(Don’t) kill your darlings (always)

The phrase “Kill your darlings” is thrown around in writing circles quite often. It is attributed to probably every single well-respected and not-so-well-respected writer throughout history. Perhaps this is because all of them have used it, or a variation of it, such as “kill your babies,” “murder your darlings,” etc, etc, etc.

Where it came from is unimportant, though if you want to know, this article explains it clearly. What is important to note is what the phrase means. According to the man who supposedly uttered it first, Arthur Quiller-Couch, it is a “practical rule” for writing that goes a little something like this: “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.”

So, if you are a writer and you fashion what you believe is a particularly shiny sentence, phrase, or word but you only know it’s good because it is particularly shiny . . . chances are that sentence, phrase, or word does not need to be there. If it does not need to be there then it should not be. You should kill it. This is 100% correct 100% of the time. It is one of those rare elements in any creative endeavor that is more of a rule than a principle. At times, writing is as much a science as it is an art, folks.

But, because mankind is a creature of extremes, something has happened to that phrase. It has come to permeate conversations about good writing. It has led to things as egregious as English teachers perpetuated the lie that Charles Dickens was paid by the word. They say he used unnecessary words. He didn’t. The way he weaves his words is meticulous and serves a pointed purpose. For the record, his work was serialized and he was paid by the part . . . not by the word.


Me, when someone says Dickens was paid by the word.


Writers, novice and experienced alike, use “kill your darlings” to destroy parts of stories or even whole stories these days. At times, rightly so. But we must use caution with anything we call a ‘rule’ in the arts. For there are times when your darlings are necessary. Dickens knew this. So does every writer out there today struggling to get a story published or a book picked up. There are times when you do know better than every editor. There are times when you do need your darling.

Perhaps these times are rare. But I assure you, they occur . . . .

This is why I have this story about a unicorn I’ve sent to more publishers than I can count. I’m on to something with it. I know it. My instincts tell me as much. And every rejection sends me back to the editing table and every edit gets my story one step closer to publication and the world’s eyes. It will happen.

If I followed the “kill your darlings” rule the way many writers these days do, it would not.

And trust me, that would be a shame.


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