“In writing, you must kill all your darlings.”
— William Faulkner.
What does it mean to kill your darlings? Well, first, what is a darling? A darling is something that interferes with the relationship between you and your audience. It’s a part of your writing (could be a line in a poem, a paragraph in a story, or an entire chapter in a novel) that doesn’t do the work it needs to do but, despite this, you love it and refuse to edit it out.
All writers are guilty of harboring darlings. It’s the line that someone told you had such a nice ring to it. It’s the character trait that is pulled from someone you know in your own life. It’s the pop culture reference that only you and your friends “get.” As fun as it is for us writers to read and re-read these darlings, as much as they make us smile, we have to remember the writing is not for us, not unless it’s a diary. And if the writing is for someone else, an audience, we must be attentive to its purpose, what effect it is designed to have on the reader. Does the passage advance the plot, does it build the character, does it enhance the reader’s sense of setting? No matter how long the work is, every line in it has to “do” something. If you’re not sure what the line is “doing” but you just like the way it sounds, it might be a darling. And as fun as they are for us to read, they fall flat for our audience and thus interfere with whatever else we are trying to communicate to them. Good writers become “good” by being ruthless in their determination of what really “works” on the page and what doesn’t.
But isn’t writing supposed to be fun? Do we have to be ruthless all the time? Darlings persist when there is ambivalence on the author’s part about who a piece of writing is for. If the story is akin to a diary entry, if it will only ever be read by you, then you can have as many darlings as you want. But if it’s for anyone else, then you have a duty as a writer to consider your audience’s expectations (often based on genre) and their desire for entertainment (this cuts across all genres.) As authors we certainly don’t want to pander to audiences, but we can’t afford to ignore them either. Your writing is the machinery that delivers your dreams, your ideas. Darlings are the pretty little flowers that get stuck between the gears.
Click here to read more about weeding out your darlings. This author has suggestions for how you can preserve them, to some degree, if you can’t quite bear to kill them entirely.
Have you ever killed a darling? How did it feel?
This post was contributed by Jeff Sanger, one of GCC’s English and CRW faculty. In addition to periodically contributing thoughtful posts like this, he is also planning to facilitate our first Saturday Morning Workshop for Fall 2018. That workshop will take place this weekend, September 8th, from 10AM to Noon on GCC Main. Read more about it here: Who Are Your Characters?