I spent Saturday morning trimming bushes. The shrubs surrounding my house had grown pretty wild over the summer, and if people saw them in a forest, they would likely say the flora looked good. However, nestled among the neat front yards of my suburban neighborhood, the plants looked ragged and unkempt. So after two hours of hacking and raking and stuffing debris into trash bags, my house was once again ready to be viewed by civilized society.
As I was sweeping up the last of the trimmings, I realized that the process of writing is much like gardening. In order for plants to grow, seeds must be nurtured and allowed to germinate. Once the seedlings pop into view, a wise gardener lets them grow for a while untended so that the roots may take hold and the stems can thicken and sprout more leaves. The time will come, however, when the gardener will need to trim back the plant in order to ensure its health and productivity.
In the same way, writers often begin a new work with merely the seed of an idea. They aren’t really sure where that idea will lead or what form it will take, but if they are smart, they nurture the idea and follow it in whatever direction it goes. (This process is sometimes called “free-writing,” but it’s a strategy that applies to any first draft. The purpose is simply to put words on paper.) After a while, the writer steps back and looks at the results. If he or she has been diligent, there are likely plenty of words to sort through, and there may even be enough material in this tangle of sentences to create a good piece of writing. But in order to find it, the writer needs to cut away all the nonessential fluff and give the piece some shape.
Far too often in my teaching, I’ll have students who turn in an assignment and say, “Look how long this is. I worked really hard on it!” While it may be true that the student filled up plenty of pages with words, unless there is some discernable form to those words, the end result is merely a jumble of sentences with no apparent structure or focus. Part of good writing is good editing, and just like my overgrown bushes, it’s important to prune the ragged edges of a piece in order to make it suitable for public viewing. In the end, the writing will be stronger, and people will enjoy looking at it much more.