Wisdom from a Grizzled Editor

When I was new to the editing game, just a green, wide-eyed youth, my already grizzled boss, Jim Sire, told me, “When editing something, you can almost always improve it by throwing away the first three paragraphs.” It’s a bit of wisdom I’ve carried with me and applied many times for over thirty-five years.

Writers need to take time to


warm up, to figure out what they really want to say. They may feel they need to introduce a topic, explain something or persuade readers that what they’re writing about is important. Perhaps they aren’t sure what they want to say. Writing things down is a way of thinking things through for themselves. Gaining clarity. Sharpening focus. It can be an important part of the creative process.

Most writers know this. They know that drafts need to be worked and reworked. But sometimes those preliminary thoughts survive rewriting–and still need to be cut. That’s where someone else, someone with a bit more objective view of the writing, can help–someone who doesn’t have as much emotional investment in the piece.

Another trick I’ve learned is similar. Find the best sentence in an article or chapter, and make it the first sentence. This will often require rewriting the beginning (as well as where the sentence was extracted from), but it is worth the effort.

So where are the three original paragraphs I first wrote for this blog? Nowhere. I just decided not to write them.

Author: Andy Le Peau

I've been an editor and writer for over forty years. I am passionate about ideas and how we can express them clearly, beautifully, and persuasively. I love reading good books, talking about them, and recommending them. I thoroughly enjoy my family who help me continue on the path of a lifelong learner.

3 thoughts on “Wisdom from a Grizzled Editor”

  1. You are just like me, Andy. I never do write those first 3 paragraphs that are no use. 🙂

    Seriously, though, thanks for sharing the wisdom of your experience. I am particularly intrigued by the suggestion that we take the best sentence in a paragraph or chapter and make it the first. I haven’t attempted it yet, but it strikes me that just rereading a written piece, in quest of that “best sentence,” would be a worthwhile venture.

  2. Terry, some people refer to the best sentence found in the middle of a piece as being “burying the lead.” So it’s basically the same idea.

    But you can also look for the best (or second best) sentence and put it at the very end. That can make for a powerful conclusion.

    I actually heard an interview with John Irving (Prayer for Owen Meany) who said he always wrote his last sentence first and then constructed the book backwards from that. He didn’t always do it intentionally, but it worked out that way in the end. If he can figure out what his last sentence is first, that’s a pretty skilled writer, I’d say.


  3. So that is what you do to what I write! Now your secret is out. I love you, Your wife

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