Killing Your Darlings is Not Enough

Today’s guest is Gabriela Pereira. Gabriela is the Creative Director and Founder of DIY MFA, the do-it-yourself alternative to a Masters Degree in writing. Gabriela creates tools and techniques for the serious writer so they can get the “knowledge without the college.” She earned an MFA in Writing from The New School and has taught at several organizations throughout New York City, including 826NYC, Everybody Wins and the East Harlem Tutorial Program.

Gabriela says, “The unfortunate reality is that most writers who want to do a traditional MFA, can’t. DIY MFA dedicated to helping these writers fit their writing into already busy lives. We develop tips and techniques to help ALL writers get the benefits of an MFA-style education without depending exclusively on school to get it.

We believe writing belongs to everyone–that every writer deserves the chance to learn the skills they need to tell their story and put their words on the page.”

To learn more, visit DIYMFA.com. You can follow DIYMFA on Twitter and their Facebook page.

Happy Easter, WU!

At some point in your life as a writer, you’ve probably had someone tell you to “kill your darlings.” In fact, this phrase is used so often in writing groups and workshops that—like its cousin “show, don’t tell”—”kill your darlings” has become one of the favorite clichés of the critique repertoire.

But do we really understand what “kill your darlings” means? As with most things in life, there’s an easy interpretation and we would all like that to be the end of the story. But if we look closely, we’ll find another interpretation lurking underneath, one that forces us to question who we are as writers.

The most obvious interpretation of kill your darlings is to consider it literally: you, the author, kill off a character who is particularly precious to you. On the other hand, some writers prefer to interpret “kill your darlings” a bit more loosely.

Rather than limiting the murder of darlings simply to beloved characters, a writer must also squelch all fancy turns of phrase and extricate every vanity moment from his or her story. The idea is that while creativity and stylistic exuberance might be great in the rough-draft stage, it’s not enough. For a work to reach its final glory, the writer must obliterate any part that is too fancy, too pretty or too clever for its own good. 

Many scholars have been credited with the “kill your darlings” concept, but regardless of who said what and when, it’s all the same message. If you love something in your writing, it must go. 

Killing Your Darlings is Not Enough

With all due respect to these brilliant literary minds, but I think their interpretation is shallow and lazy. They start out making a good point, but stop before getting to the emotional core. They say “kill your darlings” as though it’s supposed to be a statement about the writing. They tell us to rip out the over-sparkly words and phrases lest we blind our readers from the rest of the story.

Yet, by interpreting “kill your darlings” in this way, these scholars are actually treating the phrase as though it’s a darling itself. They’re so wrapped up in their own cleverness that they seem to ignore what really matters. “Kill your darlings” is not a statement about writing, or editing, or even the words on the page. It’s a statement about the writer.

According to these scholars, this is nothing more than an intellectual exercise. It’s the heartless, calculated murder of darlings, nothing more. But if we dig into what this advice means to us as writers, it’s not the about the slaughter of innocent words and phrases.

“Kill Your Darlings” is about sacrifice. 

“Kill Your Darlings” In the Biblical Sense 

If we dig into the history of literature, we’ll find one of the earliest accounts of darling-cide in the Old Testament book of Genesis. It is the story of Abraham and Isaac.

Abraham desperately wants a child but he and his wife, Sarah, cannot conceive. When he and his wife finally have a son, the boy turns out to be a darling in every sense of the word. God decides to test Abraham’s dedication by asking him to kill his son. No matter what Abraham decides to do, he will lose. If he does as God says he loses his son, but if refuses he will be defying God. How is Abraham to choose between the son he loves most in the world and his God?

The answer: he has faith.

“Kill Your Darlings” Is an Act of Faith

The point of the Abraham and Isaac story isn’t the sacrifice itself, but Abraham’s willingness to make that sacrifice. Spoiler alert: Abraham doesn’t actually kill Isaac. God sends an angel to stop him just in time. Abraham has faith that God knows what he’s doing and in the end, things work out for the best.

“Kill your darlings” works much in the same way. The idea isn’t that you actually go through with it but that you scrutinize every chapter, every paragraph, every sentence, and be willing to sacrifice those darlings if that is what’s best for your book.

Many times, we writers are afraid to kill our darlings because deep down we believe these darlings are the best we can do. After all, if we throw out every single darling word then we run the risk of being left with nothing except a blank page.

This is where faith comes in.

We must believe that the best is still in us, that if we sacrifice those darlings, it opens up room on the page for something better. Killing our darlings is an act of faith. Faith in our writing, our process and ourselves. Faith that our best writing is yet to come.

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Comments

  1. says

    LOVE your approach, Gabriella. To highlight the ‘willingness’ is subtle yet profound. Willingness leads to focus and introspection as to what is essential and non-essential in a down-and-dirty edit. What can be sacrificed and what should not be. Self-imposed feet-to-the-fire. Gutsy stuff.

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  2. says

    Ouch! I’m a fan of stripped-down prose, and even using dialogue to serve the purpose of traditional prose. But I also think I know a good piece of narrative or descriptive prose when I see it; think Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath or Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom. Following the advice of this column. Grapes of Wrath is a road trip!

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  3. says

    Self-editing can be brutal. Reading through yesterday’s writing with the fresh eyes of today is an out of body experience. You start agreeing with your rejection letters. Finding the right words to express your story is the challenge of all writers.

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  4. says

    Thank you, Gabriela, for looking deeper and seeing the reason for the darling-cide we have to be willing to do. This make more sense than the knee-jerk phrase we’ve all heard.

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  5. Carmel says

    Some wise person on WU said that everything must serve the story. If a darling serves, leave it. If it doesn’t, kill it.

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  6. says

    Good interpretation. Both faith AND scrutiny are vital. Deeply considering the terrible choice may be what leads us to something better.

    As your example suggests, Abraham’s struggle is the interesting stuff, and if we are too busy playing God as novelists, we may miss it.

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  7. says

    It makes me cringe every time I hear “Kill your darlings.” There’s way too much writing advice that’s more detrimental than helpful, and writers often interpret them as rules to be obeyed. Yes, writers can have trouble editing, but sometimes it’s not because they’re attached to the specific words, but that they don’t know how to edit.

    Kill your darlings presents itself as being black and white, and it really isn’t black and white at all.

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  8. says

    The more books I write, the shorter they become when I begin my serious editing *laugh* My delete key becomes a great good friend instead of a hated devilish thang.

    Because I recognized/realized that I don’t need this that the other, and if I take out this that the other the book is still good, the book still says what I want it to, the characters are still going about their business, and the reader will still understand/know what’s going on but with fewer explanations/words from the author — so, to me, Killing Darlings means: The reader will forget about me, the author.

    When I insert myself – if I were to try to “show off, something I know or have learned,” or if I were to rant about something that’s personal TO ME and not to the character, if I were to try to explain something to the reader instead of them figuring it out on their own, then that’s the darlings. :D

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  9. says

    “Killing your Darlings” I like that phrase. It’s the first time I’ve heard it. Thank you for sharing, I’ll add this to my educational library.

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  10. says

    I love the way you put such a tired and assuming phrase under the microscope in this post. Too often, we writers are pushed to be brutal in our editing to the point where our “darling” has become a piece of meat on the butcher block, devoid of the beauty that drew us to it in the first place. Your distinction between the willingness to sacrifice and the sacrifice itself is such an important point. Thanks for bolstering my faith.

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  11. says

    It’s funny– by the end of the article, the phrase ‘kill your darlings’ seemed to have lost all meaning. Which, come to think of it, is what it’s turned into these days.

    When you meet a new critique partner, you’ll always hear them say stuff like “take a weed whacker to my story” or “attack it with a machete”. I know it’s tongue in cheek, but that kind of language carries with it a kind of self-loathing. Like they don’t believe it can be good– so why should I?

    It’s why I like the Abraham-and-Issac metaphor. There’s love there. There’s the desire to see it develop and grow and shine. And I think writers need to have that if they want to succeed.

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  12. Jen Cohen says

    The nuance of being willing is an importance component. What we cling to as writers is often what limits us. The idea that the best is only revealed when we clear out the noise is essential to bringing new and fresh work into the world.

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  13. says

    I absolutely adore this post, and completely agree with you. Yes, I agree with the sense that some things should be cut out. I draw a line with sparkly vampires, but I consider my every page my darling, every twist in the plot to be my children, so why must I kill them all? It seems counterproductive. And using Abraham as an example is brilliant! Thank you for this enlightening post!

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  14. says

    Thank you, Gabriella. Always refreshing to see such thoughtfulness and I appreciate any discussion of the faith required to be a writer. Faith in oneself, no less.

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  15. says

    Thank you so much for the lovely comments and feedback.

    I’d like to reiterate one point that was made a few times in the comments: the role of Love in “killing your darlings.” Part of what makes the Abraham-Isaac story resonate so much is the love between father and son, which in some ways can be like the love between author and the words we craft and characters we create. That’s what makes “killing one’s darlings” so hard and so important. It isn’t just some emotionless exercise. There’s love there and the love is what sets the scene for sacrifice. “Killing our darlings” wouldn’t be as significant or meaningful if it were easy.

    Which raises another question: is there something wrong with us if we DON’T want to kill our darlings? Does that make us narcissistic? Too hung up on our own words to see which darlings needto be cut out? Or perhaps we’re just too lazy to bother with killing any darlings at all?

    These questions were part of what led me to write this article and arrive at the conclusion I did. I’m so thrilled and honored (and also relieved) that this post resonated with so many other writers. At the very least, it means I’m not alone. :)

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    • says

      Nah, there is nothing wrong with not wanting to “Kill your Darlings”. It wouldn’t be a darling if you wanted to kill it.

      Awesome follow up comment

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  16. says

    I am here from Jon Gibbs’s livejournal, and i just wanted to thank you for a beautiful blog post. I had not thought of the story of Abraham and Isaac that way before! Very inspirational and wise.

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  17. Rachel Thompson says

    It comes down to this: serve the story first, not your ego. Yeah its another cliche but one that states the reason one should cut like an ax murderer.

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Trackbacks

  1. […] your darlings.” Gabriela Pereira (@DIYMFA) writes on Writer Unboxed that Killing Your Darlings in Not Enough! What does she mean? Not to just kill off a favorite character, or to delete too-darling writing, […]

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