Friday Five-O: Kill all your darlings. Kill! Kill!

I know Grub Street, as well as probably all good writers, prizes Faulkner’s words, “In writing, you must kill all your darlings.” What if I’m not always ready to bring my knife to the page? How can I learn to objectively edit my work?

-- Jack (the Reluctant) Ripper


Easy, Jack.

No one’s talking about killing, or slashing here. Maybe cutting...revision does mean cutting. It’s one of those funny things about revision, you know? Revision is a process by which things get combined, get shortened or get expanded. It is also a process by which certain things get left out.

But I get your question.

Let’s go back and look at this Faulkner quote you referenced, “In writing, you must kill all your darlings.” If Show, Don’t Tell, is the world’s most commonly used writing axiom, then Kill All Your Darlings, has to be in the top ten. It has come to represent a blind love of a particular scene—so much, that you may be blind to its obvious faults.

For the record, Faulkner got this from Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch: “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.”

Kill, murder -- personally, I think it’s the long shadow of the Old Testament. The patriarch Abraham about to slit the throat of his own son Isaac, until a ram is magically substituted...talk about killing a darling! (Genesis, 22).

Stay with me, Jack. We are talking about sacrifice here, human or otherwise. We are talking about taking something that could work, but doesn’t, and removing it from your manuscript. We are talking about a scene, or a character, or a philosophical gambit that you love -- but no one else seems to notice -- and disposing of it by whatever means appropriate.

But how do you know what to take out?


Here comes the flood of non-answers:

  • A) You won’t know it, cognitively speaking, you will only be able to feel it;

  • B) When the whole has announced that it will not be more than the ‘sum of its parts’ with that particular part still hanging around;

  • C) Formerly, you wouldn’t have dreamed of your manuscript without this piece, but now that you mention it, that could go...


You may never get an “objective” answer, like your question indicates you are seeking. You may continue to tread the fine line between misunderstood genius and crappy writing, like the rest of us.

But here’s an unexpected conclusion: You might not have to kill that darling after all. Like, er, Abraham didn't have to commit filicide. If you really like something, it might be that all you have to figure out is how to pull it off -- perhaps with a flourish of voice?

Over to you,

Stuart

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