And What To Do Instead
Kill your darlings.
William Faulkner (or Ernest Hemingway, or George Orwell, or Oscar Wilde)
Kill your darling, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings.
Like many familiar quotations, “Kill your darlings” has long ago lost its meaning, and along with it, its potency as real writing advice. It’s also both wildly misattributed and mildly misquoted. Still, it continues to be passed along as gospel to aspiring writers. Most likely, all the writers who are supposed to have said it really did say it at least once, and they must have meant something by it.
But as a creative writing teacher, I’m not just issuing quick, pithy advice; I’m devoted to the actual growth of my students as they write and revise. At the same time, “kill your darlings” is out there, so I do introduce the idea — with some major caveats. The question then becomes…
What does “kill your darlings” really mean?
It might help to look at the original context, which is in a lecture on writing by someone who is much less famous than all the writers who didn’t really say it first. Here’s the full quotation:
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.
So what does it mean to “perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing?” Aren’t we trying to write exceptionally? And dang, wouldn’t it be nice if we could send our manuscripts to press, just like that?
Well, we can infer that the “darlings” in question are those pieces of exceptionally fine writing, and since we are supposed to be murdering them, i.e., deleting them, clearly this is not the good kind of “exceptionally fine.” It’s a little too precious. Self-indulgent, maybe.
In other words, the “darlings” are for the writer, not the reader. They are the dazzling metaphors and intricate sentences that make us feel like…