"Kill Your Darlings" - How to Edit Ruthlessly

Thursday, April 02, 2015

It can be difficult for me to write about how to write.  Perhaps this is because it's such an intensely personal endeavor.  It's unique to you and your experience.  It's specific to how you think, process, undertake goals and the time frame varies upon when you feel the most inspired. (For me, it's usually in class.  It's unfortunate.)

But I'm learning more and more that writing is communal.  Education itself is about listening to the voices around you, including your own.  No matter how individualistic an artist might feel, the art comes from living in community with others.  This refers to more than getting feedback — it's about learning to view your work as part of the broad dialogue in the literary community.  You are speaking with others around you though your words, entering into the conversation.
In order to do this well, you must first learn how to edit well.  I believe this is never something you'll fully attain — it's a goal with a moving finish line.  

Yesterday I had a phone meeting with a family friend who works for Family Christian Bookstores.  He gave a great analogy about the process of editing that is never "complete."  He said, "There was once a world famous pianist who, even later in life, was taking piano lessons.  This accomplished performer knew he still had more to learn.  One day he was playing through a piece when his instructor interrupted him exclaiming, 'No, no!  Beethoven gave you rests!  You're not playing them.'  There is always more to learn.  We can continue to perfect the craft but it will never be perfect."

What a beautiful illustration! Friends, editing is brutal.  You're destroying your creation to make it better.   It's like tearing your muscles to build them back up again.  It's not an easy task to accomplish, but it is worthwhile. 

So what's the secret to learning how to "kill your darling" words? Edit ruthlessly.

"Kill your darlings" is a famous writing idiom that has been widely attributed to many different famous writers, including Oscar Wilde, Faulkner, Chesterton and even Stephen King.  In actuality, the first use of the phrase came from Arthur Quiller-Couch and his 1913 Cambridge edition of On the Art of Writing:
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.

This is one of my pieces after making changes. Let the words bleed with the red pen.
This is from my story The Anniversary Of My Death, which you can read here.
All writers will know how precious the words become once we put them down on the page.  We've created them, therefore we almost feel protective of their existence.  Get rid of that feeling.

Here's how:

Rewrite and Revise before you Edit.

Revising is where you make the big changes.  Editing is where you make the little polishing changes. Revise first.  Don't be afraid to make changes to the plot, to character development and dialogue. Change these structural pieces before you start fretting over individual word choice.  Sometimes this might mean omitting a scene, adding background info or taking out a character.  Be bold in your changes!

Deconstruct and ask the necessary questions.

Sometimes our perception of our work is different than the reality of our writing itself.  So you need to deconstruct your manuscript and start asking the underlying questions.

Am I writing with my audience in mind?
Is the plot clear?
Did I get where I wanted to go?
Have I accomplished my goal as a writer?
Do my characters have logical progression and growth?

If not, work on it.

Take out the fluff.

Confession: I have a tendency to overwrite.  It's a problem.  I get carried away by beautiful vocabulary and it can overwhelm a piece.  If you're spending too much time describing a setting or what the character is feeling, get rid of it.  

Here's why:

You need to give the reader credit.

This past summer when I attended the International Christian Retail Show in Atlanta, Georgia, I went to a Master Class on editing.  They critiqued pieces on the screen and the most common issue was that the writer was restating information too much and not trusting the reader to remember.  For example, there was a scene in which someone was riding a horse and the writer kept reminding us where the character was.  We remembered.  So give the reader credit to fill in the blanks a little bit.

Step away.

Take time.  Give it 24 hours and come back with fresh eyes.  Few things are as helpful as getting refreshed and returning to your work later.

Get feedback.

Like I said at the beginning, writing is a communal experience.  So engage in the community.  I'll be writing soon on what it means to start building a network, so stay tuned if you're wondering how to go about making connections.  But you can start now by getting feedback.  Ask teachers, counselors, parents, friends to read your work.  Ideally get your writing in front of people in the industry such as editors, agents, book buyers, marketers, media strategists.  Get exposure.  And don't be afraid of tough feedback — hard critique is the most loving.

Listen to the feedback.

Don't let the feedback detract form your own artistic growth.  But in my experience, it never has.  Trust the advice of those around you and take risks.

Read your work out loud.

One thing I have learned recently from one of my writing mentors is that writing is incredibly aural.  So read your work aloud and listen to the rhythm, the sound, the cadence, the musicality.  Strengthen your mastery of the language by listening to it.

So how do you edit ruthlessly?  What tips or tricks have you learned?  Do you find editing to be difficult?


You Might Also Like


  1. Love this post! I read out loud when I edit, too. It really helps you catch things like the sound and flow of a sentence, and those are so much harder to grasp when you're reading silently.
    Also, I tagged you for the Share the Love Challenge! Don't feel obligated or anything, but I thought I'd let you know. :)