By Barbara McNichol
Since I’ve devoted much of my career to editing, the Edit chapter in this groundbreaking business book drew my attention like a magnet.
McKeown wrote: “An editor is not merely someone who says no to things. A three-year-old can do that. Nor does an editor simply eliminate; in fact, in a way, an editor actually adds.” Yes, a good editor uses what he calls deliberate subtraction to add life to ideas. That includes giving energy to what really matters—in writing and in life.
So when considering what happens when you turn over your manuscript to be edited, think in terms of these four items from Essentialism:
*Cutting Out Options. This refers to “killing your darlings” as Stephen King has famously advised. That’s deciding to get rid of anything that can confuse your readers, cloud your message, or get in the way. The word “decision,” McKeown noted, comes from the Latin root of the word cis or cid, which literally means “to cut” or “to kill.” The “darlings” you might kill include overused adverbs and adjectives and extraneous phrases (“in a manner of speaking”, “as you will”, “to be honest with you” and many more). In life, it means to “eliminate multiple meaningless activities and replace them with one meaningful activity.”
* Condense. This directive seeks to make every word count. Instead of using two sentences, can you say what you want to say in one? Condensing requires being both clear and concise—not an easy task, especially when composing a first draft. That’s why writing is rewriting and rewriting some more. In life, do you ever get something perfect the first time you do it? Even a task such as cleaning your house can be condensed with practice and getting clear on what’s most important.
* Correct. In addition to cutting and condensing, an editor’s job is to make things right—a grammar correction, an incorrect word choice, a contradiction, a flaw in an argument—you get the gist. Applied to life, McKeown wrote: “We can make course corrections by coming back to our core purpose.” As an editor, I would ask, “How does this sentence–paragraph–chapter fit the core purpose of the book?” Maybe it’s time to slash and burn to course correct.
* Edit less. This may surprise you, but a good editor doesn’t feel a need to change everything. In fact, it takes discipline to leave things alone at times. That’s another way editing can be seen as an invisible craft. In life, that means showing restraint when we’re tempted to step into the fray unnecessarily. McKeown wrote: “We can wait. We can observe. We can see how things develop.” Good philosophy overall!
Effortless for the Reader
If I were to pick my favorite comment from this Edit chapter, it’s this: “My job is to make life as effortless as possible for the reader.” Who wants to work extra hard—to read a book or to live a life? That’s why there’s a need to make editing a natural cadence in living every day. And of course in writing every day, too!
How would you take on the invisible craft of editing your life? What would you deliberately subtract? Give a few examples here.
Highly recommended: Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less by Greg McKeown (Crown Publishing, 2014).