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!

25 thoughts on “Kill Your Darlings

  1. Liza Ketchum

    Marion, such wise words. When my first novel, West Against the Wind, was accepted, the editor told me I had to cut 50 pages, especially long descriptions of the settings. “But those passages show what life was like on the journey,” I complained.
    “Save them and write some poems,” she said.
    Instead, I realized I could replace those passages by having my narrator write short letters home to her sister. The letters also allowed me to deepen my narrator’s emotional arc. Ironically, I added by cutting.

    1. Marion Dane Bauer Post author

      What an intriguing solution, Liza. I remember as a kid, skipping descriptions. I remind myself of that when I’m writing a story and want to wax eloquent. But to find a way to put it in and still keep it lively and relevant is perfect!

    1. Marion Dane Bauer Post author

      Sometimes replies I make here show up in a different place than I made them. That happened in my comment below. I’ll repeat it here and hope it stays were it belongs: It’s a strange tension, isn’t it? We can’t write well without being in love with our words, and being in love with our words makes it hard to write well.

    1. Marion Dane Bauer Post author

      Hi, Patti. I think there are times when starting the second draft fresh is the best approach, and that is something I occasionally recommended to my students. It depends, however, entirely upon how deeply the first draft falls short of what you want it to be. If it’s almost there except for patches, then of course you will stay with the first draft and work only those patches and polish the rest as you go. If you have found a flaw in your story’s conception, then starting over on “clean pages” now that you know where you want to go keeps you from getting tangled in the old.

  2. James Ritchie

    As soon as you say “always”, or as soon as yu say “every writer”, you’re dead wrong. Period. From my experience, as soon as you say “rough draft”, you;re wrong for almost all the really good writers I admire.

    The move the story forward, would a reader know if I cut a line” is also nonsense. I’ve never read a really good novel that couldn’t have a hundred, or five hundred, lines removed without the reader noticing. There’s a lot more to good writing that just moving the story forward.

    As for “kill your darling”, it’s fine advice, if taken in a general way, but truly lousy advice the way it’s too often represented. Sometimes your darlings will also be the readers’ darlings,

    And final draft equals first draft minus ten percent works only if you write in a way that’s too wordy. Many do not. Many extremely good writers do not write rough drafts, and do not write first and final drafts, but edit and rewrite as they go, and when they reach teh last page, they’re done.

    A pretty substantial number of writers also write one true first draft, it comes out brilliantly, and there is no need for another draft. Do you have any idea how many classics are first drafts, or how many classic and bestselling novels were written in a month, or less. Or even two weeks or less? Even Shakespeare wrote those long plays of his in two weeks or less, with a quill pen, and bragged that he “never blotted a line”. .

    All you, or any other writer can do, is tell people how you write. You probably can’t even do this accurately. As King said, all you can really do is tell us how you think you wrote something after it’s written.

    What you can’t do, ever, is tell any other writer how they should or shouldn’t write because wonderful, brilliant, long lasting writers write in every way conceivable, and most of them don’t follow such rules or practices.

    1. Marion Dane Bauer Post author

      Your response seems passionate, James, but please let me clarify. I did not say “remove any line that doesn’t move the story forward.” I recommended testing every scene to see that it moves the story forward. A huge difference. Moreover, stories can be moved forward in many different and sometimes subtle kinds of ways. (My test for every scene could, I suspect, be supported well by Shakespeare’s plays.)

      And yes, there is much that goes on in fiction beyond story tension. That’s why I used King’s quote as a taking off point, not a rule. Beyond that I only recommended carving away an excess of language, but I acknowledged that the rule of thumb I use–only one modifier per sentence–doesn’t work for every kind of writing I do and certainly won’t work for every writer.

      You are right that there are some writers who don’t produce a “rough” draft. In fact, I could say that my first drafts are hardly rough, because, as I explained, I work closely as I go. And while I admire those brilliant writers who produce a polished, completed manuscript in a short time, I suspect that few of them have either the need or desire to read this blog.

      I assume you are one of those.

  3. Mary Ann Rodman

    Members of my writing group are so used to me asking “How does this move the story along?” we have shortened it to the acronym HDTMTSA? Best advice I ever got.

  4. Marion Dane Bauer Post author

    I wish you well on the revision, Sarah. I find this kind of final work, once I no longer have to struggle with getting the story in place, so satisfying. You will, too, as I know you have before.

  5. Sarah Lamstein

    This came just in the nick of time. I’m about to send out a draft, but it needs new eyes – yours, King’s, and Emily’s.


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