My current manuscript is almost finished, yet I have a most onerous task before me—one which must be completed before anyone sees it. Some of my darlings must die, sliced from the story in a ruthless culling of extraneous words. In and of themselves, the passages convey interesting and useful information, or so I thought at the time. Looking back, I now realize they do nothing but distract from the plot and slow the action. And so, my precious, imaginative darlings, you must be sacrificed for the greater good.
While I have done this with other books, I did not know there was a term assigned to the difficult process. You may know it by the phrase “Kill Your Darlings”, but where did it originate and what did it mean?
“The phrase ‘kill your darlings’ has been attributed to many writers over the years, but the earliest known example comes from Arthur Quiller-Couch, who spread it in his widely reprinted 1913-1914 Cambridge lectures “On the Art of Writing.” While railing against “extraneous ornament”, he said:
“If you here require a practical rule of me, I will present you with this: ‘Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it—whole-heartedly—and delete it before sending your manuscript to press. Murder your darlings.”
“He went on to describe extraneous ornament as inauthentic, like a man who hires someone else to write an exquisite love letter for him. His point was that beautiful and expansive writing was not necessarily good writing.”
Over time, the phrase has taken on additional meaning to encompass more than Quiller-Couch intended.
“To kill your darlings is a common piece of advice given by experienced writers. You do so when you decide to get rid of an unnecessary storyline, character, or sentences in a piece of creative writing—elements you may have worked hard to create but that must be removed for the sake of your overall story.”
Darlings may include any of the following:
- Redundancy or over-explanation
- Overly cute or witty turns of phrase (purple prose)
- Unnecessary or distracting plots or sub-plots
- Characters without a clear purpose or point of view
So, once the manuscript has been pruned, what happens to your darlings? Are they lost and buried forever? Not so fast! You may yet find a use for them in sequels, other books, or stand-alone works. If necessary, cannibalize the verbiage for pithy turns of phrase, quirky character traits, or sentences that fit better elsewhere. It’s your work—do what you want with it! Just remember this before you hit the delete key:
“The beauty of creative writing is that one project can often inspire the next.”
So unless your darlings are utterly wretched, save and repurpose them. It makes the unpleasant task of killing them easier!