Good editing is cutting

If your personality is inclined to optimism, one of the most difficult aspects of the editorial skillset is learning to say no. There’s certainly an opportunity to liken this to the classic business strategy phrase, “The essence of strategy is choosing what not to do. Without trade-offs, there would be no need for choice and thus no need for strategy.”

It’s difficult to be honest with yourself and the work capacity you and your team have, when there are dozens of great ideas—all darlings you must inevitably say the long goodbye to (or at the least, a very long purgatory). There’s the turn of phrase, wit, or compelling story that is not absolutely essential to the piece that you must cut. 

Decide shares a grammatical family with pesticide, herbicide, and homicide—an observation that Oliver Burkeman makes in Four Thousand Weeks, noting its root word decidere means “to cut off.” Like prioritizing, you know you’re doing editing right when it hurts.

This cutting off isn’t just a Frankensteining of a work. Editing wouldn’t be valuable if all the good bits were cut. It’s in service of what the editor can envision or intuitively feel out. It feels like a fair amount of this is tacit, and very taste- and sense-based—with the understanding that taste can be trained and that good taste can be agreed upon.

That’s editing at its finest; it’s the work the judge, architect, and carpenter excels at. It’s a lot of cutting. It’s making sure the best bits of a creative work is given the resources it needs to thrive; the tradeoff is everything inessential must go.

P.S., This is why a good editor can make for a great strategist. They’re trained to say no to the inessential, and they have mastered the art of writing to think.

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