Kill Your Darlings (and other terrifying advice)

Hi Writers,
Following up on my previous post, the Ira Glass storytelling video, there were some interesting comments on the forum. I mentioned that I really took to what Glass had to say about killing much of your work so that the best can live. And this brought up the anxiety-inducing advice that all writers get early in their careers, “Murder your Darlings” aka “Kill your Darlings.”

I’ve heard this quote attitributed to everyone from Mark Twain to James Patrick Kelly—if anyone knows the correct source/attribution for this idiom, please share.

I still remember the shudder that went up my spine the first time I heard “Murder your Darlings” from an English professor (English professors love this quote).

And I’ve been pondering the meaning of it ever since. As a writer, of course, it seems cruel and harsh to cut out your loveliest well-turned phrases—your most eloquent lines. But I have to say, as an editor, I have no problem at all at seeing and cutting out other writers darlings.

So how do you feel about murdering your darlings? Do you subscribe to this timeless writing advice?

Keep Writing,

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11 thoughts on “Kill Your Darlings (and other terrifying advice)

  1. Jeff Currie

    The writer should fight for every single word, and the editor must assassinate every last bit of useless fluff. The problem develops when the writer has to become the editor. At that point the process becomes cannibalistic, and this is why writers drink or have crummy attitudes – or both.

    Jeff C

  2. Sheri

    According to Stephen King in his book "On Writing", the source for the "Murder your darlings" quote is Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch.

    My ‘darlings’ are usually adjectives and adverbs. It’s easy to kill them, but I still sigh when I do.

  3. Patricia Hilliard

    Yes, it is best to kill your darlings, and kill them early, otherwise you waste a lot of time and energy trying to preserver them. The work is ruined, then needs to be rewritten and finally–those darlings just have to go.

  4. Debbie

    Letting a little dust collect on the "darlings" makes their murder less heart wrenching. The corollary to this carnage is probably "less is more".

  5. Rubesy

    I’ve been privy to this piece of wisdom for some time — you’re right, my mentor loves it.

    Interesting to me was finding that an entire plot point can be a darling, too.

    On some good advice from one teacher, I cut out a plot twist from a story — the very one that had inspired me to write it. I thought this scene was the whole story I wanted to tell, so I wrote my way around it. Later the story stood much better without the scene, without the plot point — in fact, as a new story altogether.

  6. Scott B.

    …of course, the antithesis to this philosophy would be to, instead of deleting those marvelous beauties, copy and paste them onto a file, and have them published. Haha, but that would be insane wouldn’t it…

  7. Scott B.

    Had this been posted during Ann Radcliffe’s day, The Mysteries of Udolpho would have been considerably shorter.

    Murdering my darlings is difficult, but it wasn’t until I faced the reaction of my readers that I learned how important this part of writing is. Reading is a flow, so when a reader has to stumble over a writer’s vanity in order to get the story, the integrity of the writing is compromised.

    Make the facts beautiful, that’s my philosophy. : )

  8. Tom

    Right now I’m just thrilled when I complete something. If someone says it needs to be edited, fine. I’m still happy it’s finished. If someone wants to edit it down because they want to PUBLISH it (and pay me!), finer! I do believe it was in Writer’s Digest that an interviewd author said, "If you’re looking to get an agent, and you haven’t finished your novel yet, first, finish your novel, because agents know that 90% of all the novels out there that are started will never be finished."

    I’m not sure this answers the question in any way. Feel free to edit my response for brevity and clarity.