Six Things You Can Learn About Writing from Botanical Gardens

I love botanical gardens. The fresh flowers. The splashes of color. The carefully-manicured walkways. About 10 miles from where I live is a beautiful botanical garden that’s free and has a nice path that is well cared-for and super relaxing. I love to go there. Going through a botanical garden can teach us a lot about writing. Consider the following:

#1: Variety is Key

How boring would it be if every single flower you saw in a botanical garden was a rose, and they were all red? It would get boring pretty quickly, wouldn’t it? But gardens use all kinds of different flowers that are different sizes and shapes and colors, which makes it more beautiful and more appealing to those of us who are viewing it. The same should be true of our writing, we should use smooth transitions that lead from one interesting turn-of-phrase to the next, without cliches and without relying to heavily on the same old words we always rely on. Personally, I trend toward liking the words “looked,” “turned,” and “walked.” None of those are particularly interesting, though there’s nothing wrong with any of them. It’s when I overuse them that they become a problem — more on that in another post. but spot your go-to words so that you can inject more interesting expressions into your writing.

#2: Bring Someone Along on the Journey

I can bring a lot of people with me to the botanical garden, but my favorite “person” to bring is my little dog. She is soooo excited to see everything and smell it. She can’t wait to go around it again and again. She’s curious and enthusiastic. My husband will go with me, but he wants to get in and get out. He has no interest in really experiencing it. But my little dog is excited about it from the moment she realizes where we’re going. You need a writing friend who is enthusiastic about your work and whose work you are also enthusiastic about.

Writing can be a really solitary pursuit. People who don’t write don’t understand the compulsion to put words down on paper, to bring people and places to life through your imagination or even the development of story ideas or characters. They think it’s easy. They think it’s silly. They think anyone can do it. That’s why you need someone to come along beside you who is a writer. Someone who loves to write as much as you do and is dedicated to it and can give you advice and is enthusiastic about your story and your characters.  Not only will you make the writing journey more enjoyable for one another, but you’ll encourage one another and become more enthusiastic about it.

#3: Go Through it at Least Twice

When you go through a botanical garden, it’s more enjoyable if you go through it twice. The first time, you get a feel for the whole thing and can really enjoy it. The second time, you notice the details, what makes it work, the things you like and the pretty side paths and trails you didn’t notice the first time. The same thing goes for editing a novel: The first time, you get to remember what you’ve written and see how the whole story comes together, while making tiny adjustments. The second time, you’ll spot things you didn’t notice at all the first time. Huge plot holes. Repeated paragraphs where you tried to change something but didn’t quite manage it. Whole chapters that don’t make sense. The fact that a side character has two different  hair colors, three different eye colors and always always always seems to be wearing green.

I like to go through things with two two pens, one green and one purple. I also like to make a hard copy so I can really get a good look at it all. That way, I can notice all of the details, so that it’s more enjoyable for me – and hopefully others – at a later date.

#4: Pick Up After Yourself

As previously stated, I like to go to the botanical gardens with my dog and sometimes she takes a crap along the path, in the grass. So that they don’ t kick me and so they don’t stop allowing dogs and so no one else has a bad experience, I clean up after her.

Sometimes, as writers, our writing turns into a train wreck. It doesn’t make sense, characters are doing crazy things and our plot doesn’t seem to have any coherent form. Instead of just deciding that no one will notice (which is always tempting to do when faced with picking up dog crap or the broken pieces of a story), find a way to address the problem. Sit down with a pad of paper or a computer and address the issues you’re facing head-on so that you can come up with a solution that makes it all bright and beautiful again.

#5: Take a Breather

Once the dog (Ali) and I go through the botanical garden the first time, we sit on a bench so I can write and she can sniff. Then, we go through it a second time. Honestly, sometimes we go through twice, sit, and go through it a third time. The point is that it gives me time to sit and enjoy the day and the garden and the immediate view.

When you finish writing something, it’s important to take a step away from it before diving back into it. Giving yourself time apart will let you be able to look at it with fresh eyes. You’ll see the flaws, you’ll remember what you loved about your characters, you’ll laugh at the funny parts and you’ll, hopefully, be drawn into the story world. If you don’t give yourself enough time, you still see it the way you meant to write it, and now how it’s actually written. Instead, give yourself space and pick it up when you’ve started to forget it. (In his book, “On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft”, Stephen King says he separates himself from the story for six weeks.) That way, it all seems new again and you’ll renew your enthusiasm for it.

#6: Find Somewhere to Enjoy It

Stop and sit. Smell the roses. Botanical gardens are beautiful, so it’s easy to find somewhere that makes you excited to be there. But you need to have the same thing for your writing. Find a place that makes you excited to write and a time that you can always sit down and force the words to come to your brain. Whether it’s in your house, at a coffee shop, at school, in an elevator or outside beneath a fir tree, find somewhere that sets your imagination soaring and makes you excited to see what’s happening next in your story.

#7:  Look at it a Different Way

Switch it up. If every time you go to a botanical garden you head to the left, first. Go right. Go on the bridge instead of on the path. Take the wood path through the trees instead of the cement path. It will give you a fresh perspective and you’ll notice things that you would have missed, otherwise.

Have you ever read a manuscript backwards? Word for word? Sentence by sentence? Paragraph by paragraph? I’ve never done it with a novel, but I do it with short stories (when I write them) and articles all the time. Reading through it backwards gives me the opportunity to pay attention to each individual word without considering the whole sentence. It lets me makes sure it’s spelled correctly and helps me see unfortunate patterns that I might miss otherwise. Reading it backwards by sentence helps make sure that each individual sentence makes sense within itself, instead of as simply part of a large body of work. Again, you’re paying attention simply to that sentence. This can help you slow down. So often we read a sentence or a paragraph and we think it’s exactly what we wanted to say, when really the only reason it makes any sense is because of the other words and paragraphs surrounding it, and really we’ve spelled “embarrassment” wrong and we’ve used the wrong version of “their”, but we read what we wanted to say because we know what we wanted to say, and that’s the image we have in our minds.

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  1. Hi Robin!
    I love your photos and your comparison. Great thoughts and tips on writing. I love the comparison of taking a different path–both in the garden and in our wips. Sometimes where I initially start my story isn’t the perfect place. In my first draft it’ll be in one scene, but in my rewrites I’ll discover that it’s far better in another. It would be like walking through the garden and deciding which spot would pack the most punch upon entry. Where’s the WOW factor? That’s where I’d start.

    • Robin says:

      That’s an excellent point. Sometimes what we think is the beginning is backstory or the middle or just not where the story starts. 🙂

  2. Nice extended metaphor. I’ve never thought to read one of my stories backwards, sentence by sentence. It sounds like it would be a useful revision tool. I’m going to try it! Thanks.

    • Hi Terry!
      I hope reading your story backwards works for you. Thanks for stopping by.

    • Robin says:

      HI Terry!

      It can be useful… but it can also be tedious. Even so, I love the technique. It forces me to slow down a little while editing.

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