A Writer’s Resolution: I Shall Not Kill My Darlings

2013 is coming to an end. At this time of year it is customary to make some kind of New Year’s resolution. I usually don’t make such resolutions but this year I will. My New Year’s resolution for 2014 will be that I, when I write, will not kill my darlings. I will dismember them.

One of the most common pieces of advice hurled at any kind of writer is that you should Kill Your Darlings. This means that you should not be afraid to cut passages out of your text that don’t work. “Work” means here a passage that does not forward the narrative, is repetitive or redundant. These passages can consist of specific scenes or even chapters. Sometimes it is a character that needs to be removed.

As the name indicates, to Kill Your Darlings can be very painful. Removing a piece of the art you have created can be the equivalent of stabbing yourself in the heart.

Some of this pain comes from the fact that the phrase tells you to “kill” something you love. When something is killed it is removed as a living being from the realm of human consciousness. Therefore, it seems as if the phrase tells us that what you remove from your text cannot be used again.

What the phrase refers to is the editing process. The editing process is something that all writers do to improve their writing. When we edit, we take the text we have written, and we pick it apart to see what works and what does not. The parts that don’t work, we take out.

But when we edit, we don’t kill. We dismember.

If we were to discard completely the piece of writing that we just removed then we would be killing a darling. But we don’t. We keep it. We use it for the part of the backstory that will never be published, but that we need to know to be able to tell the story. We use it as the starting point for another story. We give it to fellow writers as writing prompts.

If we were actually to kill the piece of art that for the moment does not fit in, we would be doing ourselves a disservice. It would be a waste of time and effort and the world would perhaps we robbed of a profound experience.

Like Dr. Frankenstein we take the severed body part and put it in a jar of formaldehyde solution for future use when we create our next monster.

In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.