#AtoZChallenge: K is for Kill your Darlings

For the A-Z challenge, I am posting writing and editing tips to help you improve and enhance your writing.

K is for Kill Your Darlings

kill_your_darlings

This is the thing that, in my experience, writers find the hardest to do. ‘Killing’ the bits of your writing that you think are the best bits, taking them out, removing them, losing them, ditching them.

Yes, you read that right. To make your work the best it can be, you should cut all those bits you love the most. The sentences that you crafted so carefully, that took hours and hours. The paragraphs that contain those breathtaking metaphors and clever, clever similes that will show the world (and all those agents and publishers) what an absolute genius you are. Those single words that you deliberated over, taking them out, putting them back in, reading and re-reading over and over again. Kill them.

I can hear the gasps from here. After all, why on earth would you do that? These sentences are the best writing you’ve ever done. They showcase your talent. They read beautifully. You love them.

Therein lies the problem.

Perhaps this quote from Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, prolific novelist and literary critic, might make it clearer:

“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.”

When we write we sometimes get caught up in the words rather than the story. As writers, we should have our readers in mind, have our story in mind. Often, when we have produced a finely crafted, clever phrase or paragraph, we have become so involved in the construction that we forget the purpose. We have an emotional attachment to these words and phrases – they are our darlings. But they may be completely unnecessary.

You need to look at your writing impartially, to break those emotional ties. This can be an extremely difficult thing for a writer to do. But it is imperative for a writer to distance themselves from their work during the editing/revision process and to be resolute.

Kill your darlings yourself before a beta reader or an editor does it for you. They may not always do it as kindly!

kill darling gif

Do you have any examples of sentences you’ve loved but have had to kill? I’d love to read them so do share by posting a comment below.

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37 comments

  1. Top stuff, Alison. It’s something I’ve learned to do when writing – write it as it comes out of my head for the first draft, then on the 2nd and 3rd drafts put my ‘reader’ head on. Doesn’t half get rid of some boring bits!!

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  2. Good advice. I try to leave my work for at least a few weeks, then I see it with different eyes and it is true – often the bits that I thought were amazing are actually overwritten. If I don’t have time I get my fifteen-year-old daughter to look at it as she’s brutally honest and has very good judgement.

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  3. Reading this post brought back the trauma I had when writing the ending to my third novel, Love Redeems (A Redcliffe Novel). I wrote a brilliant, powerful ending where my heroine became a vampire, and then I cut it out because it was too soon for this to happen to her. I saved the piece, because i couldn’t bear to delete it. Besides, it might still come into play in the future… here is a snippet:

    “I hesitated. I wanted to feed on the werewolf. My teeth ached to feel his flesh and my body yearned to touch his heat and his life force. But my master had spoken. I could not disobey. With an angry cry I flung away from Danny and flew across the room, grabbing my hair as I cried out in frustration and confusion.”

    I could never really kill my darlings… but I accept the need to rework how they fit in a manuscript. Happy A-Zing!

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  4. Alison, you might know this but the lit teacher in me is coming out…Stephen King got “kill your darlings” from William Faulkner, although the rest of the quote is his own. What Faulkner meant was not to take out every fine turn of phrase but to be wary of pretty words and phrases that don’t move plot or character. You can be a beautiful “lyrical” writer and also tell a riveting story. I admit my focus is more on the plot and characters than the flow of sentences, at least at first, although I dislike clunky sentences, also jarring or imprecise words so (try to) smooth them out in the final polish.

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    1. Ah – this is a contentious one :). The next bit of my quote from Sir Arthur is ‘Murder your darlings’ (which didn’t fit with the letter ‘K’ so I used the Stephen King one instead!) which was then appropriated by Faulkner. And indeed you shouldn’t get rid of every lyrical turn of phrase – just the ones that you’re writing for you, not your reader 😉

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  5. I am going to defend those darlings. Well, some of them.

    Writers are not butchers; there is no need to cut every bit of fat away from the lean. Writing needs a bit of both.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for your comment. I’m not at all suggesting that writers need to butcher their work and of course there is room to write beautifully and evocatively. But as many writers, who certainly know a lot more than me, advise, we need to be honest about what the story needs. As Matt commented very succinctly – if it doesn’t serve the story, then what is it there for?

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  6. Sometimes the ‘darlings’ that need killing are whole characters, too. I’ve just had to go back to my current WIP 30K words in and think it all through again (ie, completely rewrite) because I realised that a great character I’d thought up is actually superfluous to the story, unless I want it to be 200k words long… I’m still thinking about the woman who has an affair with another character’s son AND her husband, but I think that might be such fun I’ll have to leave it in! So interesting reading all these comments 🙂

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