Stop wasting time on the cutting room floor

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cutting room floorSelf-inflicted scope creep often results from perfectionism gone awry. Sometimes, however, it’s caused by the slightly more-noble impulse to convert all of our hard-earned research and interviews into usable text. When I catch myself wasting time that way, I remind myself that readers or freelance clients see the final product. I’m the only one who knows what lands on the cutting room floor.

In the past few weeks, I’ve had a number of assignments that required three or four interviews for articles in the neighborhood of 1,000 words. In theory, that seems fine. When you run the numbers, you can see the issue:

  • Assume an average of a 10-minute interview. (This is conservative; some people take that long just to get warmed up.)
  • People speak around 180 words a minute, give or take. So each person might speak something on the order of 2,700 words.
  • If I interview four people, that’s well over 10 times the amount of content I need—before even taking into account the background research I’ve done.

It’s the perfect illustration of why it’s often easier to write long stories than short ones. Writing tight demands merciless cutting.

Triage in the Cutting Room

Here’s my triage method. After transcribing, I dump all the interviews into the same file, labeled “project title_raw.” I save that file as backup, hoping never to open it again. Then I do a “save as” of that file, labeled “project title_v1.” Now it’s time to hack. Here’s my philosophical approach to that process:

  • Not everything is equally important. I cut the stuff immediately that’s definitely not usable and cluttering up my world. Once it’s gone, it stays gone. Meanwhile, the information I definitely want to keep gets cut and pasted at the top of the document under the topic headings I plan to address.
  • Not every source is equally important. Let’s be honest: Some interviewees are simply more interesting and insightful than others. I generally feel obligated to quote even the most boring person at least once if they’ve been generous enough to spend time on a call. (This is, of course affected by the type of story I’m writing. If an editor has provided specific sources they want me to talk to, it’s a must. In the case of a recent whitepaper project, I emailed the client all of my interview source materials to highlight what she wanted in the final document.)
  • Not every source can tell their whole story. People who’ve been kind enough to speak at length about a topic may feel like you’ve left things out. When I run quotes by my sources for approval, I always provide a caveat: “Please note that what you’re seeing is independent of what else might appear in the story, since I’ve talked to several sources.” It’s the nature of the business that some people simply won’t understand that. Recently, an interviewee sent me a 40-point checklist instead of simply confirming the accuracy of a quote. Oh, well.

While it’s understandable to want to squeeze your source material, you’re not just wasting time on something literally no one will notice. Ultimately, it hurts the profitability of your freelance business without improving the project. If you start to feel guilty about leaving something out, or start trying to shoehorn more copy after you’ve reached your word count, repeat after me: “Nobody but me knows what’s on the cutting room floor.”

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  1. Paula Hubbs Cohen says

    I absolutely loved this post Jake! I have a very similar process, calling versions of information “TOPIC, ALL INFO”, then winnowing it down into draft 1, 2, 3, etc. — these drafts are cut, cut, cut, till I get to where I need to be and I end up with a version called TOPIC, FINAL. And you’re right, it is MUCH harder to write tight, than long! If I put on my editor’s hat, I know it’s frustrating to my writers when they send me 1200 words and I’ve asked for 600 and I have to slice and dice their prose. If I ask for 600, MAYBE I can use 700 or so — but generally, not 1200! Frustrating for all of us, and I do wish writers would look at the issue from the editor’s perspective as well. Le sigh… Anyway, great topic!

    • says

      Thanks for the enthusiastic response, Paula. I’ll often do the same thing with intermediate cuts if I’ve got stuff that is on the maybe-cut bubble.

      You’re 100% right about thinking from the editor’s perspective–I suspect that’s why I feel so strongly about this. It used to drive me nuts when people would send in stories that were way beyond word count. It’s lazy and disrespectful, and could result in ending up on the cutting room floor of freelancers! 🙂

  2. says

    I love your insight into your interview process, Jake! I can definitely see how processing them can eat up your freelance time if you don’t have a strategy in place. Thanks for sharing your great thoughts!