Gardening + Editing = same/same

Allison Tait blog
Posted on November 13, 2011

Gardening is a surprising business. Even with all the instructions, conditions, fertiliser and prayers in the world, some plants simply never prosper.

They decide they don’t like your plot of land and simply turn their toes up at it. Others will thrive, despite a perfect storm of neglect, bad soil and lousy location.

At the beginning of winter this year, The Builder and I planted some dwarf, winter-flowering Italian lavender. They were very cute. Small, perfectly formed.

We placed them gently round the bottom of a new camellia (for which we had high hopes) and sat back to watch.

Today I approached said ‘dwarf’ lavenders with pruning shears in hand. They had, to be brief, run amok, squeezing the life out of the camellia (for which we had high hopes). They had flowered over winter, flowered during spring and were about to flower again.

Meanwhile, we had been waiting for them to finish flowering so that we could ‘tip prune’ them – as per instructions on the label. They didn’t finish. No tip pruning. Which means lots and lots of dead lavender heads adorning their spiky fronds.

The time had come to cut those suckers back.

I began with the secateurs, gently teasing each dead lavender head from the foliage and delicately snipping it off. I did this for about 15 minutes and then stood back to admire my handiwork. Large pile of dead lavender heads on the path – no discernible difference to the plants.

Something more brutal was required.

I called The Builder outside (from grouting duties) to confer. We decided that I would take a third off each plant.

“Back to the basic structure,” he said. “Get rid of the faff.”

So I pulled out my Edward Scissorhands shears and began hacking in. Spears of lavender went everywhere, landing at my feet. Wait a minute, I thought to myself. These are flowers. Beautiful, deep purple flowers. I put down the shears, ran inside for a container, picked up the secateurs and snipped off a huge bouquet of lavender.

That done, I hacked into the bushes again, reducing their bulk by one-third, back to the wood, shaping them as I went. As I got towards the end of my task, I began to leave the new shoots I could see, taking care to cut around them – after all, I would like a few summer flowers from my winter-flowering lavender if possible.

My lavender shrubs are now neat and tidy, ready for whatever summer will bring. The removal of the dead heads allows more sun to penetrate, allowing for even more growth. The camellia (for which we have high hopes) is once again the star, and has enough room to breathe.

The whole time I was undertaking this exercise, I was thinking about editing.

The first time somebody asked me to edit my full-length manuscript, I went in very gently, snipping a few bits here, changing a word, putting in a comma.

Then a structural editor got hold of my manuscript and told me, in no uncertain terms, that I had started with the wrong character and that the whole thing needed to be turned upside down until the basics of the story and the characters was revealed. I did that, putting aside some bits I really loved, the ones that weren’t quite right for this story, and storing them away. You never know what you’ll be able to use again.

And even as I hacked away at my manuscript, I discovered new shoots. Things I hadn’t noticed before because I was too busy concentrating on the showy stuff. Kill your darlings, they say. If a scene or a character or a line is only there because you love it, not because it advances the story, it has no place in this book.

Once I’d finished editing my manuscript, I had a much better book. Much better. But I’d never have found it if I hadn’t got the pruning shears out and gone to town on it.

Lessons of the day: 1) quick and brutal beats death by 1000 cuts. 2) Your first draft is not your manuscript. It’s really not.


  1. Misja

    Oh Alison, I just love this analogy! And it is so apt, but tell me this: why oh why is gardening soo much more enjoyable than editing? 🙂
    (Btw, really enjoying your blog, thank you, after finding you through your and Valerie’s podcast)

  2. Rhonda

    I love this.

    Would you recommend having a trusted friend read a first draft prior to turning it in?

  3. robyn

    Love it! Well written, and great analogy 🙂


    Love the gardening/editing connection. Am now trying to think of a smart fertiliser/bullshit analogy, hah.

  5. River

    I remember pruning a huge old overgrown lavender when I first moved into my old home. People had been tossing their rubbish into that little plot as well. I hacked it down to a bare stump, prayed I hadn’t killed it, then raked out all the garbage too. I was rewarded with new growth very quickly and in no time it was as tall as the fence again, but much tidier. I loved it. Then hubby killed it.

    I’ve never thought about gardening being like editing, but you’re right.

  6. MummyK

    It scares me that editing thing. Scares me very much. Not looking forward to editing my work or sending it to an editor. Gulp.

  7. Jamie


    Did you know they once conducted trials at a South Australian rose garden, where one row of roses was carefully pruned the ‘correct’ way with clean, sharp secateurs, and the other row of roses was pruned with a chainsaw? You might already see the result coming… yep, no difference. Both rows flowered beautifully.

    So, when someone says “you have to cut your 3000 word story down to 750 words” it can be done. Boo hoo, but it can be done.

  8. alison@thisbloominglife

    What great lessons in life. My garden is constantly being chopped and changed – and as you discovered what a great excuse to bring flowers inside. Now if only I could apply the same outlook to life and celebrate change and the new shoots of life! Hmmm, food for thought. Thanks!

  9. Emily

    Great analogy – thanks for the tip!

  10. Jodi@TheScribbleDen

    Perfect analogy Al. Although I would rather edit than garden. LOL

  11. Kim H

    Great post! My editing is exactly like my pruning – I’m much more gentle than you were and a friend of mine is always saying: cut it RIGHT back! My writing is so like my gardening – it rambles on and on and gets so overgrown and overwhelming, at times. Far out, I can’t believe the uncanny similarity you’ve forced me to look upon today.

    best go and sharpen up those shears {ready for my next garden} and give that delete button some action! x

  12. Diminishing Lucy

    Oh how I love a gardening analogy.

    This house we live in – first house ever in my life where lavender doesn’t flourish. It makes me nervous…

  13. danneromero

    wow, great insight. i often wonder if i wrote a story, would it still be my story once the editors took hold of it?

  14. Mama of 2 boys

    Fabulous analogy Allison, you are so brave to hack away at a flourishing plant like that. I’d be so excited it was growing, I’d let it ride. But you are so right, it’s important to keep it trimmed, in order for it to thrive. And oh, how I love the scent and sight of lavender. The Fibro must be feast for the senses as a result of your prune :o) xo
    Fingers crossed for the ‘high hopes’ Camellia… they’re a gorgeous tree too!

  15. Mum on the Run

    Fantastic analogy.
    I’m a super hesitant pruner and editor. Until I get comfortable and then it’s a massacre.

  16. Kymmie

    What a beautiful analogy!

    But if you edit like I prune, you would have a very, very dead book.

    Our lavender was pulled up during winter. Wet rot. Damn that drought breaking…

    So lovely to be reading your beautiful words again. I’ve missed you. xx

  17. tinsenpup

    I’m so besotted with lavender since we moved to this house with its own beautiful little lavender garden. Yours is gorgeous. And the stuff is so useful! The essential oil is great for headaches, insect bites, insomnia and today I made deodorant with a little added for its antibacterial properties. Not that any of that is going to fit well into your neatly constructed metaphor, of course…

  18. Kelly Exeter

    As always love your work Al. And this analogy – brilliant! It must be heartbreaking to take to a manuscript with the Edward Scissorshands shears … but at least there is a beautiful reward at the end!

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