“In writing, you must kill all your darlings.”
― William Faulkner ―
Hands up if you’ve heard, read or shared William Faulkner’s quote about killing your darlings. It’s a common piece of writing advice touted by Faulkner and many other writers in one form or another, including Oscar Wilde and Stephen King—who advised that you should “kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart.”
To put your mind at ease, killing your darlings isn’t about physically killing the things that distract you from writing (so your partner, kids, fur babies, TBR pile and NetFlix subscriptions are safe), but rather it’s about cutting pieces of your writing to make it better.
Cutting words will make things better? You ask, horrified because you’re a writer and words are your life, but the answer is yes!
The words you need to cut—the darlings—are named as such because they are the parts kept in by the writer simply because they love them so much. It’s the paragraphs you’ve worked so hard on that you simply don’t want to take them out, even if it’s for the betterment of your work. These darlings may be…
- That section so flowery that it was perfect when your book started off as a romance but doesn’t suit now that it has morphed into a dystopian saga.
- A character who doesn’t work anymore. Sometimes those darlings are fictional people, and like a real-life downer, you need to cut the toxic character from your book.
- A plot thread that isn’t relevant, no matter how much you loved the twist, or how long it took you to work it into the story.
- A reference that is personal to you but wouldn’t mean anything to a reader. It’s like an inside joke. If you “had to be there” to get it, it shouldn’t be in your book.
- A two paragraph description that really could be described in one sentence but you were on a roll that day and it was the best writing you had ever done up until that point, and no one has ever described a bedroom in such a way, the way the light filtered in from the pulled up blinds, and stretched out across the pale daffodil colored wa—no! Just no. Cut it.
- The sentence or paragraph that fails to flow but you kept it because it used your favorite word ever.
- And many other examples which I’m sure you know in your head need to be cut, but your heart won’t allow it.
Writing is hard. Crafting a whole book is harder. And when you’ve worked that hard, it’s difficult to erase any of the efforts that you’ve put in. There is hope, though, if you have trouble letting go of those scenes that stirred something in you even though they stick out of the finished draft like a sore thumb.
In fact, you don’t have to discard any of the ideas that you know aren’t working because you can revive them instead! Rather than killing off your darlings with one foul strike of the delete key—save them.
Squirrel away that text like the word hoarder you know you secretly are and keep those precious sentences! Create notepad files, word documents, new texts in Scrivener or handwrite index cards—whatever medium of note taking works for you—so that you can tuck your darlings away for safe keeping.
That way, when you’re working on a different project, that character you had to get rid of because they were too harsh becomes your new villain. Those pale daffodil walls are the perfect setting for that romantic short story. That plot twist that didn’t work is the perfect kick-off event for your new epic sci-fi trilogy. You can even do what Rebecca over at the Rust Belt Girl blog does with her darlings (or Inklings as she calls them), and take those discarded sentences, draw out a random one, and use it as a writing prompt to get yourself through a bout of writer’s block.
By reviving your disposable text, you can happily say words are still your life because you’ll no longer be killing them. And there’s certainly something darling about that.
— K.M. Allan