Killing Your Darlings

The Importance of Editing

‘Murder’ or ‘Kill your darlings’ is an adage attibuted to the literary critic Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, advising writers to cut the words / phrases to which they are most attached, in order to strenghten the work. It is good advice when editing, as often we writers shoehorn in a delicious description which doesn’t do an enromous amount for the piece as a whole. It is simply a bauble. Time to get the gun out.

Editing makes the job of writer a rather schizophrenic affair where one has to don two very different caps. The 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 ‘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

Award-winning Irish writer/playwright Sue Healy’s work has been supported and developed by Dublin’s Abbey Theatre, the Peggy Ramsay Foundation and Arts Council England. Her full-length stage plays include Cow (Etcetera Theatre, 2017) and Brazen (King’s Head Theatre, 2016), funded by Arts Council England. Sue’s work has also been performed at the Hackney Attic and Sterts theatres and festivals including the Claremorris Fringe (New Writing Award winner), the Brighton (Sussex Playwrights’ Award winner) and the UEA Contemporary European Drama Festival, Norwich. Autumn 2017 will see her work showcased at the Finborough, Arcola and Criterion theatres in London. Radio work includes nine plays broadcast on BBC Radio 4 (Opening Lines winner), WLRfm and KCLR96fm. She has been a finalist for BBC Scriptroom 12, Eamon Keane Playwriting Prize, Nick Darke Award and the Old Vic 12 New Voices. Sue's prose has won the the Molly Keane Award, HISSAC Prize, Escalator Award and has been published widely. Sue has been writer-in-residence on Inis Oírr, Aran Islands, and at the Heinrich Boll Cottage on Achill Island. She has also benefitted from juried artist residencies at the Tyrone Guthrie Centre, and at Ginestrelle, Assisi in Italy. Sue is a UEA Creative Writing MA alumna. She spent eleven years in Budapest, editing Hungary A.M. She is currently London-based, completing a Ph.D. on the Royal Court Theatre. Sue is an Associate Lecturer in Playwriting at the Universities of Lincoln and Portsmouth, and tutors Creative Writing at City Lit. She is Literary Manager at the Finborough Theatre. View all posts by suehealy

39 responses to “Killing Your Darlings

  • Diego Serrano

    but I love my ‘justs’.
    I know, I know…

  • lambskinny

    Great advice — I myself like short sentences, probably because I’m first a poet. Thanks, Sue! Carley

  • jmmcdowell

    Oh, so true. But so very hard!

  • Gabi Coatsworth

    Hi Sue – would you mind if I reposted this to my writers’blog with a link to you?
    Writeconnexion.wordpress.com

  • JSD

    I’ve tried to do these re-reads just like you suggest. Putting it aside for awhile helps me look at it with fresh eyes. I’ve also got my three friends…our little “writer’s group”. One of us has started blogging, one has started many good storylines and is yet to finish something, another has written emotionally touching pieces not meant for publication, and the fourth has yet to break down some emotional barriers before she can put her ideas to paper. We share, we critique, we encourage, and we’ve become like sisters.

  • willofheart

    this is very informative, thank you for sharing I definitely apply it…. 🙂

  • Roadplug

    I wish I had three friends, whaaaa!
    Your article is very informative, with lots of great reminders, thanks.

  • susartandfood

    I edit, and reread, and still find little stops and nits when I publish the final. I find having other eyes on the words really helpful. Good adice – thanks for sharing.

  • Author Mary J. McCoy-Dressel

    You hit the nail on the head with the two-capped writer. Oops, a cliche’ 🙂 This post is filled with great editing advice. I’m so glad you shared your expertise. Thanks.

  • sfbell09

    Excellent sure-footed advice. Especially two parts: Avoiding passive voice (I am a repeat offender) and having fresh eyes read the story. There is so much to be gained from getting the input of others.

  • kathils

    “vague words” my beta reader terms those “weasel words”. Recently he told me to “Whack the weasel words!” I asked him if that was anything like the whack-a-mole game at the fair. I used to be pretty good at that. LOL It’s amazing how you don’t see all these transgressions when you’re writing. Now that I’m on to editing the ms I’m very conscious of them. Yes, repeat offender here.

  • daffers2830

    Thank you! Your advice is the best!

  • Susannah Bianchi

    Thank you for becoming a follower of mine. I appreciate it. That said, I love what you wrote.

    If you knew how many times I go over each piece before I let it go and even then I return to trim some more.

    A lovely site.

    I will be back.

    Thanks again.

    Susannah

  • morninggoulash

    I’m currently learning how important the writer/editor dichotomy can be. I’m always far too happy to break out the gun, even in the building stage.

  • Simone

    Loved it brilliant advise going to print and keep if that’s ok. Just like re write something that doesn’t work. If it reads like a report cut or re-write.
    Thank you my dear. Simone. Xxx

  • poetforpresident

    Great entry. And I completely agree. As an aspiring writer myself, I’ve fallen victim to this sort of problem on far too many occasions. The goal of any writer should be to get your point across, to convey whatever message it is that you want to convey, in the most concise and poignant way possible. Unfortunately it’s extremely difficult to balance those two things. Every word (not just every sentence) should progress the narrative. If any word doesn’t push the story forward, doesn’t have some purpose, then it has to go.

  • zumpoems

    This is a great poet! Editing is one of the most important aspects of writing and is too often not taken seriously enough. This first time I heard Debussy’s collected piano words on LP, I thought, he made sure every note was the right note — there for all the right reasons!

  • writenaked.wordpress.com

    That’s funny, I guess in America the phrase “kill your darlings” is associated with Stephen King from his memoir On Writing.

    • suehealy

      It’s a standard publishing industry phrase, originally coined by Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch and nowadays, very common idiom used by writers and editors to describe the editing process. I’m sure most writers, such as Stephen King, would be familiar with the adage. In fact, the original wording was ‘murder’ you darlings – but ‘kill’ has somewhat overtaken that verb. I rather think ‘murder’ has more of a ring to it…

  • Linda Joyce

    Good advice imparted in your post. Author, Shannon K. Butcher told me it’s only after a writer has written a million words are they finally able to kill their darlings. I’s have to count to determine ALL the words I’ve written, however, I no longer have any compunction about killing words because the ‘darling’ is the finished product not the individual stitches to make the gown. ~ Linda Joyce

  • Marvin the Martian

    “Add a word, lose a reader” is the rule for tech writers.

  • artfulhelix

    As a first time writer I find my self going over my work again and again. every time I finish a chapter I feel the need to read and edit it. thank you for this, I can see how I may be hurting my work wearing both caps at the same time. I have written a lot of poetry before, but writing my WIP has opened my mind to new and exciting worlds. I cant wait to read more of what you have to say.

  • artfulhelix

    Reblogged this on artfulhelix and commented:
    This is some wonderful writing advice. I hope it is as helpful for you as it has bin for me.

  • YoshiAnn

    Hi! I really enjoyed this post. I often have such a hard time switching caps, and it is painful to kill my darlings but I completely agree that it’s an important aspect of writing.

    YoshiAnn

    Also, thanks for the follow! You’re my second follower(very exciting)!

  • Michelle

    I can’t do it, I can’t do it, I can’t do it, I can’t do it!….I know I have to. Thanks for the advice here. Editing is so hard for me. And thanks for the follow.

  • Novel Girl

    Thank you for sharing. Valuable advice.

    I chuckled when I read the part about cutting what you “admire”. We writers do get a little too carried away with our own writing abilities.

    Also, good advice on attention to words (adverbs, adjectives and vague words).

  • russell5087

    I cringe every time I realize the truth of what you’re saying. I hate “killing my darlings” so much!! But this is the difference between keeping a personal journal and writing for the public. I like crisp writing that moves right along, so if I find myself trying to impress the reader with my cleverness I bring out the chopping block. Stuff like that can go on my blog where I allow myself to be somewhat self-indulgent. (who am i kidding? when it’s my blog I am totally self-indulgent.) I tend to edit and edit and edit and edit, so having a place to just let it hang out is good sometimes, but not in my novel. I don’t want to punish my novel’s readers, only my blog’s readers.

  • SusanKColeman

    This is wonderful advice! I recently (was about to write “just” and struck it!) received a first round of edits back from a reader/friend and was mortified at all the inking and sentences crossed out. But her advice has largely been spot on, so I can attest to the importance of overcoming whatever shyness or uncertainty aspiring writers have about allowing other people to read their work. It’s been very inspiring, and once I incorporate her edits, I will be seeking out at least another 3 or 4 readers, as the input is really invaluable.

  • jameslloyddavis

    I’m thinking that the new saw, “killing yer darlings,” is a bit of an old saw in writing programs in the US. At least, it showed up on many a pass-out sheet I brought back from writer’s conferences and such in the past decade. Likely it began in academia here in the States as a response to florid writing that was taught in American universities during the stodgy pre-1960’s epoch.
    I’m trying my best to get past these rules now, learning that there’s some value to the use of just about every style and metho, and that the greatest rule for a writer today is that there are no rules. Since I’ve learned to break them all, or at least to ignore the rules, I’ve found myself published more often both here and abroad.

    There might be two sides to that coin, eh? But art is such a delicate balance. Hardly worth an argument from me. I do enjoy your blog.

  • jameslloyddavis

    Ooops. “..style and method..”

  • allbyourselves

    I’m glad that you followed my blog so ı found about yours. You do a great job. I enyoy reading your posts.

  • Mark

    I’m like the last commenter–I’m glad you found my blog so I could find yours.

    Great advice except I’ve become an advocate/nut for the passive voice.

    Over the years, I changed my mind about passive. When used well, it adds to the story’s tone (Hemingway was strong with this). Today writers are shy to use it even when appropriate and editors are biased against it.

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