Good writers are good pruners. They know when to pick up the shears and how much to chop. William Zinsser taught me that.
“Be grateful for everything you can throw away. Reexamine every word you put on paper. Is every word doing new work? …Is anything pompous or pretentious or faddish? Are you hanging onto something useless just because you think it’s beautiful?”[i]
Zinsser’s book On Writing Well was the gate into a garden of writing growth for me, and strangely, it was a garden of clippings. I flourished there because I learned to chop clutter before clutter choked my prose. I learned to “kill my darlings”— those poetic but useless words I loved too dearly.
Zinsser was right:
“Writing improves in direct ratio to the number of things we can keep out of it that shouldn’t be there.”[ii]
Less is more. To grow something, you first strip what’s dangling and dead.
To grow something, you first strip what’s dangling and dead.
Don’t feed the weeds
This morning I read James 1 and realized writers aren’t the only ones pampering what doesn’t belong. And “darlings” aren’t always adverbs or clichés or clauses.
Sometimes, I cling to my sin. I’m told to kill it, but it looks harmless and even pretty. So I water it, put it in sunlight, let it grow and start choking the truth inside me. James knew that seeds lead to buds, and buds lead to weeds.
But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death (James 1:14-15).
“Don’t let your sin grow leaves and limbs,” James says.
The Puritan John Owen echoed, “Be killing sin or sin will be killing you.”
Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry. On account of these the wrath of God is coming (Col. 3:5-6).
Why did you stop weeding?
Any good gardener knows it isn’t enough to snip weeds. You have to burrow your fingers deep in the soil and pluck the root of the plant. But they’re resilient.
In May, I weeded my herb bed twice a week. It’s now August, and the invasive grasses are up to my thighs because I got tired of digging, yanking, and tossing them away.
It’s the same with my sin.
I can hear the Apostle Paul saying, “You were gardening well, Bethany. Who hindered you from pulling the weeds and obeying the truth?” (Gal. 5:7)
Why did you stop killing your darlings?
No one born of God makes a practice of sinning, for God’s seed abides in him, and he cannot keep on sinning because he has been born of God. By this it is evident who are the children of God… (1 Jn. 3:9).
Grow in the Light, toward the Son
My family took a camping trip last month, and I read this passage under the trees one morning:
Beware of false prophets who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will recognize them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit… Therefore, you will recognize them by their fruits (Matt 7:15-20).
We’d chosen a campsite cornered by forest, and summer was making things lush. But when we started cranking up the camper and setting out sling chairs, we realized poison oak fringed every edge of our site. We spent the next two days dodging it, hanging our towels high above it, and not letting our fan oscillate near the wood’s edge in case it circulated the toxins.
The poison oak reminded me that bad fruit usually blends in with the vibrant leaves and trees around it.
Sin is subtle like that. To flee it, we have to see it. And to see it, we need light.
Walk as children of light (for the fruit of light is found in all that is good and right and true)… When anything is exposed by the light it becomes visible… (Eph. 5:8-9, 13).
In my garden, I couldn’t distinguish weeds from herbs in early May. It was when the sun shone, and the plants matured that I could see: “These don’t belong.”
And as for my writing— it’s taking me years to declutter my articles because clutter looks good. It feels fancy. But whenever I hand an article to my dad, he runs a red pen under my darlings. It takes another pair of eyes to see what’s pompous.
“Walk in the light as he is in the light,” John tells us (1 Jn. 1:7).
Light exposes what’s wrong, and when we walk in it, “we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin” (1 Jn. 1:7). Our weeds get yanked and our darlings get scratched.
It’s painful, I know. But it’s good.
Because when God purges our hearts of sin, he’s working the soil so real growth can happen. With every weed yanked, we grow closer to the Son who saved us from sin to his glorious grace.
. . .
[i] William Zinsser, On Writing Well. (HarperPerennial: New York, NY. 1976), 17
[ii] Ibid, 13