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Saturday, September 17, 2011

“Kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings.”—Stephen King

The first time I heard this advice, I was appalled. Why would you write something good and then delete it? I had to sweat over those words, had worked hard on them and was proud of them. So why get rid of them?

I gradually came to understand the intent of this advice, even though I still hated having to follow it. I would read through a draft and debate how darling a particular line or passage was, and why it should remain. The harder I argued to keep something in, the bigger the red flag to take it out. The point is, your writing shouldn’t call attention to itself. It should transfer the story to the reader’s imagination without preening and admiring itself in the mirror. Especially if it’s only a line here or there.

Eventually, I learned to recognize the voice that liked putting those darlings in and fought so hard to keep them. I call it my greeting card voice, my melodramatic voice, my show-off voice. I don’t trouble keep this voice out of the first draft. Sometimes that voice has really good ideas cloaked in the poetic turns of phrase. But on the second draft, watch out. I recently found a way to soothe my poet's feelings over deleting the darlings. Greeting card companies will pay for poetic turns of phrase they use on their cards. They don’t like sappy, sweet, or melodramatic voices either, but they do sometimes like ‘the darlings’.

Stephen King was not the first to offer this advice. Check out the dates for these other quotes:

“Read over your compositions, and wherever you meet with a passage which you think is particularly fine, strike it out.” --Samuel Johnson, 1709-1784

“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”. –Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, 1916

“In writing, you must kill all your darlings.” —William Faulkner, 1897-1962

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