Killing Your Darlings

Killing Your Darlings

I’ve never enjoyed editing my work (though I have come to love the end result). Don’t get me wrong; editing is a necessary evil. No writer can form perfect prose the first time around. But editing takes much more effort for me than writing. It inevitably ends up a slog. And for a long time, I was really bad at it.

I’m sure every writer goes through a phase where they don’t understand editing. It’s usually more fun to move on to the next project, to be constantly creating. Who wants to write the same story again? But you have to. Because you don’t really know the story until you’ve told it once, nor can you see all the issues. After all, editing isn’t the same as proofreading. You’re not just looking for missing commas or improperly structured sentences. You’re looking for holes in your plot. Scenes that don’t make sense. Repetition, inconsistencies, ect.

I never used to understand the phrase ‘kill your darlings.’ It’s common writing advice. Some writers even recommend you find your favorite scenes and sentences and cut them without further consideration. I’ll admit I still don’t see the point of that. Just because you love something doesn’t automatically nullify its value. On it’s own, without explanation or context, ‘kill your darlings’ is actually more confusing for a new writer than it is helpful. What does it mean?

In the early days, I never managed to edit my work. I often loved the way I worded things so much I couldn’t bear to change it. Sometimes I could admit to myself that it might read better if I changed it, but then I argued that I loved the wording so much, it shouldn’t need to be changed. As if there was some magic in what I pumped out the first time that everyone would simply feel when they read my work. I would remove a few words, or add more, adjust my punctuation, correct my mistakes and convince myself everything was perfect.

Now I read that same work and want to puke. It’s a good thing I never posted much of my work online, because it’s certainly laugh worthy. It wasn’t that I was unwilling to slay my darlings, it was that I didn’t understand why I should.

One day, I read another writer’s blog post about editing. Sadly, I don’t remember whose, so the post is lost to time. The writer talked about making every word count, about the fact that every sentence should serve the story in one form or another. It clicked. I had my ah-ha moment. Editing was not about systematically destroying my best work, it was about serving the story. Editing is about seeing the big picture. A scene or sentence might feel magical to their creator, but serve no purpose on the long journey from beginning to end of a narrative.

Killing your darlings isn’t a guide to how to edit; it’s a warning not to get attached to the smaller pieces of your work. Your attachment, instead, should be to the finished project, the polished narrative.

Now that I understand the central purpose of editing, I slay my darlings without mercy. I may fall in love with a scene, but if it doesn’t serve the story, I cut or rework it. Same with a sentence I find particularly clever; I may have spent two hours making that sentence work, but if it doesn’t fit, it has to go.

As for writing advice, I’d say make every word count and focus on the big picture are a lot more helpful than the old kill your darlings. Especially since there’s no harm in allowing your darlings to survive the editing process, so long as they serve the overall story.

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