Kill your darlings. It’s a common piece of writing advice, but what does it mean?
I once thought that “kill your darlings” was strictly for storytellers removing unnecessary or problematic characters. But this piece of wisdom has broader applications. It can be used by poets, nonfiction writers, and anyone who puts words on the page (or the screen, as the case may be).
Killing your darlings is about letting go of attachment to what you’ve written.
It sounds pretty zen: letting go of your attachments. But that’s exactly what killing your darlings is all about. Few writers stress about cutting weak sentences, flat characters, or awkward lines of dialogue. We don’t hesitate to axe a messy chapter or remove massive chunks of sloppy data that aren’t relevant to the topic we’re writing about.
It’s easy to let go of the garbage. Letting go of the gems is a lot harder.
Have you ever written a juicy sentence that rolled off the tongue like butter? Have you ever drafted a chapter for a book and couldn’t wait to put it in front of readers, because you knew it was captivating — even thrilling? If you write long enough, you’ll eventually produce writing that you’re proud of, writing that you want to show the world.
But no matter how enthralling a sentence is, no matter how fascinating a character is, no matter how captivating a chapter or scene may be, if it doesn’t work within the larger scope of a project, it’s got to go. You have got to let it go.
But that’s easier said than done.
How to Kill Your Darlings
I’ve seen writers refuse to cut parts of their manuscripts, even when they themselves admit that those parts don’t belong there. Some of these authors know what they’re doing. Take, for example, someone who’s writing for personal reasons, who doesn’t care about book sales or readers. They might want to keep such material in a manuscript because it has personal significance. This aligns with their writing goals. But for the rest of us, most of whom want to produce writing that people want to read, keeping such material in a manuscript can be detrimental to our work and our careers.
Letting go is difficult, but luckily there are some techniques we can use to make it easier:
- Save the excised material for a future project: You might need to change character names or tweak other details, but often you can recycle the content that you cut and use it somewhere else.
- Make something new out of it: Let’s say you need to cut a story thread from a draft of a novel. You can then turn it into a short story.
- Find another outlet: If you’re writing a nonfiction book, you might be able to rework the content you’ve removed into an essay or article, and then you can get it published.
- Create reference material: If you’ve cut details out of a novel, place them into a wiki on your website that is about your story world. You can do the same with nonfiction projects, turning the material into an infographic or fact sheet.
I’ve used most of the techniques above. Chapters that were cut from my books on the craft of writing eventually became blog posts. Swaths of my novels that were removed were stashed in a directory of ideas or into my world-building documents, which might one day be published on my author’s website as a wiki. Everything can’t be saved — sometimes we truly have to kill our darlings, no matter how good they are, but most of the time, such material can be repurposed.
Sometimes material that’s removed needs to be replaced. Chances are, you won’t be as thrilled with the replacement. That’s okay. Keep refining until it sparkles.
Do You Kill Your Darlings?
They say that writing is revising, and it’s true. Revision is where we reshape and polish our writing into a work that’s fit for public consumption. And part of that process includes killing our darlings, letting go of some of our best writing.
As a test, review something you’ve recently written and cut the best sentence, paragraph, or scene. How does it make you feel? Do you struggle to let it go? Or can you remove it with confidence, knowing that its absence makes the piece better and that you’ll produce more top-notch writing in the future?
Do you struggle with killing your darlings? What methods have you used to help you let go of good writing that doesn’t belong in a project? Share your thoughts by leaving a comment, and keep writing.