Murder Your Darlings

The importance of editing.

Giving it polish

A writer has to be prepared to wear two very different caps. First cap is that of the creative free thinker who is focused on the big picture and is not too worried about the details. This is the person who comes up with the story, the theme, the basic structure, the person who invents characters and decides on the tone. This artist-writer will draw up the first draft of the story, writing only to please themselves. Finishing a draft wearing this cap is only some of the journey, however…

Next comes the cap of editor-writer. This is when the writer combs through the text, ruthlessly chopping, restructuring and cutting unnecessary/ unsuitable words, characters, scenes, phrases etc… or as they say in publishing “murdering your darlings”. This is the writer preparing the text for other people. It is a good idea to leave a few weeks between your artist and editor incarnations.

Editing can be painful, and time-consuming. You’ve quite likely become attached to some characters, scenes, words and phrases and are loathe to see them go. Don’t worry, you can store them in your “writer’s bag” for use at a future time in a more suitable context. In the meantime, get pruning…

Chopping advice:

Cut all surplus adjectives and adverbs.

Examine the phrases you’ve shoehorned in just because you liked the sound of them – do they really fit that scene? Be honest. If not, bin them.

Take out all vague words such as “seem/seemingly” and try to do without your “justs”.

Look at all sentences that run for two or three lines. Do they really need to be that long? Can you reduce them or break them up? If you can, do so.

Active forms are better than passive forms, where possible (ie. “John cleaned the flat” rather than, “the flat was cleaned by John”).

Finally, every writer on Earth needs a reader or two – fresh eyeballs to run over your work and give you honest feedback. I suggest using three friends whom you trust will be frank with you. You don’t have to take everything they say on board. Do consider what they say, however, and if all three come back and say a character is not working. The character is not working. Rewrite.

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About suehealy

Irish writer/playwright Sue Healy’s work has been supported and developed by Arts Council England, Dublin’s Abbey Theatre, the Peggy Ramsay Foundation, the Heinrich Boll Association and Waterford Corporation/Tyrone Guthrie Centre. Her short play ‘The Dog in the Tree House‘ won the 2017 Claremorris Fringe Award. In 2016, her debut stage production, ‘Brazen Strap’ showed at the King’s Head Theatre. She was a finalist for the 2016 Eamon Keane Playwriting Prize, the 2016 Nick Darke Award and the 2016 Old Vic 12. In 2017, her work shows at the Hackney Attic (January) and the Etcetra Theatre (April). Sue’s nine radio dramas have broadcast on BBC Radio 4,WLRfm, KCLR96fm. She has also won the Sussex Playwrights’ Award, presented in the Festival of Contemporary European Drama and has had staged readings of her work in London, Norwich, Brighton and Cornwall. A UEA Creative Writing MA alumna, Sue’s prose won seven national prizes: the Molly Keane Memorial Award, BBC Opening Lines, Escalator Prize and HiSSAC Award. She spent eleven years in Budapest, editing Hungary A.M. Presently, she is London-based, researching a PhD on the Royal Court Theatre. Sue is Deputy Literary Manager at the Finborough Theatre. View all posts by suehealy

34 responses to “Murder Your Darlings

  • Gillian Colbert

    Excellent checklist for editing!

  • cathbore

    The tutor on my MA said he didn’t want to see ANY word ending with ‘ly’ in our work, two years after finishing the course I’m still scared to use them in case he finds out and shouts!

    • suehealy

      Ha ha! Yeah, some literary types are utterly allergic to adverbs – I was given pretty much the same ‘order’ on my MA. Personally, I’m not SUCH a fascist about adverbs. I think if you can’t find another way to say the same, and an adverb seems the most intelligent way to go (they were invented for a reason, after all) then you should use one – but only if you have given it some thought and use them very sparingly.
      Some very good writers (John Banville, Cormac McCarthy) use them pretty liberally – though it is perhaps a considered move on their part, as if to prove a point.
      I was careful not to litter adverbs around the work I was being graded on during my MA, however. I knew that would just be asking for trouble…
      And I hold that an adverb cull is a good way to start an edit.

  • catwoods

    I just cut my darling–an entire chapter. One of my favorites, too. Nothing breaks a heart more than editing. Yet nothing makes a manuscript stronger than carefully pruning everything that doesn’t really need to be there. No matter how eloquently written.

    Thanks for the reminder and great tips.

  • Raelyn Barclay

    Great check list. I also have to go through, cutting out “that” and “though” which seem to show up in ridiculous quantities, LOL.

  • diggingher

    All great information. I know that I have had difficulties “murdering my darlings” from time to time. I also like to read aloud to hear it for fluency.

  • kymlucas

    Wow, Sue, you are just right on the money on so many things. Every time I read one of your posts, I think “Must bookmark this” and “Must remember that.” Thank you!

  • H.E. ELLIS

    When I was writing my novel I created something called my “S.I.T.” file, (self-indulgent tripe). Whenever I read over my manuscript and found a point where I stopped hearing my story and began to be impressed with my writing I would cut that part out and save it in the file. The promise I made to myself was that if the story flowed better without it I wouldn’t be allowed to put it back in. I’ve yet to take anything out of the SIT file.

    • suehealy

      That’s amazing advice, and probably something I need to heed myself today! Thanks!

    • Carol Lovekin

      What a good idea. I rarely delete – if something doesn’t work in one place, I stash it with a view to maybe using it elsewhere. But an S.I.T. file is genius. Thanks!

      (Why do I want to called it a S**T file?)

  • Diane

    Oh yes all good advice – I have a problem with “that” and am often amazed at the number of times I have to grab it and fling it out. it is hard though especially if there is a particular phrase that just sings to you and yet you have a sneaking idea that it’s superfluous. great post

    • suehealy

      learning to be honest with myself when culling those darlings was a very difficult and long and hard lesson for me in my writing career (and I’m not sure i’m there yet.)

  • Nicholas R. Haney

    This is a great piece. The editor cap is the hardest for me to wear. I am a bit of a critical person to begin with, and this is only multiplied when it comes to my own work. You could say I am sometimes genocidal with my darlings, poor things are cut down in groups. Thank you sue for subscribing to my blog, I do appreciate it.
    If any of your other readers are interested I just did a piece that concerns writing.
    http://fireiceandsteel.wordpress.com/

    Forgive my shameless self promotion.

  • chenke

    I totally get how the editing part is always so hard! Some sentences that are not really appropriate or awkward are so hard to lose because you get so attached. But you’re totally right, editing is super important – it makes such a difference! I never did it a lot but now I do and I can totally tell and I get so excited at the thought of the final product it actually softens the blow of having to drop a particular sentence you like.

  • mbaines

    Great advice, ESPECIALLY regarding adjectives and adverbs – often the mark of a boring/lazy writer.

  • FarjiAadmi

    Thanks for the great tips!

  • Sandra Madeira

    Great post – thanks for sharing

  • jimhewitt

    Another interesting post, but I do now have a question:
    What exactly is wrong with “seem/seemingly” ?
    You do mention them being vague words, but is that the only reason?

    • suehealy

      Hi Jim, thanks for your comment. Yes, being vague is the only reason. There is nothing ‘wrong’ with using them, in terms of grammar etc… However, because they are vague they can suggest a lack of certainty and therefore ‘weaken’ the text. They are often used as a step towards metaphor/simile – when it might serve your text better to grab the metaphor/simile by the jugular. Also, they can be a writer’s ‘tic’, inasmuch as you might, when editing, find you over-use them. The first time taking them out was suggested to me, I was skeptical too. I took them out and saw an improvement.

  • Carol Lovekin

    You are uncannily on it for me! And there seem to be several of us going through the editing/revising process at present. It’s like being in class! Thank you!

  • Carol Lovekin

    This is what happens when you create a genuinely useful writing blog!

    • suehealy

      Thanks Carol, I’m glad you find it useful. You don’t know how much I appreciate hearing (reading) that.

      • Carol Lovekin

        I’m something of a cynical where most writing blogs are concerned – yours is one of the exceptions. It’s come at a fortuitous time too. It’s reminders I need & that is what you do so well – remind us of the things we already know but often fail to key into. We fall in love with our stories – fall into them – it’s easy to forget the structure.

        I’ve just started reading Stephen King’s ‘On Writing’ again & amongst many gems is this: To write is human, to edit is divine.

        Speaking of which…

        • Carol Lovekin

          I meant ‘cynic.’

        • suehealy

          It’s lovely of you to write this, Carol. To be honest, my entire blog is just one long reminder to myself : ) Every single ‘don’t’ I’ve listed, I do – and know I shouldn’t, and have to go back and re-do.

          I love Stephen King’s ‘On Writing’ because it’s honest, and accessible and has no high falutin’ pretensions about the craft. ‘On Writing’ would most definitely be on my top ten books to recommend to writers to read.

  • Miss Rosemary

    Great advice! I often fall prey to the seems trap.

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