Revision: How to “Kill Your Darlings” and Survive the Process

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For those of us who've been in the writing biz a while, there is a quote by Stephen King we've all seen a thousand times (and if you're new to writing, fear not: you'll see this quote a thousand times, too).

How to Kill Your Darlings and Survive the Process

“[K]ill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings.”

Given that Stephen King writes horror, this might be a little misleading without context.

This will help: Stephen King was actually quoting William Faulkner, who said:

“In writing, you must kill all your darlings.”
― William Faulkner

Well, at least now we know we're talking about writing not homicide.

What Are “Darlings” in Writing?

Quick: what's a favorite line from a book you've read?

In a hole in the ground, there lived a hobbit.
—The Hobbit

Anything could pop to mind.

All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.
—Anna Karenina 

It'll be something you probably have memorized, or know well enough that you recognize even partial references. Something that gets your heart racing, your neurons sparking, your lips smiling.

Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.
—One Hundred Years of Solitude

Just those words bring an entire world back to your memory.

It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.
—1984

These favorite phrases please us. Our hearts surge when we read them.

It was a nice day. All the days had been nice. There had been rather more than seven of them so far, and rain hadn’t been invented yet.
—Good Omens

We love the way these lines are worded, and we love the way they feel. The word “darling” has to do with endearment and affection; it's applied to something beloved to you. It's love with a smile, fond and warm.

The tricky thing is that our own writing has “darlings,” too, and when we love them that fondly, we lose all sense of objectivity.

What Is a “Darling” and Why Are They Dangerous?

Darlings, in writing, are those words, phrases, sentences, paragraphs, and even chapters that we are often most proud of. We love them, to the point that we almost don't care if those bits are clear to readers or not. We love them, and we want to keep them.

The problem begins when they don't serve the reader.

Faulkner was right. King was right. The purpose of writing isn't just for the writer; it's for the reader, too, and so when we disregard the reader's needs for the sake of our own, we do the reader a great disservice.

So how do you find these darlings?

Good news: it's easier than you think.

How to Find the Darlings in Your Writing

Note: this advice builds on the foundation that you already have something of a writing community, even if it's just a couple of people who beta-read for you. If you don't, there's no better time to find one; we are not meant to write in a vacuum.

Critique is never personal. When sane and healthy writers critique one another, they do it to help. The goal is to show what did and did not work; it's not a statement of personal worth. However, when our written darlings are critiqued, we as writers tend to feel like we've been stabbed.

If someone says a phrase/paragraph/chapter/sentence didn't work for them, and in response you want to cry/scream/shout/throw something, it's a good bet they tripped over one of your darlings.

This is hard. The thing a reader trips over usually makes perfect sense to us; it's that “writer-brain” problem again. And of course, I'm not talking about the kind of phrase one person doesn't understand and twenty people do; I'm talking about the one twenty people don't understand and only you, the writer, grasp.

Yes. Those phrases/sentences/chapters/etc. have to go. They do.

BUT.

It isn't a death sentence. You'll find it a lot easier to handle your darlings if you follow the next simple steps.

What do Do About Your Darlings

Here is where I'm going to depart slightly from the quote that inspired this post in the first place: rather than “killing” your darlings (i.e., straight-up deleting them), I want you to copy them into a separate spare file and put them aside.

Here's why:

Remember: when people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.
—Neil Gaiman

He's onto something here.

In my experience, the best results I've had with passages readers don't get is when I remove them from the original work, but not simply in a slash-and-burn technique.

First, I save them in a separate file. Seriously. It's not hard:

  1. Open your story file.
  2. Cut the section that's giving your readers trouble.
  3. Paste it into a spare file.
  4. Save that file—and close it.

Nobody is going to make you throw them away completely. Just knowing your beloved phrases don't have to disappear completely takes a lot of pressure off.

See, you may still get to use those darlings—just not where you thought you could. Keep them, by all means, and leave the funerary wear in the closet. Just take your darlings out of the story in question.

Next Step After Your Darlings are “Dead”

So now what? You removed the offending section, and now there's a hole in your manuscript.

The answer is probably predictable: time for hard work.

One: Re-read the section that came before the bit you cut (this is really important).

Two: Once you've done that, without hesitating, write a new version of the removed scene.

The reason you want to do it this way is because the flow of the story will be in your head. If you're coming off the bit you wrote that worked, the words for the next section will flow like a river in a deep channel. It really only works best if you read what came before and then move into writing the missing bits, as if those bits weren't missing at all, and you're just continuing down the road.

Don't be afraid. Write it fresh, and see what happens. I bet you sixteen oranges it comes out better.

Trust Your Readers—And Yourself

Your job as a writer is to remove roadblocks so your readers keep reading.

I know this is a seriously hard piece of advice. It's so often the bits we feel are brilliant that need to go, or at least be re-worded.

Here's the thing: you wrote that brilliant bit.

It was not a fluke. You wrote it because you have those words inside you.

That means you can do it again, even better.

Don't be afraid. Trust your readers, and trust yourself. Kill (read: copy and paste) your darlings, without the fear that you'll never write anything as brilliant again.

You will do it again, and your writing will only improve.

Are You Ready to Kill Your Darlings? Let's talk about it in the comments section.

Additional Tool Recommendations: ProWriting Aid review and the best book writing software.

PRACTICE

Today, choose a passage that's given your beta-readers trouble. First, copy the troublesome bit and put it in a separate file; second, delete it from your original manuscript. Third, re-read the bit that came before your deleted portion. Then, and only then, it's time for the next step: rewrite it fresh, without stopping.

If you like, you can use a timer for fifteen minutes. However, this one doesn't necessarily need to be timed. It just needs to be done.

In the practice box below, share your new passage, and if you're brave, explain what you changed. Don't forget to comment on three other replies!

Enter your practice here:

Best-Selling author Ruthanne Reid has led a convention panel on world-building, taught courses on plot and character development, and was keynote speaker for The Write Practice 2021 Spring Retreat.

Author of two series with five books and fifty short stories, Ruthanne has lived in her head since childhood, when she wrote her first story about a pony princess and a genocidal snake-kingdom, using up her mom’s red typewriter ribbon.

When she isn’t reading, writing, or reading about writing, Ruthanne enjoys old cartoons with her husband and two cats, and dreams of living on an island beach far, far away.

P.S. Red is still her favorite color.

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31 Comments

  1. LaCresha Lawson

    I feel that this can be taking away our writing personality. Am I wrong for feeling this way?

    Reply
    • Whatgoodshallidotoday

      I think the point is if that sentence isn’t helping the story then it has to go, no matter how wonderful you think it is. IF it IS helping then by all means keep it. I don’t think the intent was take style away… just a coping mechanism for editing when it hurts. :o)

      Reply
      • LaCresha Lawson

        I agree. Thanks.

        Reply
    • ruthannereid

      Hi, LaCresha! I know just how you feel; it was a fear I had at the beginning, too. Happily, I can PROMISE you that this does precisely the opposite. As you refine your writing, your own voice comes out – and you become more clear and more distinct.

      Neil Gaiman put it this way: ““When we start out, we sound like other people. As we write we sound more and more like ourselves, and we become ourselves. We learn that it’s not the ideas that matter as much as the way we express the idea.”

      Here are a few more that I hope will encourage you:

      “Voice is not just the result of a single sentence or paragraph or page. It’s not even the sum total of a whole story. It’s all your work laid out across the table like the bones and fossils of an unidentified carcass.” – Chuck Wendig

      “Exercise the writing muscle every day, even if it is only a letter, notes, a title list, a character sketch, a journal entry. Writers are like dancers, like athletes. Without that exercise, the muscles seize up.” – Jane Yolen (And just like in dancing, learning to do it right doesn’t make it not yours!)

      “A writer’s apprenticeship usually involves writing a million words (which are then discarded) before he’s almost ready to begin.” – David Eddings

      I know that fear that can mess with your head; I know it all too well! It’s not true. Take heart, friend. You can write and edit and do this and learn, and your personality will come through your writing all the more clearly.

      Reply
  2. dduggerbiocepts

    The first draft is for the writer. All succeeding drafts should be for the reader.

    Reply
    • ruthannereid

      Well said!

      Reply
    • Deuce Duomo

      Are you the only other dude here?

      Reply
      • texshelters

        Does it matter?

        Reply
  3. Whatgoodshallidotoday

    Haha!! I totally agree with the text rehoming program that you suggest. That is what I do! I have created a shelter for awesome sentences that haven’t found their forever home yet. Thanks for making me feel not so ummm….protective. :o) In fact, I keep 2 documents: 1 = a running list of book/story ideas as they pop into my mind, and 1 = snippets I wrote but don’t have a home, either because they didn’t work out well in their original home or it’s just an otherwise contextual-less scene that came to mind and came out well. Great post!

    Reply
    • Jean Maples

      I like your ongoing list of book/story ideas which you keep for a day when you might use them. Keeping a list of quotes made by people you’ve listened to out in the street is an idea. I don’t write sentences to hold until I can find the right place for them. That sounds like a suggestion to draw from in the future.

      Reply
      • ruthannereid

        I like it, too!

        Reply
    • ruthannereid

      I love that idea! Terrific habit.

      Reply
  4. nianro

    There are two main reasons to kill your darlings: your audience doesn’t like them, or there’s something wrong with the style. There are two sub-reasons for the audience: 1), you are smarter than your readers, or (occasionally and), 2), the metaphor is lousy. Stylistic errors are legion, and must be effaced one at a time, a process that takes years and a lot of terrible anecdotes.

    There’s a light at the end of the tunnel; eventually, you will have written enough that, when you are at your best and time no longer exists and you write like the wind, you will rarely produce darlings anyone would dare ask you to kill. I think I hit this point around six or seven million words or so; I wish I’d started counting in the early years.

    Until about that point, though, yes; kill them all. Worse yet, kill them and dissect them; examine the diction, spacing, pace, rhythm, whatever you can think of, and try to figure out why they didn’t work. Eventually, you get an ear for them; you can hear what works and what doesn’t work even before you write it, and you get to know your audience (even if this audience is purely hypothetical), and you get a feel for what they will or won’t grasp.

    Reply
    • ruthannereid

      Exactly! Only writing practice will really help here (which is good considering the site this comment is on!).

      Reply
  5. Jean Maples

    I have trouble with this assignment. I guess I don’t know what my darlings are. If I am repeating mistakes, from one story to the next, I can not identify the similarity. I do understand the necessity of writing and re-writing until it looks right to show the reader.

    Reply
    • ruthannereid

      Hi, Jean! I can see why this would be troubling. The thing is that in the end, you’re writing for the reader; your readers are the ones who will love your stories and follow your career. 🙂

      Do you have any kind of writing community? Do you regularly get feedback? I know of a few awesome places you can do that, if you don’t know any yet. It’s completely worth the time and effort! 🙂

      Reply
  6. Katherine McCormick

    Great post! I’m looking forward to doing the Practice. And I love the tip to copy and paste – it alleviates the stress of a permanent delete!! Thanks for a great post! 🙂

    Reply
    • ruthannereid

      Thanks, Katherine! I look forward to reading it. 🙂 I’m glad this was helpful for you!

      Reply
  7. LilianGardner

    Dear Ruthanne,
    When I’ve written a short story or long chapter of a novel, I leave it for a week or so, and when revising, I delete without mercy. I agree that deleting redundant sentences, or even whole paragraphs improves the manuscript.
    I begin by writing freely, without heeding redundancy, because I know I’ll have fun deleting and rephrasing. Every time I revise, I alter sentences, but at times I feel I overdo it.
    How does one know when to stop?

    Reply
    • annaluna

      That’s the problem I have. You can revise forever and never be satisfied.

      Reply
      • ruthannereid

        I hope my comment just before yours helps! It’s true that you can revise forever and it will never be perfect. That’s just it; it’ll never be perfect. There comes a point where you have to just stop revising and move on, or you’ll never write anything new. (My experience!)

        Reply
    • ruthannereid

      I’ll have to quote Neil Gaiman on that, actually:

      “Finish what you’re writing. Whatever you have to do to finish it, finish it. […] Remember that, sooner or later, before it ever reaches perfection, you will have to let it go and move on and start to write the next thing. Perfection is like chasing the horizon. Keep moving.”

      I know how nebulous this can be, but the answer genuinely is that you just have to stop at some point. I genuinely try to aim for “I can live with this.” 🙂

      Reply
  8. Becky

    Talk about an uplifting post–you have no idea! Thought I was facing a mass murder with my current long-winded WIP. I have been stalling, and procrastinating, and taking long walks just to contemplate a logical plan of attack. Your advice to copy, paste and move forward is exactly what I needed to get me back in the saddle and headed towards the goal. Publication. Thank you, thank you!

    Reply
    • ruthannereid

      I am so, SO glad to hear that, Becky! Go forth and copy/paste/write! 😀

      Reply
  9. Julie Mayerson Brown

    I’ve had a “deleted material” file for a long time. It has a few great lines that I might use someday, some wonderful descriptions that weren’t needed, a character I loved but who had to go, and a couple of chapters that were really good but took my WIP in the wrong direction. I never worry I wasted my time writing something I’m not going to use. Remember: time spent writing ANYTHING is time well spent.

    Reply
    • ruthannereid

      EXACTLY! Time spent writing is spent well, period. I love how you phrased that.

      Reply
  10. Danielle Owens

    I love this post and completely agree about removing but not deleting. When editing, I always open a new document with my essay’s title followed by “word scraps.” Somehow, knowing that I can come back to my precious sentences helps me have a more critical eye.

    Reply
    • ruthannereid

      It helps so much! Somehow, it really relieves the pressure of feeling like that darling-death might be a mistake.

      Reply
  11. ruthannereid

    I’m so glad to hear this, LaCresha! 🙂

    Reply
  12. Melissandre L.

    Hi ! I’d love to adapt your article in French in my blog, would that be possible ? What would be your conditions ? And if it’s not possible, I’d still like to thank you for it, it’s going to help me tremendously in the next month :D. (you can join me @ melissandrel.author@gmail.com)

    Reply
  13. texshelters

    Excellent advice and description on what this quote means. Back to the editing board…

    Peace, Tex

    Reply

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