How to Kill Your Darlings and Get Away With It

What does it mean to kill your darlings and how can you go about the task?

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“Kill Your Darlings” is one of the most common pieces of writing advice given. It refers to trimming out elements of your writing that do not benefit the reader’s understanding of the world, plot or characters.

Many novice writers, upon hearing the phrase, often misattribute the advice to killing off characters. Sure, killing off a character you love writing can generate emotional weight, but it can be pointless. There’s plenty of reasons to kill characters; “just because” isn’t one of them. The unwarranted murder of a character the audience has grown attached to is an unnecessarily manipulative tactic and reveals weakness in your writing.

Darlings refer to the aspects of your writing that you may be proud of but ultimately do not serve the piece. Having a darling in the first place isn’t a flaw. Sometimes it can be one chapter that has become tonally inconsistent with the rest of the work. It’s okay to enjoy that piece but you have to be strong and slice it out from the rest of the work, to ensure the rest survives. It’s worth remembering we don’t write for the writer, we write for the reader. Everything we lay out is meant to be for them. Just because you enjoy something, it doesn’t mean it has to be there.

Some writers will labour over removing paragraphs and chapters because they put a lot of work into them. This isn’t a good enough reason to leave it in. Writing can be an easy task, but no one finds editing a breeze. This is why we make new drafts and why books evolve over time.

So how do you find darlings? There are a few different ways to pick them out. The easiest option is to give your work to a writing group or selection of beta-readers that you know will give you honest feedback. Just because you’re proud of something, doesn’t mean other people have to like it. The advice given is offered because they want your book to shine, not because they want to pick apart your work. A good thing to consider is if your reaction to receiving criticism is to leap to its defence; maybe you’ve found a darling that needs putting to rest.

Deleting them can be hard, though. I believe in saving everything. I reread that junk-yard periodically and dig through to find salvageable material. Often new stories rise from the ashes of old ones or the chapter that didn’t fit in a previous story is perfect for another.

Once you’ve stashed your darling away, give your manuscript another look. Find what needs patching now and get to work on that second draft. Be honest, reread the sections you took a scalpel to and when you can see why you trimmed the fat; write a new version. Don’t be stubborn and rewrite the original, take the advice you’ve been given onboard and try to empathise.

Having darlings doesn’t make you a bad writer – we all have them – but being able to spot them and react will make you all the stronger as a writer down the line.

Connor Sansby is a Margate-based writer, editor, poet and publisher through his super-indie Whisky & Beards publishing label.

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