‘Kill your darlings’ is a phrase that all creative writing teachers love to use. Do you know what it means? And what it doesn’t mean? This article will show you when killing your darlings is good. And how to resuscitate them.
Kill Your Darlings!
All creative writing teachers love that phrase. Because it works and there’s so much truth in it. When I heard it for the first time, I had loads of questions: Why does a writer have to kill anything? And what’s that darling everybody talks about? How are you supposed to kill it? And where does that phrase come from?
This blog post will answer all those questions. Let’s start at the beginning.
The Original Murderer Of All Darlings
‘Kill your darlings’ – many attribute this phrase to William Faulkner or even Stephen King. And yes, they have mentioned it. The phrase is actually a bit older. It all goes back to Arthur Quiller-Couch’s book On The Art Of Writing (1916), where he says:
‘Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it – whole-heartedly – and delete it before sending your manuscript to press. Murder your darlings.’
There you have it. If you’re a stickler for accuracy, you’ll note that Quiller-Couch talks about murder, not killing. That’s important! ‘Murder’ requires thinking, purpose, and control. ‘Killing’ simply means that you take away a life. Let me explain why Quiller-Couch is more accurate.
Let’s remember that he was writing about style, and how a writer should be able to control it, rather than let style control the writer. That control makes all the difference, and that’s why the word ‘murder’ is the better word choice.
However, historically, the other phrasing has been more popular, so in this blog post, we’ll continue to ‘kill’ our darlings.
What’s A Darling?
The darlings that writers are supposed to murder are those pieces of text that we’re so in love with. That one sentence we all think is so exceptionally good. The killer paragraph that shows how intelligent we are. The headline we worked on for hours and we think is worthy of a Pulitzer (I hope you catch the sarcasm here).
All these things are showy. We like them because they sparkle with our smartness, and we’ve worked so hard to come up with them. But be honest: most of the time, they don’t contribute to the story. So why do we put them there in the first place?
The Great Danger Of Darlings
Darlings come up again and again because of our attachment to the text and because of our love of language. Sometimes, we simply get carried away. No big deal – if we can get back to business. But darlings prevent us from doing just that.
Why? Because we’re so attached to them. This attachment stops us from having that professional distance. It stops us from creating a successful story arc, a plot, or an argument.
Quiller-Couch talked about murdering darlings after completing the text, but these darlings can appear at other times, too (please read on).
What Killing Your Darlings Doesn’t Mean
So, to prevent darlings, are writers supposed to turn into cold-hearted scribblers? No! You’re still welcome to pour your emotions onto your page. After all, writing is your favourite activity, right?
Read Quiller-Couch again: he does say you should obey that impulse. He’s a clever man; he knows that repressing impulses wouldn’t work anyway. Please keep writing those darlings! You just need to know how to deal with them in the end.
What It Really Means
As creative people, writers need to immerse themselves in their texts. But there comes a time when writers need to accomplish a certain detachment. It’s what we need to edit our text. It’s this detachment that lets us choose what and how we write.
We need to be able to use the tools of our craft. Use those tools with purpose so you can achieve the result you want. Killing your darlings is a powerful tool.
How To Spot A Darling
Identifying your darlings is relatively easy. Those are the bits you’re extremely proud of. Imagine taking them out of your text. Do you resent doing that? Great – you’ve found a possible darling!
Let’s find out if it’s a darling you need to kill. This is the litmus test: Take out that darling and copy it to a separate page. Does the text get dull without it? Is there a logical step missing? Then put it back in. You found a piece of fine writing. It’s not a darling.
But if your text suddenly seems clearer, if it flows better, and the story arc or the course of the argument is better, then you must kill it. Don’t delete it just yet, leave it on that separate page (I’ll tell you why later).
When To Hunt For Darlings
Usually, we go hunting for them once the text is completed. However, darlings may pop up even during the writing process itself. Those are the nasty ones.
Imagine this: you’re writing a text, and suddenly you have this brilliant turn of phrase. You write a whole paragraph. Then you get stuck. You still know where your text is supposed to go but you just don’t know how to get there anymore. You start to rephrase the last few sentences. You’re still stuck. You can try this over and over, but you won’t be able to push through unless – can you guess it? Unless you let go of that darling. You need to take out that last idea and then try again. Once the darling is gone, you’re sure to get unstuck.
Of course, there are many reasons for writer’s block. Darlings can be one of them. The next time you get stuck, remember to check for darlings. All darlings must leave your text before you submit it for publication.
What To Do With Murdered Darlings
Remember that sheet with the darlings? Don’t delete them! They’re still a valuable resource. Instead, copy them into a notebook or open a new document on your computer. That’s where your darlings go for the moment. Collect them all. Once you’re editing your text, you may notice that one or two entries aren’t darlings at all, and they should go back in. You’re allowed to do that!
The other darlings will have to wait. Fill your notebook with all those clever phrases and ideas. Consider this your piggy bank. You’re saving them for a rainy day. For that day will come when you run dry while writing the next text. Then, when you’re stuck, browse through that notebook, and see if one of those darlings comes in handy (Want more ideas for that notebook? You can even put abandoned manuscripts in there). You never know!
The Last Word
For this article, I killed about three idioms, fifteen single sentences, and a whole paragraph. No writer is immune to darlings. We all must learn how to murder them. And fill that notebook with them. Our writing will be so much better.
By Susanne Bennett. Susanne is a German-American writer who is a journalist by trade and a writer by heart. After years of working at German public radio and an online news portal, she has decided to accept challenges by Deadlines for Writers. Currently she is writing her first novel with them. She is known for overweight purses and carrying a novel everywhere. Follow her on Facebook.
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