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What an apple tree taught me about editing

"Editing is just like pruning – every sentence functions like a limb."

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Outside my office window, the apple tree beckons me to take a writing break. It’s a crisp fall day, and red apples dangle from the branches like Christmas ornaments. Around a half-century old, the tree stands alone on a hillside and functions as a crossing guard for all the animals that pass by: turtles, deer, groundhogs, and even otters.

I can’t recall ever seeing a more perfect tree, and I have Pete, an arborist that my boyfriend and I found on the listserv in our small Vermont town, to thank for that. Earlier this year, Pete graciously spent an afternoon giving our apple tree a makeover. He promised that it would be fine, but I was skeptical. The bark covering its trunk was peeling off like old wallpaper, and the branches were so old and twisted that the tree looked like one jumbled mess.

I had assumed that Pete would arrive with power tools, but I watched with wonder as he climbed up into the tree with a long pole attached to a sharp blade, perfect for snapping off high branches, no ladder required.

“Where’s your chainsaw?” I asked.

Pete scoffed and clipped off another branch with his pruning shears. He was a true Vermonter, someone who knew how high to place a barred owl nesting box on our white pine tree and who probably came out of the womb wearing flannel.

“Never!” he yelled while working around an abandoned bird’s nest. “Pruning is a delicate operation. Every limb matters.”

I worried that Pete might get too heavy handed and slice off too many branches. Unlike the writing process, there wasn’t a document where he could save his first draft. Once a branch was gone, it would take years to grow back.

“How much are you gonna take off?” I asked.

“A third,” he said. “Always take off a third.”

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Had my boyfriend and I not asked Pete to help us remove invasive Japanese knotweed from our front yard, I would have never known that our apple tree needed pruning. When he arrived in April, the ground was still wet with patches of snow, but Pete said it was the perfect time to do a little pruning. The tree was still dormant, and the worst of winter had passed. Every limb that Pete snipped off would have adequate time to heal.

As Pete worked, I sat down onto the wet ground. Many New Englanders can’t stand mud season, a time when we can’t go anywhere without rubber wellies and four-wheel drive, but I don’t mind it. Every day, it seems like the evening holds just a little more light in the sky. Pete, however, was still mourning the loss of winter.

“Guess I can’t complain,” he said. “I just got in one last ski run of the season with my daughter.”

Pete climbed down out of the tree to retrieve his handsaw and spotted a lifeless limb dangling down, a marionette without a puppeteer, and got to work slicing it off. It cracked and hit the ground with a thud. He stepped back to assess his work, then sawed off another branch.

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“Why that one?” I asked.

“It’ll allow more sunlight to reach the other branches.” He stretched out both of his arms, and I caught a glimpse of a tattoo on his forearm, a fish swimming upstream.

“It symbolizes perseverance,” he told me.

I felt the same way about my apple tree. It gave me hope during the pandemic when the snow piled higher and higher around the Adirondack chairs that my boyfriend and I were too lazy to put away at the end of summer. I sat at my desk and looked out the window at our apple tree, wondering when spring would arrive. Songbirds took refuge in the tree on their way to and from our bird feeder. Occasionally, a deer would wander up and nose around in the snow, hoping for a scrap of last season’s apples. In the bleakness of the season, I often felt like I had nothing to give when I sat down to write, but the apple tree never failed to lure me to my desk. That was the most important thing: showing up to do the work. And even if it wasn’t a productive writing session, I still had the view.

Pete stepped back from the tree, then traced an outline of its branches with his hands, as if trying to show me what he was seeing in his mind.

“We want this tree to grow out, not up, so that you can stick a hand up into the tree and grab an apple,” he said. “Pruning funnels the energy to the parts of the tree that are still alive, and that means better fruit come fall.”

It took Pete all afternoon to prune our apple tree. It didn’t matter how much time had passed, how jumbled the branches were from being ignored for years. By paring back, Pete brought out the elegance of the tree hiding beneath the surface all along.

Now, when I sit down to write and see the tree outside my office window, I’m reminded of what I learned from Pete. Editing is just like pruning – every sentence functions like a limb. Removing even just one word can make a huge difference. That’s why it’s important to go slow; it takes time to get it right.

I used to work off the same document when I first became a writer, but now I save all my drafts so I can see the evolution of my work. This means that if I take off a third of my story and change my mind, I can go back and add in what I removed.

I focus on obvious edits when I get stuck. I remove all the low-hanging fruit: lifeless verbs, boring dialogue, and repetitious phrases. When it feels hard to cut the beloved sentences and passages that no longer serve my story, I remember all the dead branches from the apple tree that Pete hauled to the burn pile when he finished the job. They’re no longer part of the tree, but their absence still serves a purpose.

When all else fails, I walk out to the apple tree for a writing break and pluck a piece of fruit off a limb. Not long ago, these apples were as small as cherries, but after months of waiting, they’re finally ripe.

—Betsy Vereckey is a freelance writer who lives in Vermont with her boyfriend and two dogs. She is working on a memoir.

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