Earlier this week, I focused on the argument of editing while writing versus writing without stopping. Part of that struggle includes editing out pieces that you love but just don’t fit.
I first stumbled across that concept in Stephen King’s book On Writing: “Kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings.”
That phrase has been attributed to numerous writers over the years, from Eudora Welty to William Faulkner and, of course, Stephen King, but the true credit goes to one Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, an editor and writer, who presented a series of lectures in 1913-1914 at Cambridge University about writing (which Bartleby has lovingly preserved here). He said, “To begin with, let me plead that you have been told of one or two things which Style is not; which have little or nothing to do with Style, though sometimes vulgarly mistaken for it. Style, for example, is not—can never be—extraneous Ornament.”
In other words, just because something sounds fancy does not mean it’s good writing (or good reading). He continued with this snarky gem: “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.”
I’d heard the concept, but I really hadn’t
been forced to put it into practice until I signed up for a writing bootcamp. One of the comments from a published author and reputed agent on my writing:? “Too dense.” Dense as in too thick with those $5 words and crafted phrases. My darlings. I was immediately transported back to my sophomore year in college when my novels professor gave me my first (but not last) B on an essay. One word sat in red ink next to the offensive letter: “Wordy.” I had never received that kind of feedback, and the sting was palpable. My bootcamp mentor and novel prof were effectively saying what Mr. Quiller-Couch had: Write it how you want to write it, but then murder those darlings. Or, as legend Elmore Leonard put it, “If it sounds like writing, rewrite it.”
Don’t despair! You can always resurrect those murdered darlings. Cut and paste them all into one place so that, if you find you wished you hadn’t murdered one after all, you can bring it to life again. Mine now reside in a folder punnily named The Dead Files. That file made it so much easier to let go–because I wasn’t really letting go. Resurrection is right around the corner thanks to technology. (Doesn’t that just beg for a post about Battlestar Galactica?)
Need some help on how to do away with those darlings? Ruthanne Reid shares lovely advice on The Write Practice. (You should also read her post about Neil Gaiman’s rules of writing.)
Writers, is this your process too, or do you do something altogether different with those darlings when you cut swaths of your work? Comment and let me know!
Readers, have you ever wondered if a piece was cut from your favorite novel? Would you want to read those cut pieces? I’m toying with the idea of releasing some of mine here on the blog. Please comment if that’s something you’d like to see!
To get a free sneak-preview of my work-in-progress, The Devil Inside Me, please sign up for my mailing list here. Email subscribers will receive extras along the way!