A guide to video rough cuts (and how to make them less rough)

Cassette tape being cut by scissors

Whatever kind of video you’re making, you’ll need to edit it. From a simple screen recording to a movie about war among the stars, editing is where you turn a bunch of raw video into a coherent story. 

The amount and type of editing you’ll need to do depends on what you’re making. But for almost any kind of video, it’s helpful to think of editing in two stages: the rough cut and the fine cut. The fine cut is where you polish your video and do everything you can to make it look and sound the way you want. Before that, you’ll make a rough cut, where you focus on shaping your story and honing your message. 

“For me, a rough cut is finding the shape of the story,” says Allison Grasso, a professional commercial and documentary editor, “and the beats of the story. You’re finding all your selects — all the bits you want in — and laying them out in the mostly correct order.”

If you’ve recently started making video, you may be thinking “Why break it into stages? I just edit it all at once and then post the damn thing. Let’s not make this more complicated.” 

Hear us out here: making a rough cut can help you level-up the quality of your videos and ultimately save you time. It lets you see the form your story is taking before you dive into the details, or spend a bunch of time polishing audio or visuals that you ultimately should’ve cut. 

It’s essentially where you organize the beginning, middle, and end of your story, so you can see the shape your story is taking.

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Start with the transcript

The transcript is a powerful tool for making a rough cut on any kind of narrated video — meaning content driven by someone talking (which is pretty much everything, except music videos and avant-garde documentaries about birds). With a transcript you can create what filmmakers call a paper edit, with all the content you want to include.

Words are probably doing most or all of the work in delivering your content, so working in the transcript allows you to see everything you’ve got — and quickly scan through it looking for the obvious cuts. With the transcript, you can easily spot the part where you swore at your dog because you kept forgetting your lines, and the other places you stumbled. 

So that’s your first pass: just cut the flubbed lines, interruptions, and other stuff you know you want to cut. 

Then go through it again. Each time through, think critically about how each line helps support the main point or idea you’re trying to get across. Highlight the strongest points. If you’re working in Descript, you can easily clip those into a new composition that becomes your completed rough cut — because when you cut or move text in the transcript, Descript cuts or moves the video. 

Not sure where to begin on structure, or storytelling? Check out our interview with podcasting legend Jad Abumrad on how he approaches storytelling. TL;DR: listen to all your raw material, select the stuff you think you want to keep, string it together; then tell a friend what it’s about to see where their eyes go wide or they lose interest; write up a 2-3 paragraph summary of what's going to happen and arrange your clips that way; then hit play over and over again, shifting things around until they're exactly where you want them to be.

Watch it through 

The transcription won’t tell you that an interviewee’s cat walked through the frame, or that a car alarm went off in the street below, just as they were waxing poetic about the peace of the early morning. 

After you get everything lined up the way you want in the transcript, the next step is to watch it all through. Ideally, it’s two or three times longer than you want your final cut to be — so you can be ruthless about cutting anything that could be a distraction or that doesn’t advance your story. 

Look for problems in the video frame or in the audio that you couldn’t see in the transcript. And be on the lookout for continuity problems — places where, as a result of cuts or moving stuff around, your position in the frame suddenly shifts, or your hair is different or the lighting changes. Viewers on YouTube, TikTok, and the like are used to jump cuts, but you don’t want to distract them with thoughts like “where did that water bottle come from?” If you want to keep these soundbites but don’t want distracting visuals, flag these parts for b-roll that you can layer on top.

Kill your darlings

It may help to stop and remind yourself what story you're trying to tell, what point you’re trying to get across, or what your goals are for the video. Think carefully about how you want the listener to react, feel, or act. 

That’s how you’ll have the confidence to make the hard cuts. Like when your guest tells a harrowing story about climbing Kilimanjaro that has nothing to do with your conversation about classic cars. It might be the most riveting part of the conversation, but your listeners are here because they’re into hot rods, not mountaineering.  

Every editor runs into these moments — writers call it “killing your darlings,” because we love drama — where you’re torn over whether to keep or cut something that’s wonderful but doesn’t fit with the rest of the episode, or lead listeners away from the point you’re trying to make. It sucks, but you cannot waver — kill your darlings; kill them all. 

Trust your instincts here. If you feel yourself getting bored by a segment, it should probably go. If you’re excited to tell your friends about it later, you should find a way to bring it up. 

Phone a friend

This is a great point to get some outside eyes on your video. Before you start refining the details with a fine edit, test out your rough cut to see if it holds up. 

Find someone you trust to give you honest feedback. Ask them to watch it, then ask: where did you lean in? Where did your mind wander? What part was confusing? And whatever else you want to know. 

Note that a rough cut is meant to be rough, so find people who understand that. I’m going to save you time right now and say that unless your parents are professional editors, they are not the people you want to ask (“Why did it keep jumping between sentences?” “Because it’s a rough cut, Mom.”). You get the idea.  

And hopefully this goes without saying, but put on your thick skin. Don’t take feedback personally or get defensive. Remember, it’s better to hear it from a confidante than from a bunch of yahoos in the comments. 

A bonus of asking for notes: while you wait, you’re giving yourself time away from the project. When you return to your edit, you’ll see new places you can cut, and new story beats you may have overlooked. 

Buy your friend a drink, or a new car, and start making the changes you need to make to address their feedback. Once you do that, you should be ready to dig into the details. Now it’s time to make your fine cut.

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