What Editors can Learn from Pulling Weeds

Thistles with mountains behindGardening and writing are strikingly similar processes. In addition to being time-consuming, aesthetically complicated, and deeply personal, both of these occupations involve a lot of weeding. While you might not get as dirty or as bug-bitten when you edit something you’ve composed, rooting out weeds has a way of reminding you what the editing process is fundamentally about.

This time of year, one of a gardener’s most important tasks is identifying which seedlings will turn into juicy carrots and which will blossom into ragweed and lamb’s quarter. In editing, too, we need to know which are our strongest ideas and themes before we go about our task. Always know what you hope to accomplish with an edit before you begin.

Every seed packet instructs you to pull out the weaker seedlings after a few weeks of growth – but deciding which little plants to pull can be a chore of its own. Writers face a very similar challenge when they need to condense or simplify a passage. All of the ideas in a section may have the potential to bear fruit, but there are times when you’ve got to thin them out if you want to have room to develop the important ones. Knowing when to let go of an idea is a crucial part of savvy editing.

Of course, one of the hallmark similarities between writing and gardening is the amount of elbow grease involved. You don’t need a foam kneepad or a sturdy pair of gloves to yank out an infestation of unnecessary dependent clauses, but you do need the willpower to sit down for several hours and scrutinize something you’ve already written. Acknowledge that editing is hard and often dull work, and manage the time you’ve set out for it accordingly.

As the days get longer and the sun gets hotter, many of us will be looking for an excuse to get under the shade of a veranda or into the cool air of a basement. Editing, though similar in purpose and process to pulling weeds from a garden, is a far more comfortable and less dirty task.