How to Murder Your Darlings

A few weeks ago I had a great idea for a blog post and wrote the whole first draft. Then I rewrote it, edited it—edited it again. And then I waited a few days and re-read my work. Finally, I dragged the whole document into the trash folder and wiped it off the face of the earth. When you’ve invested creative energy in something, it’s hard to destroy it. But after discarding my attempted post, I breathed a sigh of relief. That draft may have been a darling, but it was one I needed to kill.

Many writers will have heard the sage advice from Arthur Quiller-Couch to “murder your darlings,” but a pithy quote is one thing, and applying it is another. After agonizing over ideas, sorting through syntax, and rummaging through word choices, it can feel like a lot of wasted time and energy to give up on a piece of writing. A writer’s natural inclination is to hang on to each precious sentence for dear life. But sometimes the kindest thing you can do for your words—and readers—is to cut the rope.

So how do you identify these death-row darlings? You don’t want to spare the lives of so many that your words drown in a sea of swill. But you also want to avoid murderous rampages that kill off every sentence you write and leave you with a blank page. To help sort the trash from the treasure, here are some tips for managing your darlings:

If it’s only serving your ego, let it go. Are you trying that fancy new vocab word on for size? Did you include a joke or an anecdote solely to prove how clever you are? If it’s not moving the point or the plot forward, it’s best to leave it behind. No one likes a show-off.

Your gut gets it. If you find yourself pausing on a particular sentence or word on every re-read, chances are it doesn’t belong. Trust your intuition and try deleting it entirely. When in doubt, cut it out. Sometimes a blank slate will help you find the right words.

Cut by 25 percent. When I’m writing a magazine article, I’ll often finish a draft and realize I’m way over the assigned word count. The process of trimming so much content can be tedious, but it’s an effective way to weed out unnecessary text. I’ve learned so much from this process that I try to apply it to every piece I write—regardless of word limit—by cutting the word count down by at least a quarter.

Your editor is your friend. It can be hard to let an objective third party read your work. After biased praise from friends and family, seeing that first piece of unvarnished constructive criticism can feel like an arrow through the heart. But suggested cuts should be seriously considered, since an editor is trying to help, not hinder, your writing. Think of an editor as your hired assassin. She’s doing the dirty work for you, and you get to sit back and watch the darlings disappear.

Tend a graveyard. If it’s just too hard to sever all ties with your darlings, you can pay your respects by burying them in a graveyard. Add darlings to a document that you save somewhere, and access them any time you need extra inspiration or confirmation that you were right to kill them when you had the chance. You might feel better knowing they’re not lost forever.