Say No to Your Darlings
Veteran writers often advise aspiring writers to “kill your darlings.” Grisly, isn’t it, but they all say it.
William Faulkner wrote, “In writing, you must kill all your darlings.”
Stephen King wrote, “…kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings.” Notice that King said “kill” three times, but then, we are talking about Stephen King.
According to Slate’s culture editor Forrest Wickman, this advice was originally given by more than a century ago by Cornish writer Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch (his pen name was Q). In On the Art of Writing: Lectures Delivered in the University of Cambridge, 1913–1914, Sir Arthur Q advised:
If you here require a practical rule of me, I will present you with this: ‘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.
Observe that Sir Q didn’t say murder your whole manuscript. And he didn’t tell us to ignore your darlings either. No, he encourages us to put our darlings whole-heartedly onto paper. Just don’t send that piece of paper to the publisher.
And how did our friend Q define “darlings”? As “a piece of exceptionally fine writing,” one that happens to have been written by yourself. A darling is not a wickedly appropriate plot twist or a subtle yet deep character insight. No, it is merely a purported example of “exceptionally fine writing.” Does it further the story or reveal character or do any of the things that truly fine writing does? Erm, no comment. My takeaway on this: if something helps your reader, don’t murder it. If it only make it easier to pat yourself on the back, lose it.
Sir Q didn’t really say to kill your darlings. He said… okay, he said murder your darlings.
No way am I going to write one thousand words encouraging you to murder a loved one.
So let me adjust the analogy. Nobody wants to think about losing a beloved child. We all want to keep our darlings.
But just because we love our darlings doesn’t mean that right here is the right place for them. Cute as a three-year-old daughter is, I can think of a lot of places in the house that she doesn’t need to be, and a lot of things she doesn’t need to be doing. We would never get rid of her, but often we need to say no to her. Her cuteness makes it hard to say no, but not less necessary.
I’m using the singular feminine when I talk about darlings, calling her “she,” because losing a favorite character or passage or idea can feel giving up a favorite daughter. Deliberately giving her up, by your own choice, seems even worse. Maybe you feel like you’re committing child abandonment.
Except it isn’t really like that. Once your book goes to press, your readers will never miss your darling. They will never know she is missing. Since she didn’t really belong in your book, you will never miss her there. Yes, she seems so precious. But having your writing called “precious” is not usually a compliment.
But what if your darling feels real to you, already a three-dimensional character in your mind or deserving to become one? What if you can’t give her up?
Fortunately, saying no to your darling this time doesn’t mean you can’t say yes to her later. Just cut and paste the passage into another file on your computer. Yes, you must remove your darling from where she doesn’t belong, but you don’t have to delete your darling entirely. Maybe she will fit beautifully in another story. She may become the centerpiece, the key to your new masterpiece.
By the way, that other file doesn’t need to be reserved only for deceased darlings. You should keep an idea file anyway, for all those ideas which you already know they don’t fit into your current project. I like to review my idea files sometimes even when I’m not particularly working on anything. It makes me feel more brilliant.
I have to recognize, however, that not all my darlings are simply misplaced beauties. Maybe that character isn’t as three-dimensional as I believed. Maybe I’m deceived about the truthfulness of that plot line. Maybe life isn’t really like that. Maybe my affection is misplaced.
Regardless, once you’ve done away with your darling, immediately fill in the hole she left. Read over the part just before the cut, and keep on going and writing from there.
How do you recognize a darling that needs to be removed? And where do you find the courage to remove her?
Well, we often find courage and wisdom in other people. A writer needs other people – alpha readers, beta readers, or a writing group. You need these intelligent, literate people to look into your story, to show you how well they appreciate the good parts (demonstrating their great insight), and to share with you how confused or apathetic they felt when they read the… other parts.
Inconceivable, isn’t it, that so many intelligent readers don’t appreciate something that is so obviously brilliant. If only one reader has trouble with it, maybe that’s his problem. If many readers have trouble with it, maybe there’s your problem. And you need to take care of it.
Essentially, your darlings are the beloved parts of your work that don’t advance your work. And you need others to help you see the truth, just some parents are incapable of seeing that their three-year-old is spoiled until others point it out.
Saying no to your darlings will make you stronger. Suffering tends to do that sort of thing. Accepting another point of view will increase your empathy. You’re giving up something you love out of deference to others. Doing so will make you less selfish – and a better writer.
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