Kill Your Darlings

Mostly when I think of pacing, I go back to Elmore Leonard, who explained it so perfectly by saying he just left out the boring parts. This suggests cutting to speed the pace, and that’s what most of us end up having to do (kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings)…I got a scribbled comment that changed the way I rewrote my fiction once and forever. Jotted below the machine-generated signature of the editor was this mot: “Not bad, but PUFFY. You need to revise for length. Formula: 2nd Draft = 1st Draft – 10%. Good luck.” 

—Stephen King, On Writing, a Memoir of the Craft

editingSome writers write their first draft, the one meant only for their own eyes, in a great tumble of words, letting them all fall onto the page. I am not such a writer. I write as I engage in most other activities in my life, methodically, step by step, sorting even as I compose. This word instead of that? Go back and recast that sentence. Too many paragraphs or too few? It’s something writing teachers often say is a bad idea. Pulling out your editor too soon will surely kill creativity.

But for me, it works. If I had to begin my first draft with a great splash of freeform words I would be stopped cold. For a short time I tried the freewriting recommended in The Artist’s Way and found it simply a waste of energy and time. What I have learned, though, and it took me many years as a writing teacher myself to learn it, is that my way doesn’t work for everyone else.

I have, though, learned something else. However a writer makes her way from the first rough words to the polished gem of a final draft, in that final draft less is more. Less is always more. And the longer I spend at writing and at reading what others write, the more I’m convinced that good writing comes, not simply from taking care not to be boring—though that is certainly important—but from leaving space for the reader to bring herself into the story. To feel what is unspoken beneath the surface of the page. And to accomplish that we must use words with assiduously honed control.

I have always used a simple test for every scene: does it move the story forward? If I cut it, would the reader know? If the story could proceed without it, it doesn’t belong there, no matter how beautifully written it may be.

As my style developed I came quickly to another test, one that might not fit for every writer, but one I find keeps my style lean and to the point. In most kinds of writing, I allow no more than one adjective per sentence. If one noun is modified with a descriptor, that is enough. However important a second or third descriptor may seem, the sentence usually does its work more certainly without it.

And especially when I’m writing in verse, but even when I’m writing prose such as this, I sweep back through my carefully chosen words again and again, slimming, finding the least number that will make my point. (I went back through that last sentence multiple times, each time taking out more words.)

As a reader, I am sometimes annoyed by too-beautiful language. It can intrude. It can even seem to be the author saying, “Look what I can do!” Or it can just be beside the point.

I began with Stephen King. I will conclude with wisdom from a very different writer, Emily Dickinson: ”I know nothing in the world,” she once said, “that has as much power as a word. Sometimes I write one, and I look at it, until it begins to shine.”

When we kill our darlings, the words we have left can shine!