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.
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.
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