Said in some form by Stephen King, William Faulkner, and some guy named Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch (whom I’d never heard of before today), it’s an annoying phrase for most writers: kill your darlings.
For editors it’s a little more pleasant or at least satisfying. Although when it comes to editing, it’s largely about killing other people’s darlings. I can do that. Give me free reign on somebody else’s article, copy, promotional material, what have you, and I can slash through it. I can pick out the words that are truly of worth, the words that work, the words that will concisely and purposefully get the message across.
When it comes to my own writing I try, really I try, and only sometimes succeed (case in point – did I really need to reemphasize by putting “really I try”? Absolutely not.)
I’ve been rewriting one of my novel manuscripts – again – and a lot of that work is about killing my darlings. I get so determined about it at times that I second guess myself and wonder if I’m being too vigorous, taking out the darlings that deserve to stay, that make the work something special. And then I don’t know what’s truth. Do I love these lines because they deserve to be loved, because they add something intrinsic to the story, or do I love the fact that I think they’re beautiful and am the proud mama that gave them life. If the latter, they need to go. If the former, killing them would be killing the reason why I write – and so how do I know the difference? I’m not entirely sure, but a method that helps is to try to step outside of myself as the writer and into the shoes of the reader. Is there any chance he or she will be wondering why those words are there, what they really have to do with story? If the answer is yes, time to slash. Kill your darlings.
This process is a little different when it comes to a novel but the essence of it remains the same. Business related reasons for writing – letters, emails, articles, advertisements, copy – do tell a story but you don’t generally have the luxury of labouring over them the way a budding novelist labours. Which means you need to be even quicker with slashing. These forms have a clear, direct, and timely purpose. They come out clearer and their content is retained so much better when the writer writes only what is needed and is fastidiously vicious with killing his or her darlings. We choose to spend leisurely hours reading a book, which means there’s some forgiveness for longwindedness, not so with the aforementioned forms of communication.
So, when it comes to crafting whatever method of correspondence you’re trying to craft, you have a couple options. For something more regimented and practical, such as a letter or an email, you may want to start with a little structure, outlining the main points you need to address before you start typing away. For something such as an advertisement or copy, you can write your first draft with freedom. Let your words flow on the page so creativity shines, have fun with it. No matter your method, once those words are on the page it’s time for the real work – take out that long sword and slash away. Did you craft the best, most grammatically complex sentence you’ve ever written? Awesome!
Next challenge – chop those components down into two or three sentences then see if you can get rid of one of them. Now ask yourself, does what I have left honestly say what I want to say in the most effective, clear, and concise manner possible?
If your answer is no or if you’re not sure look through what you’ve got and slash all that isn’t necessary.
Did you coin a phrase that you think is just brilliant? Great! Does it fit with the rest of what you had to write? No? Well then it’s probably got to go.
Will one word do where you have three? . . . I think you’re getting the picture.
Kill your darlings, and also kill those little words that hang on when your sentence can stand up without them.