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Why You Might Not Want to Kill Your Darlings

If you’ve ever been offered any writing advice, you might have been told to “kill your darlings.” It’s a phrase used by some writers, and, admittedly, I’m not in love with it, nor its concept. When you “kill” these “darlings” of yours, you cut things out of your writing. Maybe you’ll remove something unnecessary (a portion of the story, a paragraph, or even a whole character), but the removal will be hard. It will be something near and dear to your heart, because you’ll have worked hard to craft it, and if it wasn’t a darling, and you didn’t have to kill it, you’d simply be “deleting.”

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First, let’s see how well you know writing history. (I’ll be honest… I didn’t know this one.) To whom is the phrase “kill your darlings” originally attributed? The answer is at the end of the post.

A. Stephen King

B. Oscar Wilde

C. William Faulkner

D. Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch

Did you know the answer to that question? If not, I'd argue that history has further muddied the rationale for this darling issue. Therefore, in my forever quest to turn the creative community on its head, I've devised the following approach. Here are my suggested and highly unscientific steps for deciding what to do with your literary darlings:

Step 1. First, examine the darling and determine its relatedness to the scene/chapter/story as a whole. What is it that you love? Is it the voice or a clever turn of the phrase? A genius metaphor? A character that resembles, ahem, you, perhaps? The first step in deciding what to do with a darling is taking a deep, hard look to determine what makes it just so darn special.

Step 2. Next, read through the piece with, and then without, the darling. The purpose here is to determine if the darling is hijacking an entire paragraph, scene, or story. You can do this by identifying if the portion or story survives without it. If the answer is yes, the story moves forward without the darling, move on to the next step.

Step 3. You’ve identified that your story may not need your darling, but death? Death is a bit harsh, no? Remember, we’re talking the potential death of something you’ve birthed from your literary womb! You love this darling, remember?! So, step three in this case is to utilize a proverbial cut-and-paste function and set the darling aside for now. You've simply identified a case of a “misplaced darling.” I suggest setting up a folder to house these wondrous misfits for now, until you find them more suitable, permanent homes.

(It is worth noting that you may identify a darling, read through the piece without the darling, and find that it necessary to the story. In that case, the sentence/scene/character isn’t a darling by this post’s definition; you are simply ooooh-ing and aaaah-ing over your own fancy-pants writing. And good for you! We should all have the great fortune of believing so highly in our work.)

Oh! I’d be remiss to mention that there is an alternate step 3, and it’s this. Explore your darling. It may not be necessary in the story right now, but there’s clearly something you wrote that made you fawn over this special lil’ tidbit. What is that exact magic? Introduce yourself to it. Swipe right on it. Text it back, and take it for dinner. Stay up late just… talking to it. Really get to know it. And then expand on it. Do more of it in the work as a whole. If you love it, there’s a reason you love it. Could the story use more of it? Don’t die it… no, no no. That’s silly. Bring it to life and let it live out loud through lots and lots of revisions.

“But darling yesterday I was a different person, today I see you for what you are.”

LeAnne Mechelle, Write Like No One is Reading 2

“Darling! Had they darlinged each other when they were here? I imagined them, magnificent on horseback, tossing darlings to and fro.”

Franny Billingsley, Chime

“You're going to have to push a hell of a lot harder if you want me to give up on you, darlin'.”

Lindsey Ouimet, (Not Quite) The Same Old Song

Tap the heart if you knew the quiz answer, but also if you didn't.

Life's too short to muck around, darling.

The internet tells me that the answer to the quiz question is D, but thanks to having read On Writing, my brain will always want me to believe that it's A.

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