Lament for the Declining Art of Editing

Thoughts inspired by Taylor Swift’s 31-song notebook dump

Damon Linker at Notes From the Middleground: Journalists have a name for an article written and published without the necessary curatorial oversight. It’s called a notebook dump. The reporter does research, conducts interviews, jots down thoughts, talks to some more people, reads some more on background—and then just pours it all into a long, sprawling mess of a draft that includes everything. A master prose stylist like Tom Wolfe at his youthful best could make a notebook dump work, just as a master songwriter like Swift can sometimes pull it off (as she largely did with Folklore and Evermore). But most cannot. In most cases a skilled editor will have an enormous amount of work to do in cutting, organizing, and shaping that draft into a whole vastly greater than the unwieldy sum of its possible parts.

What to leave in? What to leave out?—Those are the curatorial editor’s guiding questions. They imply that leaving everything in—putting everything out for the public to consume—isn’t always, or even usually, better. Less can be more. The clay needs to be sculpted. The fat trimmed. Distinctions made. Decisions rendered.

In writing this post, for example, I decided to limit myself to a few contemporary examples (Swift, The National, and Sheeran) and a few contrasting examples from the past (Dylan and Springsteen). I also decided to focus exclusively on music when I might have brought in many more examples from other genres—like the proliferation of overly long, undisciplined 3-hour Hollywood films; flabby, overwritten novels and biographies; and self-indulgent TV series filled with red herrings, extraneous characters, and unresolved plot points. But I thought readers would be better off making those kinds of connections on their own rather than piling up too many examples from too many forms of popular art that might lead the post to become repetitive, boring, or self-indulgent. I know music best, so that would be the genre I’d write about to make a broader point about the importance of editing and its waning place in our culture.

That was my curatorial decision, and I think it was the right call.

Note, though, that unlike Dylan and Springsteen putting out vinyl LPs in the 1970s—or a long-form journalist writing for a print magazine or newspaper during that same era—I am not constrained by physical limitations in writing this Substack. Instead of this being the roughly 2,300-word essay it is, it could easily have grown to 4,000 or 6,000 or 10,000 words if I allowed it to. Nothing’s preventing me from putting out a journalist’s equivalent of 31 new songs all at once for my subscribers to read, adore, revile, argue about, or nod-off over. Except that I’ve opted to impose some discipline on myself—and in the process to make the essay better than it likely would have been at longer length.

It’s an old modern story: As external, received constraints on our choices are removed (through political reform, moral and theological liberalization, or technological advances), we are left with the burden of imposing constraints of our own choosing on ourselves—or else opting to give up on limitations altogether. I fear some of our greatest popular artists are showing signs of taking the latter path, and with less-than-entirely-positive results.

Editing isn’t just about fiddling around the margins with something already great. It’s the process of finding what’s potentially great amidst the merely good or even pedestrian and refining it until it achieves its highest potential. Without it, we run the risk of drowning in a sea of the merely “mid.”

Read the whole article here.