Before my dark writing period, my stories and poetry were very (how can I put this in a way that still leaves me some credibility?) sappy. They were filled with love struck imagery, loaded with cliché, and written with a hurried hand. If I was prolific in my dark days, my teenage writing was a gushing waterfall of words. I could (and often did) write 15 poems a week. They were all about the current love of my life (whoever that was during a given week or month), and how she would certainly fall for me if only she knew the depth of my devotion. It was heartbreaking (-ly bad) stuff. I’d share some, but it all burnt up in a tragic fire (it didn’t, really).

I also believed in those days that editing was sacrilege. What I had written was what I meant to write. As I was composing, I would occasionally cross out lines and words I didn’t like, but rarely went back to fix anything more than an obvious spelling error (how many d’s in didn’t, o’s in loser?). I did not believe my work was perfect, but its honesty needed to be preserved.

A poetry writing class at the Community College was my first exposure to the value of editing, and the absolute necessity of paying attention to line. 


There are as many ideas about what line means in writing as there are styles of poetry and prose. In  my mind, and for the purpose of this post, line is more than just how something looks on the page, but how it reads. Is the writing terse or verbose?  Does it dance around the subject without ever really getting close to it, is the writing explicit or implicit, is the imagery consistent or does it lose cohesion (or is the text functioning somewhere in the myriad of other options in between)?

At first, my exposure to line was all about editing- Cut this word, add this, pick a different one here. I would write three page poems and cut them down to three five line stanzas. It felt powerful. I started playing with line breaks, punctuation. I loved leaving one word alone on a line, or creating stanzas with line breaks in the middle of words. I learned to dislike predictable rhymes and rhythms, obvious breaks, and fell in love with writing poetry in various forms (which years later, became another writing lesson ). It was like discovering a new toy, one I never bored of playing with.

During a fiction writing class at the University of Utah, after reading another batch of mostly bombastic, overwritten, sloppy stories by his students, a wise professor, offered this comment-

“I don’t know why you all believe you don’t have to pay attention to line when writing prose. You need to pay as much attention, maybe more, to line when writing fiction than writing poetry. Longer work requires added attention to detail and structure.”

It wasn’t just about being brief for the sake of brevity. It was about writing in way that was succinct, and showed trust in the reader. There is nothing intelligent about writing something in fifteen sentences when it can be better conveyed in five.

My writing life was forever altered. Now, when I edit, line is everythingI rarely add sentences or words. I am trained to cut, see where I can say more with less. I seek consistency. This carries over into the composing process. I often find myself stopping mid sentence, my fingers over the keyboard, waiting for the better sentence to come out.

I feel attention to line makes me a better writer. I guess better is always debatable.

What do you think about attention to line? Do you have a different definition or word for what I am talking about? Tell me if I’m missing something. 



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About fenster

There are some who call me, Tim?

7 responses to “Line”

  1. Christine B. says :

    Interesting idea. I’ve never paid much attention to line, thinking it was only for poets. (Although I will admit I wrote my fair share of unedited moody poetry in my school days too!) Thanks for the new perspective!

    -Visiting from the A to Z Challenge. Good luck on the rest of the month!

  2. kimberleycooperblog says :

    I do what you’ve mentioned – stop, hovering over the keyboard while my brain works. And hopefully a better line emerges. But whereas you say that you rarely add, I find I tend to write too short, and end up adding description – the scene is so clear in my mind that I can forget no one sees it like I do.

  3. Jess says :

    Interesting. I might be showing my ignorance here but I’ve never heard of ‘line’ in all the years I’ve been writing. Was it called something else at one time? For example, I used to refer to adding to my novels as “fleshing out” then it became “layering” then it became “deep editing.” When writing novels, I tend to write short. Mainly because I struggle with my setting and senses. That’s something I have to go back and “flesh out.” When I write articles, I write long, and usually have to cut. I’m still not sure I understand ‘line.’

    • fenster says :

      I’m not sure I conveyed this as well as I could have. I focused on cutting, because that is what helps me with the process. When we talk about poetry, paying attention to line is literally that. But it is also about the overall impression of the work. Are the words on the page doing all they can to get the reader to a desired destination (I don’t want to say meaning, because that is a very subjective realm). If something isn’t working, what is it and how can it be fixed? It may be a bad metaphor, or a poorly constructed sentence.

      My professor was trying to get us to pay attention not only to our story, but how we constructed it. Were our ideas cohesive and consistent. Did our poor execution keep our readers (in this case, him) from understanding the story.

      Are you familiar with line editing?

      In this case, your paying someone to make sure you’ve done the very thing I was (poorly maybe) trying to express.

  4. Liesbet says :

    I think I understand what you are talking about, but maybe not completely. Is it the form on paper, the length of a piece, the voice of the author, or just a sentence. On a boat, a line is a rope. In writing, I think of a line as a sentence, or part of a sentence in a poem. Depending on the form of the work, the “perfect” line can be short or long.

    I always write too much when I receive a word count for an article. Then, I cut and cut again, until I am at the exact amount of allowed words. The editing sometimes takes longer than the writing, but I like it that way. Put everything you want to share down and then, delete the less interesting or more elaborate parts.

    Liesbet @ Roaming About – A Life Less Ordinary

    • fenster says :

      I think I focused too much on length, mostly because that is what I usually struggle with when it comes to this process. I’ve overwritten something, or danced around an idea without really letting my readers get close to it.

      The example of an article is a good place to try and make this more clear. It must be cohesive and consistent. You don’t want to use the same phrase seven times in a 1000 word text. You don’t want all your sentences to begin the same way. If you make a point, you don’t want to undermine that point two pages later by making a different suggestion.

      It is that step beyond copy editing. I shared this with someone else who commented here. It is an brief post abut the difference between line and copy editing. It might do a better job than I did of explaining this.

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