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Pruning Your Prose

Every year we have the stunning Japanese maple in our back yard trimmed by a gifted gardener. Each time, I’m astonished to see the graceful structure of the tree’s inner limbs, their beauty revealed after excess branches have been cut away.

One of the great joys of writing, for me, lies in revision, especially cutting words, sentences, even paragraphs, from my own breathless prose. Though there’s satisfaction in that first draft, where I face the blank page and let ideas fly, the pleasure in shaping is even greater. First drafts are splashes of thought like those a paintbrush flings, splattering bright dots of color on a page. Anything goes. But once the first flush of production is complete, I’m a potter with a lump of clay. Now comes the artistry.

“Do not be afraid to seize whatever you have written and cut it to ribbons,” advise William Strunk and E.B. White in their classic Elements of Style. “Remember, it is no sign of weakness or defeat that your manuscript ends up in need of major surgery.” That’s the nature of writing.

After that first draft I ask myself, is the central idea clear? Ah yes, it’s in there, buried among my spurts of color, my metaphors. Time to pull it out, add lines that focus the reader and clarify my intent. But mostly, time to trim. Or, as writer Adam Gopnik calls it, time to practice “the aesthetic of abridgment.”

First I look for easy cuts, unnecessary words that weaken the prose: In fact, very, or almost. Once I clean them out, sentences are clearer. More lively. Then I check myself for overblown writing, archaic sentence structure, and wild flights of fancy words, which I adore. Cutting them is tough. But as my mentors Strunk and White insist, “Rich, ornate prose is hard to digest, generally unwholesome, and sometimes nauseating.” I allow myself one or two phrases another editor might delete—when my imagination flew freely and surprised me with unexpected images—but force myself to remove most overwriting. “Murder your darlings,” the classic adage goes. It takes discipline. Even grieving. But once the deed is done, I’m amazed at how easily the whole piece flows.

As I continue going through the manuscript looking for more places to trim I notice repeats, “crutch words,” editor Pat Holt calls them. They’re unremarkable phrases or words and therefore easy to ignore, but readers can be distracted by the repetition. One of mine is actually. Others are really and finally. Fine to use them occasionally, but they can really slow down the pace and weaken the prose. Oops, there I go with really. How much more powerful the sentence is without it, plus the qualifying verb can: “Fine to use them occasionally, but they slow down the pace and weaken the prose.”

As women, we are prone to using qualifiers like almost, nearly, rather, or can in writing, just as in speech. A result of “girl training” not to offend, appear too aggressive or confident, these qualifiers “are the leeches that infect the pond of prose, sucking the blood of words.” (Strunk and White.) Let us be bold, state our thoughts clearly, and prune our prose the way my gardener prunes our Japanese maple, so the natural beauty of our writing shines.

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