How editors are like gardeners

30 11 2010

One of my favorite writers on staff at The New Yorker is blogger Susan Orlean.

A veteran magazine writer who also has authored several books, Orlean now regularly writes light, often funny posts on “people, places, and things” (i.e., anything she wants). Recent topics include her pet turkeys at Thanksgiving time and the challenges of finding a good way to begin or end an email message.

Another recent post draws a parallel between editing and gardening (specifically, pruning). For many, the analogy might not be immediately apparent. For others — especially those who have worked as editors — it’s a familiar idea that rings very true.

Orlean writes:

“My impulses as a gardener are totally perverse. This is the time of year when most gardeners are in mourning, watching the zinnias nod into eternal slumber, the tomato vines shrivel, the beds turn to dust — and yet I am happy. I love tearing things out of the ground. I love digging and discarding. I love pruning.

“I might have missed my calling as an editor. After a summer of mad growth and ungovernable expansion, vines that trail on like bad sentences, small dry bulbs that erupt into sprawling, overripe flower mounds, I can’t wait for the fall editing session, when I can get to work yanking out all the dead things, the ugly things, the mistakes and misjudgments.”

Much of editing is subtracting, or “cleaning up.” Even professional writers fall into the trap of “overwriting.” Most of the time, the best way to fix that is not rewriting, but simply subtracting. Snip a word here, prune a sentence there, and before you know it, your writing (garden) looks much better.

Orlean wonders whether she missed her calling as an editor, but as a writer, she is an editor. A major part of writing is editing yourself. That’s why the analogy of pruning a garden is useful for anyone — not just editors.

Learning to combat overwriting, or “overgrowth,” is crucial to becoming a better writer. And, as Orlean points out, clearing out “the dead things” can be strangely satisfying.

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