Revision Tip: Kill Your Darlings

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You might have heard of the revision tip: kill your darlings. What does that even mean? And, must you do it? When it comes to the all-important skill of revising your own writing, killing your darlings (aka, favorite parts of your story that aren’t serving it) is something to consider. Read on to find out when it’s relevant and how to do it.

What does “kill your darlings” mean?

Kill your darlings means that you hit “delete” on a favorite scene, character, or event in your novel. It might be your favorite piece of dialogue or the funniest moment or comedy relief character. It could be the protagonist’s relationship with her mother or flashback to a childhood experience. Maybe, in the original conception of the story, you came up with an awesome idea that doesn’t make as much sense now as it did then. Sometimes, a great idea just…doesn’t quite fit. Still, you find it hard to delete it because you love it so much. This is your darling. As tough as it sounds, sometimes you’ve got to kill it because doing so will make your manuscript stronger.

How can something so wonderful need killing?

Errors or dead ends are easy to “kill” (aka, delete) because they’re not that great. It doesn’t hurt to remove the problem. The difficult part is to cut out the parts you like. However, you must do it if it doesn’t serve your story. In fact, a darling can be considered any scene or character not crucial for the unfolding of the narrative. If your book can live without it…maybe it should.

Is it a darling or am I just stuck?

Getting “stuck” is one of the hardest and most common problems that confront writers. Where do I go next? What happens now? What should I say? If you have a scene or a character you enjoy writing but doesn’t seem to fit with the tone or flow of the story, often that’s a sign that it should go.

The nice thing about most of us writing on computers (as opposed to long hand in the past) is that it’s easy to move around chapters and paragraphs. You also don’t need to actually delete anything either—not until you’re sure you’re okay getting rid of it forever.

When I suspect I no longer need part of my novel, but I’m not entirely convinced, I’ll just highlight it with black so it looks redacted. When I review the chapter or scene, I’ll read it without those words and see if it works better that way. It makes me feel good to know I can change my mind. I’ll also sometimes cut and paste it to the end of the novel or in a separate Word document, so that I can replace it later if I want. (I rarely do.)

When to kill darlings?

Killing darlings is best left to the revision stage. Some of us revise after a whole draft is complete. Others revise each morning before writing anew. Either and all are fine, however, knocking out whole chapters or big scenes or characters is often best done once you have a draft. Reading the whole thing will often give you the perspective you need to parse the wheat from the chaff. Happy revising!

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About Author

Mary is a young adult writer and archaeologist. By day she teaches at a local college, and by night she writes about the adventures of adolescence.

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