This is adapted from a presentation I gave at my final residency of grad school, titled Murder Your Darlings.
We’ve all resisted the red pen. Making those cuts can be painful, and some authors simply refuse. For some, writing can be as personal as journaling, and the idea of cutting a chapter is like discounting an aspect of that author’s life. In working with so many authors as an editor, and after two years of workshopping pieces in school, I have seen many instances where an author would benefit from that red pen. Sometimes we just need a little push.
British journalist, teacher, and novelist Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch famously said: “Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it – whole-heartedly – and delete it before sending your manuscripts to press. Murder your darlings.”
This has since been attributed to writers like Stephen King, William Faulkner, Mark Twain, and F. Scott Fitzgerald, and filmmakers like Woody Allen.
Part I: So what exactly is a darling?
(I have to credit my mentor Gayle Brandeis for telling me this tasty metaphor.)
Think about your story—fiction or nonfiction—as a good soup. You add potatoes, onions, celery, and other vegetables in a broth. Then you have a diamond, and that diamond is your darling. It’s so beautiful and shiny, you think it would be a great addition to the soup, and your guests will be dazzled by its beauty. But the problem is, that diamond doesn’t really belong in the soup. When you serve it to your guests, they will probably break their teeth or choke on it.
What I am going to refer to as “darlings” are the scenes, sentences, paragraphs, dialogue exchanges, characters, and even whole chapters that do nothing to move the story forward or reveal character. They are the elements of your story you find the idea of parting with nearly impossible. Almost without exception, “darlings” should be cut—no matter how beautifully written, how original the metaphor or witty the dialogue.
Often we are too close to our own work to see that something no longer belongs or simply isn’t working, even after multiple rewrites. Everything in your finished novel/short story/non-fiction piece needs to be there for a reason. You—the writer—are in control of the material and know what purpose each sentence, and each word, is serving.
“But what if it’s really good?”
I had an editing client whose novel opened with this emotionally wrought scene—a prologue—in which the main character battles intense illness in a hotel in Eastern Europe and is nurtured back to health by a beautiful Russian woman. While the author clearly put a lot of effort into the scene, describing the setting and the character’s physical trauma with vivid detail, the problem was that it never came up again.
If, for example, the scene had set up plot, or foreshadowed something that would happen later in the novel, or even revealed character in a relevant way, then it might have worked. When I attempted to explain to the author that something like that, which has absolutely nothing to do with the rest of the story, might be a short stand-alone piece, or saved for a future work, she found it difficult to understand. “But it’s good, isn’t it?” she asked. “It’s a good scene?”
Something that isn’t “good” is a lot easier to cut. The real trouble is when you get something like that prologue the author so badly wanted to start her novel with. Well-written, sure. Compelling. Vivid. It just didn’t belong. But who was I to tell her to cut it?
Ultimately, readers assume that everything you write is there for a reason. If you describe a particular dining table for an entire paragraph, the reader will assume it’s important, and you’d better have a plan for that dining table to pay off later on.
There are three umbrella categories under which the darlings fall:
What would you say this author’s prologue falls under?
If you said “all three,” you’d be absolutely correct.
Part II: Darlings Crawling On Your Pages
Diamonds can hide. Really well.
These darling diamonds can be tricky to identify. They become imbedded in your story almost subconsciously, so that even after multiple rewrites, you still pass them over. Emotion and personal investment are especially blinding. A darling can wear a cunning disguise; it can be something you think is so wonderful that instead of cutting it, you expand it, polish it, and find no fault with it. It can be a line of dialogue that makes you laugh, a description of character so original you have to include it – even though on page 300 of a 302 page novel, it’s far too late to introduce a new character, who ends up having nothing to do with your story anyway.
But I digress.
A digression is any piece of information that the reader doesn’t need, and therefore won’t know how to process. Digressions can be misplaced flashbacks, they can be subplots that have nothing to do with the story itself, and they can be really minor.
Everything in a story must be there for a story reason; it must be something that, given the cause-and-effect trajectory, the reader needs to know right then.
The authorly author: self-indulgent writing that proves your literary genius.
Remember, writing “well” is not synonymous with writing a good story. And of those two, writing well is not nearly as important.
The best writers know not to draw attention to their writing by writing like writers.
Think about what distracts you in a novel. What pulls you out of the fictive dream? Often, it’s the author’s—not the narrator’s—voice, popping into the story to announce its own presence. Usually, you can catch this after a few re-reads because it sounds self-important, self-conscious, overly clever, flowery, or too literary. The amount of hard work you’ve put in over the years of schooling and reading the classics should not show in YOUR work. You should make your writing look effortless and natural, like a dance performance. Ideally, nothing IN your story will distract your reader FROM the story.
Metaphors, imagery and similes.
These are some of the hardest for me to edit. When someone writes with metaphors and similes, it can be as distracting as a host of showgirls dancing on an ice sculpture. Often similes take over a sentence completely, causing the reader to lose focus on what the author’s intended meaning really is. They can be obfuscating and even irritating. There are times where writing like this can work, but it’s rare.
I have struggled for years with descriptive writing. As a child, I always skipped big chunky passages that described the sound of the wind on the moors, the greenery of a forest, the way the streets intersected in a particular town. I still find myself drifting when I read books with heavy scenery and setting description. I know some people do enjoy that particular style, but in my experience it can be a huge factor in slowing your narrative way down, losing your reader, or losing focus in general.
As Elmore Leonard shrewdly advised, “Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.”
Much of what readers skip is scenery, setting, weather, clothing, etc. It’s important to remember that a good story is about characters, and what happens to them. Setting is, of course, highly important. But focusing the majority of your energy on describing the setting will derail your story.
The trick here is to filter the description through your character. Instead of describing things from an omniscient perspective, which can often be the reason those long, chunky paragraphs lose readers, think about what your character would see, what would be important to observe through him or her.
In short, it’s great to describe what your characters are eating, just don’t give us the recipe.
All that David Copperfield kind of crap.
There is a whole slew of writing out there dealing with the subject of how much a writer should know about his characters, and how much of that knowledge needs to be on the page. Consider this passage from ‘The Writer’s Chronicle’:
“If our goal is to convey the essence of a character, why first imagine everything that’s inessential? If you ask me, creating an encyclopedia of facts about our characters is like preparing to paint a bedroom by painting the rest of the house.”
Some authors have trouble differentiating between what is crucial to a character’s past and what is simply background slush clogging up his story. This can include irrelevant flashbacks, family history, stories from childhood. Sometimes it helps to go through these sections, repeatedly asking, Does this need to be said? Most of the time, it doesn’t.
Part III: Death to the Darlings!
How do we root them out?
The first thing is to make sure you know your story inside and out so you can clearly see what’s irrelevant. Be clear on the focus of your story. This will make it a hundred times easier to filter out the extraneous, distracting, and excessive.
If you feel you have a good handle on your story and a strong backbone, it’s time to get to the nitty gritty of finding those pesky darlings. There are several effective ways to find and weed out your darlings so your work is as clean and concise as it can be:
- Read it out loud. This is a good rule in general, and if you keep in mind the idea of tuning your ear to listen for darlings, you are more likely to catch them as you read. Set in your mind what you want to be aware of: think you might have too many similes? Overusing long vocab words? See if everything rolls naturally off your tongue. If you trip up on something, mark it. If you smile smugly at a particularly clever paragraph, mark it. Chances are, it needs to go.
- Have someone else read it out loud to you. This will make it even easier to listen for anything you think you might need to eliminate. Sentences, paragraphs, and whole stories have a distinctive rhythm and tone. Try to identify where the rhythm changes, or lags. Note if the reader trips on any words, or laughs at something that’s not meant to be funny.
- Have someone you trust read and edit your work. This is ideal. Usually you have to pay for a really professional job, but sometimes you might be lucky to know someone who is a killer editor. A good editor will hunt down your darlings and strike them dead. (But keep in mind that even though you should consider their suggestions carefully, you don’t need to make every single change they advise; it’s still your story, and you know it better than anyone)
- Identify where you got stuck. And then go back until you find the darling that probably tripped you up. This is one of the hardest things to do. As I’ll talk about in a minute, I ended up having to eliminate an entire character from my novel. It took me forever to figure out that it was this character that had been putting up road blocks in my story ever since I brought her in.
- Be your most critical reader. Put on an editor hat and go through your manuscript using track changes to highlight, edit, and delete. This is not the same as proofreading, Maybe you know someone who is highly critical of you, or you’ve had a really brutal editor in the past. Of course you don’t want to change your story to cater to that person, but just imagine what they might say about certain things, and make a note of it. Later, you can decide if you would agree. I usually make comments in track changes, and sometimes I can be quite mean to myself. But I’m only doing it out of love.
- Put it aside, then come back days/weeks/months/years later and read your work again. If you’re really struggling with a piece, this is a good thing to do. Chances are, things will be much more clear when you return to it. You’ll be murdering darlings left and right. Like taking a break from a difficult relationship, the distance gives you clarity and perspective. As you’re reading, you might even laugh at the things you thought were so great before. And you might be really impressed with things you didn’t think were all that great. Whenever your mind wanders, make a note. Don’t worry about figuring out why till later.
Once you have identified your darlings, it’s a good idea to start by assessing how much work it’s going to be. Have more darlings than you thought? Questioning whether you should cut entire chapters or characters or even plot threads? My advice is to start with the easier ones, then go on to the big guys. If you can, seek outside advice from someone you trust.
Here is the most important thing: DON’T. DELETE. ANYTHING. EVER.
For every novel I write, I keep a separate document titled “Darlings” and I copy/paste everything I cut from the novel into that document. It makes it much easier to cut things out if you know they’re not just disappearing into the digital ether. Sometimes I put things back into the novel, if the story changes or if I realize I cut it prematurely. Sometimes I use the material for a different story; it could even be the spark that spurs me to my next novel. Most of the time, though, it stays in its document tomb, and that’s fine too.
A final note: Sometimes, it’s ok to make a compromise. If you really love something in your story, often you can find a way to fix the elements that aren’t working and still keep it. There are countless stories about authors whose editors brutally slash things, and then the author keeps it anyway, and that turns out to be the part the readers love. As long as you don’t get too egotistical with your work, and are able to let things go, you should be able to strike a balance.