What Are “Darlings,” and Why Should We Kill Them?

Uh-oh, it’s happened. I’ve been resisting, but now I’ve caved in. I’m writing a post about the second most popular piece of advice for writers (after “Show, don’t tell”): “Kill your darlings.”

First, the origins of the phrase. My admittedly casual googling led me to Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, who apparently said: “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.'”

But what is a writer’s “darling”? I’ve seen the term applied to characters, scenes, sentences, and even single words. Strictly speaking, it’s anything that does not move a story along, however well-written it may be.

I can’t really quibble with that. Anything that weakens a piece of writing, that makes it less readable or creates plot holes or lapses in logic, should be changed or deleted.

But…

I don’t care for the phrase. Especially when it’s trotted out smugly and superciliously, with the unspoken but implied addendum of “…you naïve little writer, you.” It’s not the advice I object to, but the way it’s worded. Because it includes “kill” and “darlings” in close proximity, it’s seized upon with glee by people looking for an “advice to writers” topic.

The main thing that bugs me about “Kill your darlings” is the implication that anything the writer really loves about their writing, any sentence or paragraph they think is especially fine, must necessarily be a “darling,” and so should be ushered to the chopping block.

I don’t think that’s the meaning of the advice, however. Rather than “If you think it’s good, it must be bad,” think of it this way: If a scene or paragraph detracts from or harms the story, consider deleting it, even if it’s well-written.

I wonder how many writers, reviewing a work in progress after a productive writing session, think “Wow, this is really good. Did I really write this? It’s great!” Only to decide the whole thing must be a “darling” (because they like it so much), and therefore they must delete it forthwith. They end the session in a demoralized state, berating themselves for being a “bad writer.”

Getting back to Q (Quiller-Couch’s pen name), I’m wondering if that advice, which appeared in a lecture series, wasn’t intended as a rhetorical exaggeration, rather than an ironclad rule. Some writers–and those who love giving advice to us–are always looking for hard-and-fast rules, as though by adhering to them religiously, we can produce perfect pieces of writing.

Well, no. Writing doesn’t work that way. There is no formula or recipe.

Here is my revision of “Kill your darlings”: If some element in a piece of writing introduces awkwardness or is out of synch with the rest, take a close look at it. Consider changing or deleting it, even if you think it’s well-written.

Okay, that’s not nearly as brief and memorable as “Kill your darlings.” So if KYD is a actually a code for my longer and duller revision, great! But don’t automatically assume the worst of any piece of writing you love. By all means subject it to scrutiny. Seek out the opinions of critique partners, beta-readers, or editors. Consider their opinions (keeping in mind that mean-spirited or envious individuals may apply that “darling” label for reasons of their own). Don’t automatically “kill” something just because you like it.

Verbascum chaixii, yellow mullein with purple stamens
If I followed the KYD rule as a gardener, I would rip out these yellow mulleins, because they intrude into the path. But gardeners aren’t told to kill their darlings, so there they are.

Fellow writers, do you kill your darlings? How do you identify the ones that deserve deletion?

By the way, my most recent novel, She Who Returns, is free today (July 24th) on Amazon. Click the link below the cover image.

Featured image from Pexels

55 comments

  1. I dislike this phrase too. Questions from my editor and beta reader usually identify sections that might not be moving the plot along. But they don’t always need to be deleted. Sometimes rewording is enough to make their purpose clearer.
    Despite the dramatic phrasing of ‘kill your darlings’, this is not a life-changing, emotionally draining act, just a simple editing task!

    Liked by 2 people

  2. I couldn’t agree more. I’m getting mightily fed up with all the writing “advice/rules” that is foisted on beginning writers out of context and overgeneralized. My advice about writing advice is to see if it holds up to the librarian’s CRAAP test.

    Liked by 3 people

  3. I don’t even notice things that other people comment on as ‘wow, that’s a great line’ because, to me, it was the character’s perception, not mine. And I’m not killing off something that demonstrates the character.
    However, I do try to leave out all the stuff that doesn’t have a role to play in the story. If it doesn’t matter, it doesn’t belong.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. My take on this quote, repeated by Stephen King and coming from him did carry some weight, is that beginning writers get carried away with flowery prose littered with fancy adverbs and adjectives. I was guilty of this as well of course. I believe the advice is to look at your work carefully and get rid of unnecessary words, phrases and even sentences that take away from the story (even if at the time you loved it). Every time I weed out some of my darlings I am pleased as it is a better story. Now if it is something I really want to keep in, I will fight to the death to include it!

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Hi Audrey, I like this post. When I wrote While the Bombs Fell, my first real attempt at a longer book, I had to do so much restructuring of it during the editing process (I get professional advice with editing as I am not ‘schooled’ in creative writing), that I can’t say I just killed my darlings although big sections of writing did disappear. Killing my darlings was much more apparent for me when I edited Through the Nethergate. This book was more than double the length of While the Bombs Fell and I included far to many sub-stories and back stories for less important characters. I had to kill a few of them. I was told to kill more than I did. I hung on to a few and I am glad I did. I still like how that book turned out in the end. The edited chunks, well, those became their own short stories. A Ghost and His Gold required less killing of darlings during the developmental editing process because I had learned and removed a lot of them myself. I hope the same is true of The Soldier and the Radium Girl.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. The main thing is for the writer to identify reasons for deletions or changes other than liking those sections of their work. Necessary deletions despite being well-written, not only because the writer thinks they’re good.
      In the end, it’s the writer’s judgment as to what is kept or deleted.
      Thanks for your thoughts, Robbie!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. You are quite right, Audrey. I saw the truth in Esther’s comments on Through the Nethergate and learned from them. I am good at taking advice and butchering my work. I’ve been doing it all my life at work so I’m not overly sensitive to criticism.

        Liked by 1 person

  6. I’m with you all the way here Audrey.
    It is a phrase I actually despise

    Rant Warning: Rant Warning. Possibly Force 10.

    I have never liked where this leads. Which is negativity in writing. The idea that anything positive is to be avoided and to be squashed out for ‘gritty’ purposes is a type of censorship.
    When I write….
    Aside for typos, some punctuation, spulling errors and getting names in the wrong places…..
    I write for a purpose, everything is in there for a reason, positively, intentionally and purposefully. Not the least bit interested in who I might offend for painting a generally positive theme. If they don’t like it, they can go elsewhere and get their ‘jollies’.
    My only regret about not selling a lot more books is being able to tussle with folk I’ve annoyed (on my own website, of course).
    OK, I’m going somewhere to calm down and stop being a bad influence.
    Keep up the good work Audrey

    Liked by 3 people

  7. The mulleins are cool! I read stuff aloud to hear if something is out of place. Sometimes it’s just an awkward passage. But sometimes it’s too flowery, and that’s a darling that needs to go (or be rewritten).

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Hi Audrey, good one this. I wonder if the phrase comes from the brutal days of newspaper hacks conscious of column inches and counting words. It does sound a bit like we’re doing violence to our writing.

    I see it as that feeling when you’re in the zone, and ideas are cropping up all over the place, threads running off here and there, and it’s tempting to follow them. It’s as if the pixies who come up with our material say to themselves: oh look, he’s in a busy mood at last, so let’s throw all of this at him in the hope of getting it out there. Of course, the result is too many threads, and it causes the work to lose focus, so we have to edit, but we shouldn’t kill them.

    If we’re charmed by their potential, it could just be they’re in the wrong story, so we gather them up and keep them safe somewhere, check on them now and then and who knows, whole new stories might grow out of them.

    Liked by 2 people

  9. I’ve always thought of “kill your darlings” as meaning to “kill” the turns of phrase that the writer really likes, or maybe more broadly certain habits we all have in our writing that help us tell a tale. I think about this every once in awhile, but even though I have those habits or phrases, I never consciously “kill” them. I just write. That’s what I do. 😉

    Liked by 3 people

  10. I strongly prefer your version to that of Q. It would be like a Cataloger being particularly pleased with accomplishing a complicated record, including summary, since that allows a modicum of flexibility, and then deleting it because they were proud of it.

    Liked by 2 people

      1. I have seen canned computer responses that say the computer doesn’t understand some of the characters when it’s chip brain does not recognize some of the words. Very frustrating. 😭😉🤯

        Liked by 2 people

  11. Nice, Audrey. Fair point.
    I’ve begun to treat all pithy writerly advice tidbits like this as heuristics, rules of thumb. They’re never explicit or draconian. And I think you come to that conclusion as well.
    With KYD, it’s the clever writing that I’ve, in the past, turned into a ‘pet’ that I can’t help but shuffle about, looking for a place for it to fit. I’ve learned that the more clever it is, the less likely it belongs.
    I don’t write humor. But, if I did, THAT might be a place where darlings find refuge from murderous thugs like us.

    Liked by 2 people

  12. I always considered it as a reminder that writing genre fiction is a business, not a creative writing class. Plot, pacing, and delivering what your readers expect is what is important. Less so is how cleverly you do that. Probably good advice if that’s your jam.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. True enough, Chuck! It occurs to me that we indies are free to operate by a different set of “rules” than authors who must create with sales in mind if they don’t want to be dumped by their publishers.

      Like

  13. It’s a bit of a frivolous expression. Your definition, though lengthier, is much more subtle and far less demanding. I know we share similar philosophies about most rules of writing. They seem subjective and arbitrary. Then, we’re allowed to break some and not others? No wonder we’re so confused! While we’re at it, who gets to make these rules?

    I’m not anti-rules. I see the necessity of laws in an organized society, but writing has many gray areas. The author is the one who sets the rules, and it seems rather arrogant for someone else to tell them what they can and can’t write. In a way, the readers also set the rules by liking or rejecting someone’s work. I feel the same way about book banning.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I think these rules come from a combination of the gatekeeper mentality needed by traditional publishers (because they have to be selective) and those who sell services to authors using the advertisers’ technique of creating anxiety and offering a solution.
      The writer-reader relationship, on the other hand, is fundamental. Thanks for pointing that out, Pete.

      Liked by 2 people

  14. I agree with you. I was baffled by it too – in my opinion, if really killing our darlings, the story will remain bareboned, something like – They got born, lived, got married, then died. Everything more than this, which is actually the meat of the story, is… darlings, and they are not to be killed.

    Liked by 1 person

  15. I love your expanded definition – it is more clear, and less violent!

    If some element in a piece of writing introduces awkwardness or is out of synch with the rest, take a close look at it. Consider changing or deleting it, even if you think it’s well-written.

    Liked by 1 person

  16. I don’t think of any of my writing as ‘darling’ period, and I agree that the wording isn’t helpful, especially for newer writers. I work with a number of beginners who are already second-guessing every word. This kind of advice messes them up even further. As with most writing advice, one needs to tread carefully.

    Liked by 1 person

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