Kill Your Darlings: Four Steps to Making Difficult Revisions
Anthony Gross, Consultant
“In Writing, you must kill your darlings.” This somewhat morbid advice from the celebrated author William Faulkner is telling of what it feels like for writers to omit—or “kill”—pieces of writing they have grown to love. The phrase “kill your darlings” is often interpreted as the need for fiction writers to kill off major characters, but it is more broadly applicable to entire sections of writing within any genre. Whether you define yourself as a writer and tend to become deeply attached to your writing or as a student hoping simply to finish a paper with a good grade, killing parts of your writing, no matter how much you love them or how much they contribute to your word count, is an essential part of the revision process. To help you manage the brutal task of murdering your compositional babies, I offer the following advice:
Don’t become too attached.
It’s good to get something down on the page, but don’t become too attached to your original writing. When you’re struggling to come up with ideas and you’re struck by a sudden pang of inspiration, what you produce at the beginning of your draft may not coincide with your concluding thoughts. Especially when you’re crunched for time on an assignment, it’s tempting to skip revising and go straight to editing—that is, skip major structural and ideological changes and target lower order concerns. Your goals will vary depending on the type of writing you are doing, but whether you are producing an argumentative essay, a short story, or an application letter, you should aim to make the individual parts of your writing add up to a cohesive whole. In making sure every aspect of your writing conveys your overall purpose for writing, cutting those pieces that don’t, your reader will be better equipped to understand your ideas.
Give yourself time.
Have you ever looked back at a piece of writing you hurriedly composed for a class during a previous semester and thought, “Oh my goodness; why didn’t anyone tell me how bad this is?” As time lapses, we gain perspective, and we’re able to view our past selves, including those constructed through our writing, more objectively. With this in mind, it’s a good idea to let your work sit for a period of time before committing to the self you’ve constructed in your writing. If you find that you’re still pleased with what you’ve produced a few days, weeks, months, or even years ago, great. But if you’re anything like me and countless other writers, I bet you’ll find something that needs to be killed. It’s also good to note that major revisions should come before minor editing because the small things that you’ll find yourself editing— from spelling to grammar—may be axed from the final project.
Eliminate the unnecessary
Killing your darlings is really about eliminating unnecessary sections of your writing despite how much you love them. This isn’t to say that you have to nix your creative voice, but you must balance creativity with utility to ensure that every aspect of what you’ve written contributes to your purpose for writing. You should read for obscurity, redundancy, and argumentative support. If you find that what you’ve written might confuse your readers, even if it makes good sense to you, clarify or cut it. If you find that a section of your writing repeats an already stated idea to no useful effect, cut it. And if you find yourself including superfluous details, whether they are plot points that aren’t meaningful to your story or argumentative details that don’t progress your thesis, cut them. If deleting these sections permanently is too stressful, create a separate word document where you can paste them in case you change your mind. Remember, you may have spent a lot of time producing your draft, but if what you’ve written doesn’t help your readers discover your purpose, you haven’t met your ultimate goal.
Killing aspects of your writing that you’ve become attached to can be really difficult, especially if you’re so blinded by that attachment that you can’t differentiate purposeful from superfluous details. If you find that you can’t revise on your own, get some outside help. This could be as simple as asking a family member or friend for their opinion, but talking to someone familiar with the genre in which you are writing might be more helpful. University writing centers are a great place to work with other writers who can help identify what they, as a reader, see as essential or non-essential to your draft at any point in your composition process.
Killing your darlings can be difficult, but it is an important step in ensuring you produce your best work possible.