4 Ways Gardening is Like Editing

Irises and crocuses are blooming in my garden. Perennial herbs and vegetables are showing signs of life after the dormancy of a Northern winter.

Inside the house, I have completed the first complete critique of my middle grade fantasy.  Pages of corrections wait for me to enter them into the computer.

And, as so often happens, these two simultaneous happenings have made me aware of connections I had not previously articulated: parallels between gardening and editing.

1. Location, Location, Location

Plants need the right conditions: soil, light, water all must feed the plant for it to grow. Sometimes you need to move a plant for it to thrive.

Scenes need to fall in the right place. Sometimes you write a scene for the middle of the story and then realize it works better at the beginning.

2. Treatment Matters

Too much water or fertilizer may kill plants as easily as too little.

Backstory needs to be dripped in like irrigation pipes bringing just enough water to the right plant to drive growth without flooding. Action without pauses for reflection may exhaust some readers.

3. Dormancy Can be Good

Last year, I planted rhubarb in my garden. A friend divided hers and gave me half. I knew nothing of rhubarb, but she said it was hard to kill. I planted it, and watered it. A few leaves died, and a few stayed green all summer, but there was no new growth. In the fall, it died back all the way to the ground. Having no understanding of the ways of rhubarb, I watched, wondering if this was, indeed, a survivor. A few days ago, I noticed bright red growth in the midst of the dead material. This morning, there are leaves coming out. This rhubarb will live!

I wrote the first draft of my novel last November. In December, I read it once and noted a few sections that needed to be cut and a few sections that needed to be fleshed out. Then, before I could revise it properly, I needed to let the project go dormant. For three months, I focused on directing a play. As the play neared production, I went back to the manuscript. By leaving it for a time, I was able to come back with a sense of perspective and a deeper understanding of some of the story elements I had glossed over in the first draft. This novel, too, may live!

4. Start With What You Have

The first house I lived in had an overgrown front yard and a mess of a backyard. To quickly beautify the landscaping, there was nothing to do but dig out the front and start again in both areas. So, we did.

Like that house, my first NaNoWriMo manuscript is a mess. Having looked at it through several editing lenses over the past few years, I have concluded there are no more than 3 scenes that might be worth saving, and those probably won′t be usable once I rewrite the rest. If I want to tell that story, I will be better off starting again from scratch.

Our current house had been cared for well by the previous owner, but featured plants I find boring or actively dislike. I have made changes slowly, looking at what is already in place and deciding how to convert it into something I like better without ever going through the completely dug up phase.

My current work-in-progress is similar. The first draft was strong enough that it holds together as a story. It needs major revision, but the core is strong. Editing what is there will work.

Editing a manuscript and gardening are both about looking at what already exists and making changes to bring that reality closer to an imagined goal.

I planted these iris bulbs last fall after clearing space in an uninspiring flower bed. Seeing them bloom this year makes me smile. There are small clumps of them now. I hope they naturalize well and create bigger groupings for the future.

It may take time, but editing a garden or a manuscript produces results eventually.


About Kate Arms-Roberts


Posted on April 12, 2011, in Daily Life, This Writing Life. Bookmark the permalink. 9 Comments.

  1. Congrats on completing your first critique of the novel! This is a good analogy. I’m just hoping you don’t need to know a lot about one to accomplish something in the other, because my gardening knowledge is a bit lacking!

  2. Kate Arms-Roberts


    I wouldn’t think a lack of gardening knowledge would do your writing any harm.

  3. Nice connection between two of your creative pursuits! Sometimes I think of editing as raking dried leaves out of the flower beds. cheers, David

    • Kate Arms-Roberts

      I hope I am better at editing than raking. I am a big believer in fallen leaves as natural compost and mulch, so I leave a lot of leaves in my flower beds.

      But, then again, my flower beds tend to be wilder than my prose. Makes me wonder what might happen if I didn’t prune my prose so hard.

      Thanks for the food for thought.


  4. That’s a great analogy, Kate. Sometimes one needs to do careful pruning but in some cases it’s better to take a small cutting, toss out the main plant, and start a new one. The best element of the analogy is that a written work is a living, organic thing… it does change even when we ‘gardeners’ are absent from it.

    • Kate Arms-Roberts

      Isn’t it amazing what shifts when we aren’t working on a project? Even if the words themselves haven’t changed.

  5. I love the part about dormancy. For my creative process, I often have to put my work into hibernation and come back to it with fresh eyes. So often what make look like weeds will bloom into great blossoms. (Or really are just weeds!

    Love your creative analogy!

  1. Pingback: Creativity Tweets of the Week — 4/15/11 « The Artist's Road

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