Why Must We Kill Our Darlings?
By Evan Braun
In writing, there’s an enigmatic old expression that gets passed around a lot—but its meaning may not be entirely clear to the person receiving the advice. And sometimes it may not even be clear to the one giving it.
So which piece of famous advice am I talking about? The one that instructs us writers to “kill our darlings.” And not just kill them—murder them… with prejudice.
The meaning comes down to a subject I’ve written about often in this space—about being concise, avoiding repetition, and striving for clarity above all else. All good advice.
Killing one’s literary darlings fits right in with those other tried-and-true aphorisms, but it highlights an especially painful wrinkle: sometimes, during writing and editing, and in the interests of making your book the best version of itself for your readers, you have to cut out your favourite bits.
Not only that—but sometimes it’s best to cut something precisely because it’s one of your favourite bits.
“How does this make any kind of sense?” you may be asking yourself, justifiably. “What’s the logic in deleting something just because I happen to like it?”
Well, that may be overstating things a little bit. But not by much.
In fact, when you reread your book and find that you’re particularly fond of a passage, that should most certainly be a cue to look at it more closely and ask yourself if it’s there merely because you love it, or if it’s there because it best serves the story being told.
Often the former is true.
In my own writing, this frequently manifests in pithy, clever turns of phrase that sometimes serve to distract from the more important writing all around it.
“But it’s funny,” I tell myself.
This also manifests in overwrought descriptions and diversions that overemphasize parts of the story that are stronger when given a lighter touch. Good writing, after all, should speak for itself. If you find yourself launching into repeated explanations and restatements of particular points, chances are that you’ve gone too far. You may personally feel attached to those passages, but they’ll need to go.
Let me provide a specific and hopefully relatable example of how this shows up in people’s books.
While editing, I often come across meandering side plots, extraneous characters, and purple prose (see above: “overwrought descriptions”) that don’t serve an obvious point in the book. So, dispassionate editor that I am, I suggest taking them out.
Some days or weeks later, while the author is reviewing the edit, I’ll invariably hear back some version of the following: “We can’t cut that! That character is based on someone I knew when I was child, or that side plot is directly taken from my own marriage, or that three-paragraph description of the lace tablecloth is there because my grandmother had a tablecloth just like it…!”
I hear this a lot. Really, a lot.
In other words, according to these protestations, those things may all seem unnecessary to me, but they actually carry deep significance and meaning to the writer. They are, in some sense, integral—and so they mustn’t be touched. They are sacred.
But the reader doesn’t know any of this, and the reader will never know. To the reader, that meandering side plot, extraneous character, or overwrought description will only be a distraction. They don’t have the writer’s context and inside knowledge. They won’t have any idea that these things are especially important to the writer.
These sorts of things are “darlings,” held close to the writer’s heart, and yet that affection can blind writers to the fact that not only are they not in service of the story being told, but they actually undermine it.
As I said at the top of today’s blog, this is a painful truth. It can hurt to admit that our personal favourite parts of a book may not be integral. Perhaps a certain aspect of the book was integral when you started writing, but the tale grew and changed in the telling and now it’s extraneous. It may even be something that inspired you to write the book in the first place, but in the final draft there’s no longer a place for it.
But take heart: writing is never wasted.
Number one, every bit of writing and experience you build up helps you to get better.
Number two, every bit of writing you end up cutting from one story may eventually be repurposed in another. Perhaps that eliminated side plot or unnecessary character will inspire the next book, or the one after that.
So no, you don’t have to kill your darlings by reflex. But when you feel a surge of affection for a particular piece of writing, that’s almost always an indication that you need to sharpen your editorial knife and be ready to use it.
Evan Braun is a full-time author and editor. He has authored three novels, the first of which, The Book of Creation, was shortlisted in two categories at the 2012 Word Awards. He has released two sequels, The City of Darkness (2013) and The Law of Radiance (2015), completing the series. Braun is an experienced professional editor, and has worked with Word Alive Press authors since 2006. He is also a regular contributor at The Fictorians, a popular writing blog.