Monday, February 13, 2012

How to Kill Your Darlings


Well, I did it.  It wasn't easy and I didn't feel great about it at first.  But I did it.  I committed murder this weekend.  That is saying that while revising my latest picture book manuscript, I "killed some of my darlings".

The phrase was first coined by William Faulkner who said, "In writing, you must kill your darlings."  Stephen King followed up by saying, “kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings” in his book On Writing.  But what exactly does this mean?

Basically, this phrase is referring to those parts of our manuscript that we have simply fallen in love with but are no longer needed for the story and can perhaps even be distracting to the reader.  It can be a character, a phrase, an image, a joke, etc.  As writers, we feel maternal towards these "darlings", but once a manuscript has grown these items might need to be pruned.

I had a few of these darlings in my latest manuscript.  One was the opening line.  Although I thought it was a fine opening line, the rest of the story did not convey the same feel or voice. 

The other darling was an event in my story that framed the main event.  When it came right down to it, I had to kill it.  I was sad.  I really liked this framing, but as the story was fleshed out, I realized it was no longer needed.

Perhaps you have some darlings in your manuscripts.  You might know they should go, but you don't know how to do it.  You might have your knife positioned to kill, but there is something inside you that won't let you delete this text. does one kill a darling?  Here are 5 tips.

1)  Use the strike through tool.  Do not delete entirely.  This allows you to still be able to see the text, but work around it in a new way.  Plus, it is always nice to know that you can "go back" if you regret your murderous ways.  :) 

2)   Use footnotes.  This gives you a place to gather all of the darlings, if you cannot quite pull the trigger yet.  They aren't far, so you can always pull them back up into the manuscript if you decide to resurrect them.

3)  Place them in a "graveyard" document.  Sometimes placing your darlings in a separate document helps you rid them from the current manuscript, yet know you can retrieve them for something else later, should you want.  Perhaps they can be placed in another story, if they were that good.  Others' you might be ready to fully kill at a later date. 

4)  Slash or pull them off like a band-aid.  Sometimes the only way to get rid of a stubborn darling is to completely delete it.  Highlight the text, push the delete button and then walk away.  Take a deep breath.  It will only hurt for a minute.

5)  Start a whole new version of the manuscript without your darling.  Basically, as the Girl Scouts used to say, "Make new friends, but keep the old."  Therefore, that older version is there if you want it. 

Chances are, you will not ever resurrect a murdered darling.  But hopefully these tips will help you do the deed when the time comes.

Happy Writing Revising!


  1. Good advice. Killing your darlings is always murderously difficult :)

  2. Nice tips on how to kill, but maybe hold onto it a little until you can really kill it.

  3. Thanks for these tips. As I'm revising one of my manuscripts, I've started worrying about deleting something I might need later. I like the idea of starting a whole new manuscript and labeling them rev1, rev2 and so on.

    1. In that case you can keep that part in another file and you can recover and modify it if it's necessary. I had to resurrect a darling once because the story itself needed that part. I just had to edit some parts to make it fit with the story

  4. I like your strike through idea. Haven't tried doing that. I keep every revision of my story anyway, as it helps me see that I am progressing as a writer.
    Thanks for the post!

  5. I recently did number 5) Start a whole new version of the manuscript without your darling. I killed my darling and the whole story but kept the concept. As much as I liked the old version, I loved the new storyline, but it didn't come easily or quickly. I had to put it away for a while.

  6. Thanks for sharing with us Marcie. Very helpful stuff. I'm going to start using the strike through. I use five a lot.

  7. Fantastic advice, Marcie! I usually do a version of number 2; I'll cut and paste it to the end of my document--kind of like a security blanket. I rarely end up putting it back in again, but I know it's there.

  8. Why are the best lines always irrelevant? I really need help letting them go. Thanks for the tips.

  9. The problem is: how can you understand if something works? Usually i make the question test. For example at every sentence i write (in red) a question about the content of the sentence, usually 'why', but somethime even complex sentence. If i can't answer, i underline the part and i remove it lately. In this way i'm sure i will leave the necessary for the story.

    Once i killed a part i believe it was a darling because i had fun to write it, but later i noticed that the story needed it, so i recovered that part and i changed it a bit.

    now there is a character i like in a story i'm writing. I tried to imagine the story without him, but at certain point the story seems forced (without him). I'll try to write a version with him later and i will see what will happen.

  10. Great advice. Just when I was looking for it. Thanks for writing it :)