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.


Award-winning author Joan Steinau Lester published five books (fiction and non-fiction), several hundred op-eds, and essays in literary journals. She has a memoir in process and a contract for a YA novel, Langston Hughes and the One True Me.

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  • Susan J Slack

    Thank you. Been hearing that advice from several reliable sources, but it still stings.

  • Melissa Gween Meek

    Elements of Style is the first book I read when pursuing writing years ago, looking at my copy here on my desk. Still read it over and over.....Thanks for your words of wisdom!

  • Leah Rae Lake

    Thanks so much for this wonderful pruning advice. I've known all this from years of editing, and writing and editing my own, but over the years I lost my list of words to purge. This is so useful to me now, especially, since I'm mentoring a new young novelist in a first novel. Appreciate your sharing such good experience. Also appreciate the comments...

  • Lisa Thomson

    Ah, this was so beautifully written that I won't forget it. Crutch words and grieving as part of the editing process really stands out to me. Thanks Joan!

  • Thanks, women. Glad the blog is useful. It's fun to write. Really, really fun! :)

  • Paula Wagner

    Great metaphor especially for this season. Just a word of caution: I have to reign in my inner "ruthless editor" so she doesn't cut out the heart of the story or rip out necessary details in her zeal. Some writing styles are minimalist by nature, others expansive, so too much pruning can be just as damaging as too little. The trick is knowing our own voices and editing accordingly. Thanks for your wise guidance. 

  • Janis Couvreux

    I get this. Describes my method to a "T"! The "paintbrush flings, spattering dots of color," and "lump of clay" are exactly my computer screen, and yes, it IS fun and satisfying to hone it down. I always say that I'm painting a tableau with words. Thank you!

  • Darlene Foster

    Excellent advice! 

  • Suzy Soro

    One of my early readers (Hey Rene!) caught my 'really' apocalypse. I was sure she was misguided until I did a FIND in Word and realized how much I owed her keen eye and reading comprehension. 

  • Stacey Aaronson

    Beautifully written, Joan! You really (!) nailed it. :-)

  • Mardi Steinau

    Oh, yes, the pain of loss when your darlings must be murdered. But then the strong beams hold up the stars.