3 reasons writers need to stop giving the advice “Kill Your Darlings”

I enjoy writing. In addition to this blog, I’ve written stories for friends (all unrequested, I assure you), long-winded emails to coworkers, and several short stories. I’ve been working on various novels off and on since I was a child, none of which have made it very far.

But I enjoy it a lot, and I’m always looking to improve. As such, I read a lot of writing manuals and advice columns, blog posts and interviews. So while I don’t have much experience being paid to be a published writer, I have lots of experience studying writing.

It’s this extensive experience that gives me three reasons why I’m asking everyone to stop giving the overused advice “Kill your darlings.”

1. They tend to get the message wrong.
Most people giving this advice take it from Stephen King’s book On Writing, though it’s mostly believed to have originated with William Faulkner. Here is the entire paragraph where it used in King’s work, notably as a parenthetical:

Mostly when I think of pacing, I go back to Elmore Leonard, who explained it so perfectly by saying he just left out the boring parts. This suggests cutting to speed the pace, and that’s what most of us end up having to do (kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings).

That paragraph is followed by stories of King getting rejected early without knowing how to fix it, until he got a note in a rejection slip saying his work wasn’t bad but was “puffy” and he had to revise for length. It included the formula “2nd Draft = 1st Draft – 10%” which for him was a game changer.

The point being that the darlings being killed–the clever or poetic writing that you love which you need to revise out of your work–should be taken out to make the pace better or the story clearer.

The advice I see usually talks more about taking out that beloved prose as a sort of badge of honor, something necessary in order to make it as a writer, rather than something to improve the pace of the writing.

This is bad advice to give out incorrectly.

This is bad advice to give out incorrectly.

2. Using it is hypocritical.
In the same words they’re telling you to take out turns of phrases you find so clever, they are using a phrase they cannot help but find clever. You’re a writer, for God’s sake. Be original.

If you want to say to take out flowery writing that detracts from the story, say “Deflower your prose.” How about “Expunge the extremities”?

Or go back to the composition Bible, The Elements of Style, and play off Strunk & White while following the directive you’re trying to give, with something like “Omit needless words, sentences, paragraphs, pages.”

Although I suppose even my heading for this point is off, since I’m not asking them to kill their darling, but rather someone else’s.

We're basically in a "Good Son" situation here.

We’re basically in a “Good Son” situation here.

3. They contradict their own advice.
Almost always, in the same point they are making about killing darlings, they let you know that another great piece of advice is to save those passages somewhere else. That way you have material that might fit in when you’re working on another piece!

This is good advice. If you have writing you like, it could spark a new idea, or just have some turns of phrase that won’t be a pacing problem somewhere else.

But it also means nothing’s getting killed, be they darlings or passing acquaintances. Might as well say “Kidnap your cuties.” Perhaps “Hogtie your sweeties.” Or even “Give your writing the Buffalo Bill treatment,” since you are trimming the fat from your writing (starving the chunky abducted girls), storing it in a safe place (keeping them in a basement hole), with the goal being to eventually use them in a different fashion (sewing a skin suit).

I’m pretty proud of that last one. Writers, you have my permission to use that in future advice articles.

It puts the phrasing in the trash bin or else it gets the hose again.

It puts the phrasing in the trash bin or else it gets the hose again.

Have a better way they could phrase it, or have another piece of advice you’re sick of hearing? Let me know in the comments.

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