Peter Elbow on the editorial act, from Writing without teachers (1973):

The essence of editing is easy come easy go. Unless you can really say to yourself, “What the hell. There’s plenty more where that came from, let’s throw it away,” you can’t really edit. You have to be a big spender. Not tightass.


You can’t be a good, ruthless editor unless you are a messy, rich producer. But you can’t be really fecund as a producer unless you know you’ll be able to go at it with a ruthless knife.


Editing must be cut-throat. You must wade in with teeth gritted. Cut away flesh and leave only bone. Learn to say things with a relationship instead of words. If you have to make introductions or transitions, you have things in the wrong order. If they were in the right order they wouldn’t need introductions or transitions. Force yourself to leave out all subsidiaries and then, by brute force, you will have to rearrange the essentials into their proper order.

Every word omitted keeps another reader with you. Every word retained saps strength from the others. Think of throwing away not as negative—not as crumpling up sheets of paper in helplessness and rage—but as a positive, creative, generative act. Learn to play the role of the sculptor pulling off layers of stone with his chisel to reveal the figure beneath. Leaving things out makes the backbone or structure show better.

Try to feel the act of strength in the act of cutting: as you draw the pencil through the line or paragraph or whole page, it is a clenching of teeth to make a point stick out more, hit home harder. Conversely, try to feel that when you write in a mush, foggy, wordy way, you must be trying to cover something up: message-emasculation or self-emasculation. You must be afraid of your strength. Taking away words lets a loud voice stick out. Does it scare you? More words will cover it up with static. It is no accident that timid people are often wordy. Saying nothing takes guts. If you want to say nothing and not be noticed, you have to be wordy.