing, Grammar-Pouncing, and Spell-Checking, Oh My!

  • hey Christine! Great post — and my note-in-pocket happens to be the sticky part of a post-it (thank the gods for whoever invented them) that says: DON’T BE A KNOW-IT-ALL! It’s stuck just above the camera on my laptop — staring at me every day.
    On rewrites, I agree, except for the times (in my developmental editing work) that I feel an example of the alternative (not the ‘correct’) rewrite approach can help the author visualize the changes I’ve suggested. However, any and all rewrite suggestions are firmly presented as examples only, and are meant to illustrate, not demand a change.
    Since I work primarily in developmental editing, my critiques always review whatever portion of the big picture I can ‘see’ and my comments are bolstered with explanations the comments are based on. I always hope that the author understands that nothing is set in cement, so how a passage struck me might be in the lower percentile of readers. The whole idea is to ensure that we communicate our message/story/plot is ways that promote understanding with as many readers as possible.

    Really enjoy your posts — keep’em coming!

  • Christine Carron, The Critique MD

    Thank you, Maria. At one point in my drafting of this piece, I had an exceptions written in to the don’t provide rewrites. One was if you were an editor who had bought the book and the other if the writer had paid you to assist in this way. So definitely like minds. 🙂 In the end I took it out, because when I was composing this I was really of writer to writer, where there is no paid relationship.

    How you are framing suggested rewrites is very aligned with supporting the writer’s confidence, i.e., providing an option with kindness and *clarity* instead of the trouncing with certainty. Wahooo. And always, thanks for reading. 🙂

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