Editing Lessons From Your Garden

Me? Professional editor, amateur botanist. Here’s what’s worth knowing.

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I didn’t do any writing on Saturday.

Instead, I committed the morning to getting a rose garden under control. Then, in the afternoon, I slept because of what it took to get a rose garden under control.

This is a learning experience. Pruning roses is not unlike editing your work.

Gardening teaches patience. Gardening roses goes a step further — it is a masochistic act of self-flagellation if, done correctly, teaches patience. Also, you get flowers.

After three hours of pruning down branches and deadheading new growth, I was cut, scraped, sweaty, and sick of the rose bushes. The August sun and all of the bugs it attracts were having their way with me. The clippings, in all, filled six, five-gallon buckets and it looked like I hadn’t done a damn thing.

By the next morning, they were already putting on a show. Lighter and airer, they were thrilled and gorgeous in their rich pinks and reds. In a week or so I’ll do it all again. Cutting back, pruning, cleaning things up. I want these bushes to grow vast and vibrant. I want them to be the reason you come to visit.

Why I prune those roses is why I tell writers they need to do a self-edit before they ask me to edit their work for them. Before you can ask someone else to enjoy your work, you first have to hate it a little bit.

Follow me here: creating is a selfish act. Editing is required if you want anyone else to enjoy whatever it is you’re doing.

When you want to create for others — customers, patrons, readers, viewers, advertisers, whatever — the edits matter. Creativity happens in excess; craft occurs when you reduce, refine, and purify.

When left to their own devices, as our bushes had been for months, roses will grow thick and dense as a wall. They will be more leaves than blooms, and you might not even think of them as roses. This is handy if you are looking to keep out a contingent of ancient Roman invaders.

However, if you are looking to manage a garden and weed out the bad stuff and have a place where people can feel welcome to enjoy the experience, the pruning is kind of a big deal.

When I’m hired to edit a manuscript, I’m presented with a huge block of text that spans hundreds of pages. My left eye pre-emptively twitches at the amount of screen-time I have ahead of me. Microsoft Word quivers at the amount of profanity I intend to throw its way as it threatens to crash several times over.

The five pages are all I need to know if it can be done. A third of the time I refund the deposit, send the manuscript back and let the writer know that if I edit the entirety of the document, it will likely be a different book from the one they’ve written. Are they ok with that?

Then, I suggest they prune.

Prune about half

They say you can cut away about 2/3rds of a mature rose bush before you risk killing it. Even then, they’re tough stalwarts. Even if you think you’ve killed it, it will be back next year. This thinking works for most plants.

Back To The Root

Most plants have one root where it flourishes from. Stories have one idea or heart or thesis that the rest of the work should flow back to. Books fall apart when they try to deal with too many ideas, and there is plenty of ground to cover with ONE idea. Different interpretations, sure, but the idea is *singular.*

Keep the one root healthy, and the damn story can roll on forever.

Pruning Changes Direction

Follow the branch down from the deadhead to the first grouping of five leaves, prune about a ¼ inch above the leaves. Make sure the cut is at an angle so water can run off the end (pooling may cause rot). The angle the branch is cut at will determine what direction the branch grows next. Towards the light?

All of the roses bloom south, toward the sun. It’s a chicken/egg quandary: are they blooming that way because they want to be pruned that way? Or vice versa?

The result? The bushes seem less-than-impressive unless you are looking at them from the south, but the porch I like to stand on to see them is to the west. An audience, ignored.

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Photo by Ian Baldwin on Unsplash

Deeper Cuts Hurt

Every book is a baby, a child, a labor of love. A stack of pages represents days committed to a keyboard and disabled wifi. Missed calls, ignored texts, and nights spent alone. Death threats come along when I highlight an entire chapter and write, “I think this needs to be deleted.”

A deep cut can seem painful, but it could be the one thing that allows the rest of the plant to flourish. The prickles (not thorns, but prickles, yes really), turn downward, toward the root. Reach your gloved hand in to cut the branch, and your forearm will come back shredded.

The cut needs to happen. Otherwise, the plant looks too busy and the leaves prevent light and water from reaching the roots. So reach in deep, make the cut, watch it grow.

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