You need a certain amount of hubris to be a writer.
At least you need some to be the kind of writer who wants other people to read their words. You must believe that you have something to say that others will find useful, informative, provocative, beautiful, thought-provoking, heart-breaking, inspiring, or entertaining.
You have to love of yourself, your thoughts, your ideas, and your feelings enough to believe they have intrinsic value to others. You probably think some of the things you have written are pretty fantastic. I’m sure some of them are.
As you write your first draft of any work, you need to let it all spill out fast enough to stay ahead of that pesky inner critic who might stop you and make you question the validity of what you write before you can get it all down.
For first draft writing, I am a firm believer in this process. Vomit it all out. Get every thought and lovely turn of phrase that comes to mind out of your head and onto the page.
Every idea is valid in the first pass. But once you are done with your first draft and it’s time to rewrite, now it’s time to use a more critical eye. Now is the time to question precious passages and self-indulgent segments. Now every word must earn its place on the page.
Now is the time to murder your darlings.
What exactly does “murder your darlings” mean?
The phrase is often attributed to either Stephen King or William Faulkner, but I’ve seen it traced back further to English author Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch as well. The phrase simply means that you should approach the revision of your work with enough emotional distance to give you a distinct lack of sentimentality about your text.
Rewriting is the time for objectivity. Sometimes authors fall in love with a certain section, sentence, character, situation, or phrase. They love it so much that they want to keep it in a piece, even when the work would be better without it.
Murdering your darlings is cutting that thing you love in service of the text as a whole.
Step back from the work. Try to see it as something someone else created. Allow the work to become something separate from the part of you that made it. The work is no longer a piece of you, a direct download from your brain. It must be able to stand alone. You need to shape it into an independent being that can convey meaning without you standing beside it ready to explain anything that lacks clarity. Your job is now to improve the story, however you possibly can.
A particularly clever turn of phrase may be pleasing to your ear, but if it is the slightest bit unclear and confuses your reader, it needs to go.
If you based a character on a loved one because you want to immortalize them in print, but the character just doesn’t fit, you may need to either alter the character to fit the piece or cut that character out altogether.
This includes that character you modeled on your ex just so you could have the pleasure of seeing them murdered for your own personal revenge. (Yeah, that one.) Your feelings no longer matter. What matters is taking what you have and making it the best work it can be. Even if it means cutting your favorite part out of the story.
Just in case you’re curious, here is the original quote from Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch from his book On the Art of Writing, published in 1916:
“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. You remember, may be, the Persian lover whom I quoted to you out of Newman: how to convey his passion he sought a professional letter-writer and purchased a vocabulary charged with ornament, wherewith to attract the fair one as with a basket of jewels. Well, in this extraneous, professional, purchased ornamentation, you have something which Style is not: and 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.”
Sir Arthur could have definitely murdered a few darling phrases in that quote. But you get the idea. Clarity over ornamentation.
How to know if a darling needs to be murdered.
First, let’s talk about flow. Flow is the state a reader gets into where they no longer see the words or the page. What they see is the characters, the setting, the situation, and the action all unfolding vividly in their mind’s eye.
It’s kind of like when you’re watching a movie and the theater around you disappears. You are so fully immersed in the experience that when someone bumps into your knees trying to scoot by to get to the bathroom, it’s a shock to return to your body and suddenly realize that you are, in fact, still in a theater surrounded by strangers and not in the world of the movie itself.
That is exactly where you want to get and keep your reader throughout your entire piece. Anything that interrupts that flow is a problem.
Read your words back to yourself. Aloud if possible. Anywhere that you have to pause, any phrase that makes you stumble, any complex sentence that makes you stop and start again to figure out quite where it was going and where to put the emphasis, is a problem.
Don’t stumble and keep going. Stop immediately to triage the situation, diagnose the ailment, and operate. It is time to cut the fat. Lance the bloated word boil. Staunch the run-on sentence hemorrhage that could bleed your story dry. Aim to cut around 10% of your word count to tighten up your prose. This will help you on the micro-level of flow, the moment-to-moment word choices that keep your reader’s eyes moving and their hand turning the page.
Next, take a look at the macro-level flow of your work. Are there places where your story veers off track? Maybe far enough that it’s hard for your reader to find their way back? Far enough that your reader might forget what was going on back over there in the main plot?
Are there tangents that wander aimlessly around and don’t move the story forward? Maybe they sound pretty but do nothing to set up the action of a coming scene or foreshadow an eventual outcome? Are they basically window decorations with no direction or purpose?
Yeah, those are the kinds of darlings that always need to go.
Ask yourself, will my story cease to make sense if this word, phrase, scene, section, chapter, or character were removed?
Will removing it detract from the tension, the action, or the reader’s understanding of the plot or some portion of the story?
Does including it significantly add to any of these things?
What is the function of this particular element in the story?
If the answer is that the story would survive its removal and it doesn’t significantly add anything substantive, cutting such elements almost invariably invigorates your text and tightens your story.
7 places to look for darlings in need of a murder.
1. Underdeveloped or unnecessary characters.
It may be a character you created at the beginning, thinking you would use them later in the story, but then the story veered off in an unexpected direction and you never got around to it.
Maybe you wedged in a love interest thinking your main character really needed a love interest because don’t all main characters need a love interest? But then you never really got into their relationship and the character was left two dimensional and cardboard.
Not every story needs a love interest. Cut yours if it doesn’t. If you realize that a character is underdeveloped but feel that working on them more would add to the story, you can explore ways to further develop characters here.
Every character in your story needs to pull their weight. Ask yourself what in the story would change if you took this character out altogether? Would anything substantive be missing without them? What do they add to the story with their presence?
Any character who doesn’t make a difference to either the plot, the character development of the main characters, or the aesthetic of the story doesn’t need to be there, and probably shouldn’t be.
2. Plot tangents
Sometimes you start writing your plot with a plan to go in one direction, but later on, change your mind and go off in another direction altogether. It’s not infrequent for a character to take over as you write. Many authors make discoveries about their own story as they go along. If you go back to rewrite and find that you have early plot tangents that don’t move the story forward and lead nowhere, those are ideal things to cut out in order to tighten up your prose and keep your story focused.
These can sometimes be hard to cut if they are particularly clever or beautiful, but don’t be afraid to take them out and see how the story reads without them. If they don’t serve the story, they need to go, no matter how beautifully written they may be.
3. Unnecessary backstory
It is good for you as the author to know the backstory of your characters in-depth, but it isn’t always necessary to include it all in your text. It usually isn’t. Trying to shoehorn too much of the backstory into your story can be distracting. Especially if it is done through exposition rather than through character interactions and dialogue.
It’s okay for your readers to wonder about the backstory of your characters and find out slowly, bit by bit. You want them to be asking questions, and wondering what something means. You also want to let them figure it out for themselves as they read along.
Consider the reader’s journey throughout your story and don’t answer their questions about the backstory before they’ve had a chance to ask those questions themselves. Many authors keep separate documents for their characters where they explore the backstory to ensure that they have a proper grasp on it as they write, but don’t fall prey to the temptation to let your reader in on everything you know.
The author should always know more about the characters and plot than the reader does.
4. Self-indulgent sections or scenes.
Most writers write for the love of writing. We enjoy putting words together in ways that feel good to us. Who doesn’t love a well-turned phrase, an elegant metaphor, or a stunning bit of monologue?
But those are the pieces you need to eye with the most suspicion when it comes to rewriting. Would the character you’ve built really deliver that particular monologue? At that time and in that voice? Are you stretching believability in a hard-boiled detective story to have your uneducated car thief eloquently quote, Nietzsche? Would your hooker with a heart of gold really deliver a Shakespearian-style soliloquy after being beaten up by her abusive pimp? Is that within the realm of possibility in your story? Is there an absurdist element that makes it possible? Or is that something you just need to cut and move on?
A finished story should always be about the characters and your reader’s experience with them, never about you. This is true even in memoir.
5. Sentimental attachment.
Need another way to help you identify your darlings? Let someone else read your text. Ask them to mark any phrases or passages that trip them up. You want to know about anything that gives them pause or that they have to second guess the meaning of. Especially if they had to go back and reread the passage again to try to figure it out. If they bring a certain passage to your attention and your reaction is that you want to scream at them for even suggesting that such a brilliant piece of writing is anything less than perfectly understandable and clear, you’ve probably found a darling. And it probably needs to be murdered.
6. Chapter One.
A lot of writers take a little time to rev up and really get going with their story. A strong opening sentence, paragraph, and chapter, can be the difference between a reader reading the entire book and putting it down without getting to chapter two.
Look over your very first chapter with a critical eye. Did you not really get into the flow of things until you got to chapter two? What would the book look like if you cut chapter one, started with chapter two and just filled in anything that the reader needed to know from the original chapter one in subsequent chapters?
You don’t always need to entirely scrap chapter one, but it can be a good exercise to at least consider it.
7. The End
Sometimes when you start out with a certain ending in mind, it’s hard to let go of it, even if something else, even more fitting to your story, occurs to you along the way. Maybe you even jumped ahead and wrote the final scene before finishing the rest of your draft. Maybe that final scene is a masterpiece. One of the best and brightest moments of the entire book. Except that some of the action that led up to it doesn’t quite exactly fit.
We’re all for planning and plotting our stories. Having outlines and beats helps anyone to write faster and with purpose throughout their draft. However, I’m also always open to the pantsing magic that occurs when a character suddenly takes on a life of their own or a plot twist pops up that surprises even me. If you’ve been writing along for weeks or months with a certain ending in mind it can be difficult to give it up in favor of the new ending that now makes perfect sense to you.
But if the new ending serves the story better, if it makes it a better story than it would have been otherwise, you may need to sacrifice your brilliant ending for the best ending.
You don’t really have to murder your darlings entirely.
Of course, if you have a favorite section of work that you spent ages on and it stretches out for pages, you don’t necessarily have to throw it all away. Maybe you could use it as the start of something else, or perhaps that piece could stand entirely on its own as a personal essay, or article. Maybe it will be the key element in another work that had you stumped for weeks.
Cut it out of the piece where it doesn’t fit and tuck it away on your hard drive for a rainy day. You may come across it again at the perfect moment when the stars align and then you’ll know exactly what to do with it.
Many writers never completely throw anything away. Now that we’re in the digital age, you don’t ever really need to. Pages of text take up next to no room beside the much bigger audio and digital files of songs, audiobooks, movies, and games. You can keep your discarded darlings backed up on a hard drive or in the cloud on any of a number of different storage options.
So, never be afraid to cut them out of the piece at hand. The passage you love may be murdered from one text, but it can still be raised from the dead to live again elsewhere. Don’t grieve too hard when you cut something lovely out. If you write in Scrivener like most of us in the studio do, you can always move sections out of the main draft and into the research or “other folder” where you can keep it indefinitely.
Murdering your darlings isn’t about killing the soul of your story for commercial potential. That couldn’t be further from the truth. It’s about doing what’s in the best interest of your story no matter how strongly you personally feel about one or more individual elements.
Having the courage to cut the fat in order to find the leanest and most powerful version of your story is something to be celebrated.
Good luck murdering your darlings to make your writing better and getting a sharper draft to change the world with your story!
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