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Old 07-16-2017, 08:56 AM   #1
gmw
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Don't kill your darlings, just don't play favourites.

"Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it—whole-heartedly—and delete it before sending your manuscript to press. Murder your darlings." (1916) Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch (source)

This isn't so bad because it is quite specific. In here the advice is obviously in reference to an attempt at writing something deliberately stylistic. (I immediately thought of King and Straub's opening to Black House, which is curious considering what comes below.)


"In writing, you must kill all your darlings." (Goodreads version)
or “In writing, you must kill your darlings.” (UrbanDictionary version)
- William Faulkner (1919-1962)

What follows is not really having a go at William Faulkner, I don't have the full context for the quote, so let's give him the benefit of the doubt. I am having a go at the blithe use made of the quote on modern author-advice blogs.

The advice is trite and fatuous, even - perhaps especially - on a surface level. A literal interpretation (with regard to writing) of "kill all your darlings" tells me to go through my writing and find all the passages I like best and delete them. What rubbish!

This link notes similar advice coming from to Hemingway and Stephen King, and interprets it as meaning "Stop writing for your ego, unless your ego's buying the book."

First, it's a little odd getting this advice from Stephen baseball-essay-in-my-short-story-collection King. (Hey, I like King, I really do, and since I'm not a baseball fan perhaps finding such an essay in a horror story collection could be deemed appropriate - aaahhhh! - sure scared the crap out of me.)

Second, "don't write for your ego" is good advice, so if that's what they mean why not say it? Advice should not be cryptic. Also, the chances are that if you're writing for your ego then killing all your darlings is not going to leave you with much - so just don't do that, okay?

"kill your darlings" is one of those phrases that should have been killed a long time ago.


The much better advice is almost as brief, if not quite so dramatic:

Do not play favourites

Expanded, that means: Review your favourite passages with the same dispassionate eye as you review the rest of your work. If you do that then there should be absolutely no reason single out your "darlings" for annihilation.

It is possible that writers will enjoy writing some passages so much they will get carried away and write more than they should. Such passages may be due more than average trimming, and these will be found if you don't play favourites.

But, equally, sometimes you especially like some of what you wrote because it works so well! Yes, by all means question whether it really does work - just as you would any other passage - but don't delete them just because you like them. Sheesh!

Last edited by gmw; 07-16-2017 at 08:59 AM.
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Old 07-16-2017, 11:56 AM   #2
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I agree with you in principle and in general. We must never generalize.-) I think it's possible to apply the same logic to the quote from Quiller-Couch. Even by itself and out of whatever context it might have had, I think it's possible to see that he was talking about indulging one's cleverness. Such bits always stand out in a story like a cherry on mashed potatoes. <like that, see?) Like you, I think it's okay to keep the ones that show up as a natural part of the work, like gravy. (someone stop me!)

Anyway, thanks for the thought provoking piece.
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Old 07-16-2017, 03:15 PM   #3
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Good post.

Where "kill your darlings" does have some merit is when you have a section that you know isn't working. If it contains a 'darling' that may well be the place to start.

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Old 07-16-2017, 05:27 PM   #4
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Some authors need to kill at least have their darling adjectives and adverbs.
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Old 07-17-2017, 08:19 AM   #5
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arjaybe, I might have been inclined to agree that even the out of context quote should be understandable if it wasn't for the evidence of the 'net, where everyone is busy making up their own interpretations (including me ). I actually think that the "stop writing for your ego" explanation is probably the best match for what I think Faulkner meant (I assume he was paraphrasing Quiller-Couch). I think it probably qualifies as ironic: if he'd just said what he meant everything would be fine and everyone would understand, but because he was being clever with his words, misunderstanding abounds.

graham, it is probably true enough that if you've left something behind where it is noticeable you were trying to be clever then it should be given a stern looking at ... but I have my doubts (based on my own experience) that these happen any more often than all those places where I've just been ordinarily stupid.

cinisaoy, I generally consider adjectives and adverbs a separate topic, although I have seen instances where it appears the author was trying to be clever with their adverbs.


It may just be that I've seen one too many Amway presentations or something, but little meaningless or misleading phrases like "kill your darlings" offend me. (In case you hadn't noticed.)
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Old 07-17-2017, 10:56 AM   #6
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Gmw, I do agree the phrase is very misused.
If I had to interpret that statement, I would take it to mean "don't get to attached to your writing".
I had always heard it as "don't be afraid to kill your darlings".

*editing to add someone using the word ALL in almost any context offends me.
I do get cantankerous about that one.
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Old 07-17-2017, 09:02 PM   #7
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As I've mentioned on a previous thread, getting attached the words once they appear on the page is something I have struggled with - and still do. So the advice not to get too attached hits pretty close to home.

In that sense my current project has been an interesting, and often frustrating, experience. Great chunks have been completely discarded, and a big part of the start has been through about three rewrite iterations as the story changed character underneath me. But one disquieting result of this is that I find it even more difficult to decide whether what I have is good enough (if it's so easily changed, why not keep changing). So it's the "too" part in "don't get too attached" that causes the most difficulty - because, at some point, you have to get attached enough to be content with what you have.
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