cutting out your work

The expression “to have your work cut out for you” originally meant “preparing what you need to accomplish a task smoothly and efficiently,” just as a tailor’s assistant cut out the necessary pieces of cloth for the boss to get right to work.

By the time the idiom appeared in A Christmas Carol in 1843, it meant “having as much on your plate as you can possibly manage—and then some.” That industrious assistant of yours has assembled a staggering pile of cloth and you’re like, “I’ve got to make suits out of all this? FML.”

(Mom, don’t Google that: FML stands for “Friends, Make Lemonade.” You know, in case you get thirsty while you’re making all those suits.)

This shift in meaning makes sense in retrospect. Remember that Bob Cratchit wasn’t a tailor. He was a miserable, underpaid clerk, swept along in a new wave of knowledge work that rose up in the 19th century, crashed into the 20th, and left us all floating among the flotsam and jetsam in the 21st. The “suit” became a ledger became a PowerPoint presentation. In stark contrast to the pre-Industrial tailor, no one knows how long anything takes to do or even when to call it done.

I’ve got my work cut out for me in the Dickensian sense. But I’m doing my best to cultivate the idiom’s former meaning. But it isn’t easy to cut out your creative work when you have no idea how long things take. As a book editor, I really struggled in that department. Editing other people’s work was so unpredictable. On every manuscript, I faced anything from “tough but manageable” to “crushing grind.” Editing some manuscripts represented a mind-numbing process requiring hour upon hour (upon hour) of focused effort simply to massage the words into readable shape, let alone the ideas into coherent arguments. In theory, I should only have acquired as many books as I could reasonably edit but, having no idea how to estimate that, I erred on the side of far too many and let adrenaline and excuses carry me through.

Whenever I met with another editor, I’d pester them for advice: Where did they find the time and energy to edit after the meetings, phone calls, emails, and proposals to be reviewed? If the other editor had a partner or kids or both, how did they navigate those demands on their time? When it came to the editing itself, how long did a manuscript usually take to “finish,” whatever that meant? Was I behind because I was slow? Perfectionistic? Or simply overwhelmed with too many books at once? (Yes.)

Some editors made multiple, laborious passes through each manuscript. Others just did a quick sweep, sprinkling a handful of comments here and there. (David Lynch whispering in an actor’s ear: “More wind.”) Most were like me, inventing and reinventing their approach depending on the quantity and urgency of their various production deadlines. Acquiring books, meeting with agents, and promoting your list in-house is overwhelming enough, particularly without the teams of assistants and interns that editors of yesteryear could call upon for help. For book editors, the editing itself seemed to be a murky and dispiriting morass, all those finish lines retreating into the distance like the bar code on a back cover.

Then I met an editor who didn’t have an ounce of agita about any of it.

“I do my editing on Saturdays,” he told me. “I get up at eight, grab an apple, and spend four hours editing. Four hours gets me through ninety pages of manuscript.” Somehow, the guy triaged his edits to maintain a steady pace, regardless of the state of the manuscript. By adhering to this schedule and keeping a close eye on his future pipeline to avoid a crunch, he never fell behind. As for the books, well, they got what they got. There’s only so much time in the day.

That conversation was a wake-up call for me. Maybe creative work didn’t need all the drama. Since then, I’ve gotten a little better at managing my pipeline and pacing my work. There are only so many good hours in a day. There is an appropriate amount of time and effort to invest in any project and, with experience, I improve at budgeting my efforts accordingly. Instead of grabbing a needle and diving into a pile of cloth, I’m learning, slowly, to cut out my work.