Killing Your Darlings

Vintage photo man on old-fashioned motorcycle in desertYou’ve heard the phrase everywhere: in how-to books, at conferences, and from many notable authors throughout the years. ‘Kill your darlings’ is widespread writing advice because it’s good writing advice. But, if you’re like me, it’s also one of the hardest pieces of advice to follow. We’re told to write from a place of passion, to give it our all—and then we’re expected to go at our work with the delete button?!

The answer to that is, of course: yes. Unless you’re among the minuscule percentage of writers who never want their work to see the light of day, you’re writing for a reader. And readers can’t read your work if they’re stumbling over words, confused by phrasing or distracted by excessive simile use.

But, for all the people who preach why you should kill your darlings, none of them explain how. They are darling, after all (and not everyone can be as cruel as George R. R. Martin). I say, instead of deleting them out of cyberspace, relocate them.

Whether your go-to program is Microsoft Word, Pages, or a writing program like Scrivener, start a document meant solely for all of your darlings (I call mine, ‘Stuff I Might Use’). When a critique group member, beta reader, or even yourself (upon second or third or fourth reading), sees a problem, a ‘darling’ in your lovely writing, copy and paste that darling into that document.

Just because you have three-too-many similes in one chapter doesn’t mean you can’t recycle those into a future chapter or, for that matter, into a future project. But chances are, eventually, you’ll forget about that heart-wrenching metaphor from page forty-five that pulls the reader out of the moment, or that detailed description of light reflecting off the floorboards which contradicts your character perspective.

The more you practice writing, the more drafts you revise, and the more books and writing advice you read, the easier it’ll be to recognize and eliminate the parts of your writing that aren’t working. I barely flinch anymore when my critique group suggests I cut out a sentence, paragraph, or even an entire chapter.

That’s because killed darlings aren’t wasted words. They are vital to the writing process. Ideas build upon one another. You can’t get from point A to point C without passing through point B first. And if you hold on too dearly to point B, you’ll never progress to point C.

So the next time someone tells you to ‘kill your darlings,’ rest assured that you can always resurrect them. But you might be surprised where all the ‘killing’ takes you!

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