Wednesday, February 27

How To Edit: Kill Your Darlings

When I started writing this post I fully intended to discuss Chuck Wendig's distinction between writing and storytelling and how to use this distinction to help diagnose problems in your manuscript. But then I fell down the rabbit hole of layer cakes and editordomes.

That's right. Editordomes.

In a soon-to-be-written post I do fully intend to talk about writing versus storytelling--a distinction I've wanted to talk about for some time--but for now I'm going to talk (or, rather, write) about how to identify darlings and then massacre them.

Kill Your Darlings

What is a darling? It's something that exists in your manuscript only because you love it. Or, to put it another way, if something is in your manuscript, your story, only because you love it then it's a darling and needs to go. (1)

Simply put, a darling "doesn't connect. It doesn't bond with the rest of the manuscript." (1)
A true “darling” is a lone wolf, a ronin ninja, a pretty little unibomber, a delicate snowflake. It does nothing for your work. It dances alone with itself in the corner, and you don’t have the heart to tell it that it needs to join the rest of the crowd or drink a capful of drain cleaner. (1)
Okay, that's how a darling functions, or fails to function, in your manuscript, but what is it? Chuck writes: "Darlings can be anything: a turn-of-phrase, a character, a word, a grammatical crutch (1)".

The test: how to determine if something is a darling

Here's the question you should ask yourself: If you cut out this bit of text does the story loose anything? Chuck writes:
Theatrically kill it. ... You’re just… taking it out of the draft for a little while to see how it reads, how it feels, how it lays. Copy the offending section. Paste it into a blank document. Let it sit there on its own ... Come back after fifteen minutes (or, up to a whole day if you’re able). Now, check out the draft once more. Re-read it. Read it aloud. (Always read aloud. I will jackhammer that into your brain as often as I can.) Do you feel that it lays fine the way it is? Or do you say, “Y’know what? This is missing a little something-something. Needs more salt and pepper.”

If it’s okay without it — and I’ll bet 7 times out of 10 it will be — then the darling you’ve sequestered on its own is no longer on vacation, but now trapped in a Murder Room. Close that open window and let it die a swift death.

If you think it needs more spice, more flavor, put it back in. “Kill your darlings” is not meant to be a surly screed against flavor. Flavor is good, as long as flavor accompanies nutritional value. Again, to go back to the empty calories metaphor: darlings are garnish for the sake of garnish, or sweets just because you want sweets. (1)

Weak Words: An Example Of A Darling That Has To Go

In Strangling My Darlings In A Clawfoot Bathtub (Part Two Of Two) Chuck gives examples of darlings. It's well worth the read, but I want to talk about one of his examples here because this is something I still battle with: the use of weak words or as Chuck writes: "mushy, weak, wobbly words".
Maybe, actually, really, almost, sort of, kind of, very, theoretically, mehh, meeeehhhhhh.

You want your writing to sound conversational.

But you don’t want it to sound like uncertain conversation. You don’t want it weak-in-the-knees. (2)
That doesn't mean weak words always make your prose boring, in fact you might think they lend it flair. Chuck concedes this, to a point.
They’re not terrible in total, and some can lend to a stylistic flair, but it’s often too easy to default to that as your excuse. “My writing doesn’t suck. It’s just my style.”

Well, fine. Then your style involves copious amounts of sucking. (2)

How We Can Drown Darlings Without Drama

Be in the right state of mind

You need to let your manuscript go. Yes, you have invested a lot of yourself in its pages, into the story, but now it's time to let it go, to disassociate yourself from it. It is not you. Keep saying that until you believe it.

I love the way Chuck puts this: "You are not the sum of those pages." (1)

How does one distance oneself from ones litterary offspring? Put your manuscript in a drawer, close the drawer and walk away. Chuck advises taking at least a month off, Stephen King recommends six weeks. Don't even open the drawer. Forget about the manuscript. Wipe it from your mind as much as possible. You want to come back to it with new eyes and edit it as though it were someone else's work. That's the kind of objectivity you'll need.

Read Everything Aloud

I don't do this but I know I should ... and now that I've read Chuck's posts I think I will. He writes:
You do that [read aloud], you will hear all the fits and starts, all the awkward language, all the broken pauses, all the disturbed rhythms. Typing is not like speaking — we have the extra step of having our fingers do their little fingery dance. As such, you need to bridge that gap. (3)
Have you ever read your manuscript aloud? Have you ever had your manuscript read to you?


1. Strangling My Darlings In A Clawfoot Bathtub (Part One Of Two)
2. Strangling My Darlings In A Clawfoot Bathtub (Part Two Of Two)
3. Welcome To Editordome

Other articles you might like:

- Chuck Wendig Says That Editing Is Writing
- Looking At Plot: Urban Myths And What They Teach Us
- Monsignor Ronald Knox's 10 Rules Of Detective Fiction

Photo credit: "A peticiĆ³n de Fran." by www dot jordiarmengol dot net (Xip) under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.


  1. Yes. Reading out loud is very important. But you're not always into it. With what I discovered on my own skin, if I feel tired or my head is not in the mood for editing/revising, then my productivity and efficiency suffer. That means errors will go by unnoticed.
    I'd love if I could clone myself. One would do the reading, the other would do the listening, and the polishing process would be far more efficient and speedy.
    Currently, I'm in stage 3 of editing and revising, lol. Mostly it will consist of editing alone, but with ebooks, revising is NEVER done. My goal is to finish with this stuff and with promotional efforts by the end of March. After that I need to devote my undivided attention to writing the draft for the second OHAL book.
    On a side note, to those readers complaining of indie books being littered with grammar errors and typos. Dudes, please bear in mind several factors:
    1- Thinking a sentence and writing it are 2 different things. In one moment you want it to sound like xyz, but then your head tells you to change the order of the words because it will sound better, so you go xzy. Thus, a grammar error is born. You overlooked it.
    2- An indie author, most of the time, won't have money for a professional editor. So he or she will handle that alone or call in some friends to assist.
    3- Not all indie authors have english as their native tongue. And lets face it, there are many of our fellow citizens, regardless of your country, who can't write correctly. Don't turn them into outcasts, don't treat them as inferior. Try to maintain all empathy channels opened.
    4- ALL major game studios and game publishers launch INCOMPLETE games, filled with bugs. Then they try to pull milking tactics on their fans/consumers with stuff like: prelaunch DLC, or second day postlaunch DLC. While at the same time kill all features such as LAN, and impose DRM to limit your freedoms as a player, and in order to milk you some more for online/multiplayer experience. Indie authors, from what I've seen, don't practice milking tactics. Most of them don't support DRM. And they practice low prices. If major games, which have billions of dollars behind them are allowed to issue bugged games, and resolve the issues postlaunch via patches, then why not apply the same leniency toward indie authors? They will upload revised versions of the book, which people can download for free, if they bought the book in the past.
    5- Most of the times, indie authors have to do the research for their book, write their book, do their own marketing and promotion, do their own editing, handle a job or two or three, handle the husband/wife and the kids and the pets etc.
    6- If you see an indie author who behaves like an ahole, do him a favor and ignore him. We should all practice the ritual of politeness, like Confucius prescribed. Much of the suffering of mankind stems from the fact that people cannot struggle politely.

    1. "with ebooks, revising is NEVER done"

      (sigh) How true!

      When I'm tired I sometimes use a text-to-speech program but, you're right, if one isn't in the right mindset one doesn't catch the errors.

      "My goal is to finish with this stuff and with promotional efforts by the end of March."

      Best of luck! (Not that you need it, of course.)

      Good points all, I especially liked (4), I hadn't thought of it before, but that's very true. As a gamer I've come to expect a just-launched game to be buggy.

      "If you see an indie author who behaves like an ahole, do him a favor and ignore him. We should all practice the ritual of politeness"


      Thanks for your comment!

  2. I went through my story once out loud, but I still found that I missed things that were too wordy (or I'd lapse into reading silently without realizing it) because that's the way I speak so that's the way I type and I can talk like that without it slowing me down. It did help and I found a nice program online that has been helping me. It helps me catch all those words I really don't want in there and its free, which is a bonus.

    1. Hi Danielle! Yes, reading out loud is no guarantee. I often use a text-to-speech program to help me catch mistakes but I ALWAYS miss things my beta readers catch. Usually I look at the mistakes they point out and I think: How could I possibly have not seen that? Not _heard_ it?!

    2. It's as natural as it can get. And it's common to really really smart people as well, I'm not one of them. But I talked with them, and they said the same thing. Man, are you kidding me? I went through that chapter several times. How did I miss that?
      That being said, I will NEVER understand grammar nazis (people who point out typos in a trollish manner).


Because of the number of bots leaving spam I had to prevent anonymous posting. My apologies. I do appreciate each and every comment.