The value of pitiless editing

I do mostly front-end web work these days, but in another life I think I’d be an OK editor. I’ve found that I prefer rewriting, critiquing, and tweaking instead of facing the blank page. (I also like stealing great phrases like that last sentence that I appropriated from this New Yorker profile on Harold Ramis.)

One exercise that I try while critiquing websites is to ask the authors for very most important idea they’re trying to get across. In my experience, that idea is often present but mostly buried under corporate-speak, carousels, and safe but empty blue-green imagery. I then tell them that they should maniacally focus on their good idea and ruthlessly throw all that other crap out.

Throwing out all the crap is very hard to do. I also don’t often get invited to a second critique.

But I stand by the general idea, and here are three links that back me up.

First, although Community is generally praised for its high-concept parody episodes—of action movies, Goodfellas, documentaries, 80s cartoons, among others—my favorite episode is the gimmick-free “Mixology Certification” from the middle of season 2.

So I was pleased to see Andy Bobrow, the writer of that episode, discussing how showrunner Dan Harmon cured him of “shit writing syndrome”:

“…Keep the two percent that isn’t shit and delete the ninety-eight percent that’s shit. Rewrite it. Within your re-write, there will be two more percent that isn’t shit. Then just keep tossing the shit and replacing it until the ratio is tolerable.”

“How do I know when it’s tolerable?”

“I don’t know, make up your own answer, you’re the fucking hero in this, finish your own story, find your own Nemo, Schindle your own list.”

As evidence, Bobrow offers up his first draft of “Mixology Certification”. If you don’t expect excellence, it’s ok; it’s cell phone speakers.

But he also shared a near-final draft of the same episode that’s from a different universe: it has more jokes, the dialog floats and stings, and it’s bolder in messing with our expectations (check the “why did we only sing the last two words?” in medias res gag at the very beginning). Way less shitty.

Second, I came upon this 15-year-old article about the design process of the video game Half-Life that describes a similar sounding process of choosing your very best ideas and building on those:

…since none of us believed that we were getting any closer to making a game we could all like, we couldn’t see how a month or two would make any significant difference. At this point we had to make a very painful decision — we decided to start over and rework every stage of the game.

Fortunately, the game had some things in it we liked. We set up a small group of people to take every silly idea, every cool trick, everything interesting that existed in any kind of working state somewhere in the game and put them into a single prototype level. When the level started to get fun, they added more variations of the fun things. If an idea wasn’t fun, they cut it. … When they were done, we all played it. It was great. It was Die Hard meets Evil Dead. It was the vision. It was going to be our game. It was huge and scary and going to take a lot of work, but after seeing it we weren’t going to be satisfied with anything less. All that we needed to do was to create about 100 more levels that were just as fun. No problem.

Finally, James Somers, by way of John McPhee, explores how much more fun English is when you throw out your crappy dictionary and use the “right” dictionary:

I could go on forever listing examples. I could say, “Look up example, magic, sport. Look up arduous, huge, chauvinistic, venal, pell-mell, raiment, sue, smarting, stereotype. Look up the word word, and look, and up. Look up every word you used today.” Indeed that’s what motivated this post: I’d been using Webster’s dictionary for about a year; I kept looking words up, first there, then in whatever modern dictionary was closest to hand, and seeing this awful difference, evidence of a crime that kept piling up in my mind, the guilt building: so many people were getting this wrong impression about words, every day, so many times a day.

There’s an amazing thing that happens when you start using the right dictionary. Knowing that it’s there for you, you start looking up more words, including words you already know. And you develop an affection for even those, the plainest most everyday words, because you see them treated with the same respect awarded to the rare ones, the high-sounding ones.

In this case the the “right” dictionary is a 100-year-old version of Webster’s Revised Unabridged Dictionary, and he explains how to get a copy loaded on your Mac, iOS device, or Kindle. I’ve been using it for a few months, and he’s right. You’ll never settle for dictionary.com or Wiktionary again.

Am I doing it wrong?

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