Pruning that Manuscript

This Christmas, I was gifted a beautiful Norfolk Pine—three feet tall, its branches spanning a goodly distance in all directions. After a few weeks, the branches started to dry out, needles began to adorn the floor instead of the plant. I didn’t understand why. I was very careful to follow all the rules of caring for this plant. I didn’t over-water, I didn’t under-water, it received the proper amount of light…so what was wrong? What I discovered was the pretty red foil decorating the plain pot had become an instrument of death. The foil looked lovely, but it wasn’t allowing for proper drainage. Each time I watered the plant—even though it wasn’t too much water—the little bit of water that drained out the bottom of the pot got trapped in that foil. Cumulatively, it caused the soil to remain too wet and the roots of this beautiful tree began to drown. 

I decided to accept the impossible mission of saving this suddenly-becoming wretched plant. I ripped off the pretty foil. I moved the plant to the bathroom where it would be well and properly humidified by shower steam. I clipped dead branches. At first, I didn’t clip all the dead branches. I still wanted the plant to look proportioned and pretty—and after all, dead Norfolk Pine branches almost look alive. They’re just a little crispy to the touch, is all. 
That didn’t seem to work. The plant continued to deteriorate.  So, I trimmed more dead branches. Now the plant was an odd lopsided thing that probably wouldn’t even qualify to be a Charlie Brown Christmas tree, but I told myself it was for the best…the only way to save it. Still, I couldn’t bring myself to clip all the dead branches. If I did that, the height would be gone, and much of the remaining sides.

The plant continued to deteriorate. Finally, I decided I had to take drastic measures (yes, it took this long). I had to cut all the dead limbs. It was the plant’s only chance. So, now, my beautiful three-feet-tall Norfolk Pine is one-foot-tall, but, it’s even on all sides, the branches are green, the needles are supple, and the plant? Well….IT LIVES!

As I was doing my final pruning, the age-old comparison came to me about how we need to allow God to prune us, cut off all sin in our lives in order for us to have rich, productive, and holy lives. Something else came to me, as well: As writers, this is what we sometimes need to do to our manuscripts. Sometimes what we feel makes the story shine (beautiful shiny foil) is the thing that’s causing the story to suffer. Sometimes, what we feel is necessary to give our story height and depth (dead branches that don’t quite “look” dead) is really the thing that’s keeping the manuscript from soaring to its full potential. 

So, my friends, don’t be afraid to chop away. When you’re editing, don’t look at how much you really liked that subplot, and decide off-hand that it doesn’t need to be cut. Don’t look at the long description that’s beautiful but stifles the action, as necessary. Don’t look at the 20-page prologue that’s full of backstory as if it contains all the information the reader needs to know now. Maybe those things are just shiny foil and dead branches that are actually killing your story instead of allowing it to grow. After all, what’s better, a pruned manuscript that breathes life into readers, or a long manuscript that goes nowhere and dies on the vine? 

As writers, our goal is to create a complete world, three-dimensional characters, a compelling plot. As you edit, keep that goal in mind. Sometimes we follow all the rules of writing (I watered my Pine just as I should have)--our grammar is perfect, our point-of-view is on target, our manuscript formatting is flawless--but still something lacks. Look at each scene and ask yourself if it moves the story forward. Does it develop character? Does it create or resolve conflict? If it doesn’t do something that’s truly necessary, prune that baby. Sometimes clipping a sentence here and there will do, but sometimes, you’ll need to nix the scene altogether. And don't just ask yourself if the scene does what it's supposed to (it's easy to say "yes"), explain to yourself why you think it does. You'd be surprised how often you think you know why something works, but when trying to explain it to someone else, you can't. Generally, that's because it doesn't really work!

Don’t be afraid to edit aggressively (prune all the dead weight, even if it makes your story lopsided for a while). Keep your goal in mind, cut what needs to be cut and then flesh out the story again. Do that, and you’ll end up with a beautiful manuscript that is full of life.

Happy writing!


  1. Nicola, this is an astounding post! As a former greenhouse operator, I know exactly what you mean and yet I've never looked at my writing this way.

    I remember visiting a greenhouse in the city. Their geraniums were the same height as ours, but they had 3-4 times the stems and leaves. Bushy foliage and covered in blooms. I asked what fertilizer they used and discovered they used the same quanity and brand as us. They also started them 4 months ahead of our May 1st Opening Day just like us. The difference was a technique they'd brought over from Holland and that was to pinch the growing tip off at the beginning of March - 2 months prior to Opening Day.

    I went back to our greenhouse and nipped away. My FIL had a fit since we'd learned the trade from him before buying the business. Yet, even he bragged about the leafy plants that season and from then on.

    Having said that, I'm going back to my writing to nip away. Can't wait to see the results - and a lot sooner than 2 months. :D

    Anita Mae.

  2. Hey Anita Mae,

    Thanks! Here's hoping your manuscript blossoms like your geraniums. :)