Being a Better Writer’s Summer of Cliche Writing Advice: Kill Your Darlings

Hello readers! We’re back with the fourth installment of Being a Better Writer‘s Summer of Cliche Writing Advice! Which, as this is installment number four, has some of you nodding and ready to move on, but if you’re checking in here for the first time, you might be asking “Wait, what?”

Never fear, here’s your explanation. Being a Better Writer is tackling all those oft-heard, cliche bits of writing advice this summer! That’s right, all those quick little tidbits new (or even established) writers hear from folks on Facebook, or Tumblr, or forums, or in person at a dinner. If you’re a writer, you’ve probably heard most of them. You sit down at a dinner you’ve been invited to, someone asks what you do, you say “Well, I’m an author—” and the next thing you know you’re being “advised” by people with sayings like “Well remember, there’s nothing new under the sun!”

Yeah, that kind of thing. Those easily remembered and repeated sayings that are tossed around like candy around authors. They’re everywhere. But … are they really that useful?

That’s the question the Summer of Cliche Writing Advice is here to answer! This summer, Being a Better Writer is tackling these common sayings one by one, breaking them down, examining what they say and what they mean … And whether or not that meaning is ultimately good, bad, or just neutral for writers.

Are you ready? Good. Because this week, we’ve got a classic spot of writing advice to break down. This week, we look at …

Kill your darlings.

You will hear this saying anywhere you poke your head in the writing world. Writing panel? You’ll hear this. College English course? You’ll hear it. Writing group? It’ll come up. Sands, this one comes up outside writing in other creative mediums. I read a whole segment on it in a book on game design and development.

Yeah, this one gets used a lot. And in a lot of different guises. I’ve seen it as “killing your babies,” or as “always kill your babies” (both of which sound hilariously dark but …) or any number of other variants of “destroy that which is important to you.”

Which, as you may surmise from that last line, is exactly what this saying is getting at. Destroy that which is important to you. Your darling. Your baby. Destroy it. Eliminate it.

Which sounds harsh and grim. Of course, there are strings attached, and yes, this is talking about writing and creative projects. We’re not talking about actual babies here. We’re talking metaphysical. We’re talking about a creation of time and effort that you love.

And we’re talking about killing it.

Okay, context time. The reason this saying is, well, a saying, is because writer’s love what they create. Really, any artist does! Even if sometimes their work causes frustration and nightmarish levels of annoyance, they still love it. Artists are dedicated to their work.

Sometimes … to an unhealthy degree. A degree that’s hard to gauge from outside a creative sphere that can just as easily become a bubble.

That bubble can keep your from seeing that what you’re working on can be taking up too much time, too much effort, to really be of worth. Because you love it. Despite the flaws. And you’re going to want to keep working on it.

Sometimes it’s not a work, but a part of a work. An idea, or a concept, or a scene. And you’re determined to make it work. It’s really cool, critical to the story … something. You throw yourself headlong at it.

But is it worth it?

That’s what “Kill your darlings” is really about: Asking yourself whether or not what a writer (or creator) is spending their time on with their project is worth it. Really worth it.

Then sometimes admitting that it’s not, and stepping away. “Killing” that project or part of it that you have so much passion for. The “darling” that you’ve spent so much time doting over because there’s a—

Actually, let me go full aside with this one: Killing your darlings is the writing version of “discover your sunk costs” and asking yourself if they’re going to pay off. A sunk cost, in business, is a cost spent on a project that will not be recoverable. The best example of this is time. If you spend twelve hours on something, you cannot get those hours back. So you, when gauging whether or not a project is worth it, you must count those hours as lost if you cancel the project, not recoverable, but then ask if continuing to spend them is worth the result.

“Is it worth it?” is the same question asked by the phrase “Kill your darlings.” How committed to this are you, and is it worth the effort you’re spending on it?

Because sometimes it is not. I’ve spent time on projects before where I have reached a point where I realize I’m simply throwing my hours at something that isn’t going to work in the end. Something that ultimately, no matter how much I want it to, won’t fit the rest of the book.

And I have to step back, take a deep breath, and kill it. For example, in the original draft of Colony, the characters of Jake and Anna were both older and—ready for a shocker?—married. Yeah, they were business partners and partners in a relationship. I wrote 50,000 words of that trying to make it work … but it wasn’t. No matter how much I wanted to. At that moment, yes, the characters were my darlings. But I knew that the current form wasn’t working. So rather than try to force it to work … I deleted 50,000 words and redesigned the characters of Jake and Anna.

Colony is a million times better for the choice of me “killing that darling.” The characters work better, the dynamic between them a lot more engaging. For reasons that I won’t go into here because that’s not the focus (though there are articles on that subject on the site).

So then, all this said … Is “Kill your darlings” good advice? Yes. Cliche as it may sound, it’s pretty good advice.

Doesn’t make it perfect, however. To it’s flaw, it doesn’t really address the most key area of the issue: How do you know?

Of course, it’s a saying. You can’t go into depth with just a few words. But, like many other commonly repeated sayings, that ease of remembering it also gives it the flaw of not being very specific.

“Kill your darlings.”

“What’s my darling?”

“I … don’t know. Only you know that.”

“Should I always kill them?”

” … Maybe?”

This exchange isn’t entirely fictitious, and highlights the problems with just saying “Kill your darlings.” Those that need it the most are usually newest, and by association aren’t the ones in the best position to know what to kill and what not to kill.

Worse, I have heard some—and yes, I will use this term—amateur authors follow it up with a blanket of “Yes, just kill everything. Whatever you’re working on sucks. You’ll thank me later.”

Those people are making the mistake of simply equating all time spent on something as “lost.” When it may not be. Sure, someone’s spending time on something, but that doesn’t mean that it’s bad. And even if it is, if the creator realizes this, they can learn and improve for their next project.

Which is where the challenge comes in. Is what you are working on going to have payoff in the long run that is worth the time you’re spending focusing on it? Or would you be better off cutting it and working on something else?

There’s no easy answer, unfortunately. Getting stuck on a project that becomes a death spiral is just as bad as constantly moving to new projects over and over and over again. Kill your darlings is a good bit of advice, but it also puts a bit of pressure on the recipient to judge for themselves whether or not their work is a darling that’s worth killing.

As far as whether or not your darling needs to be killed, well … That’s up to you. Sure, you can ask others to gain some additional perspective, but in the end it’s the call of the creator.

Like I said earlier, though, the creative sphere can be a creative bubble, and that bubble can really deflect criticism from others when we want it to. I’ve met new writers who kept working on a darling that should have been put out to pasture long ago because they simply couldn’t accept that it should have. They were too wrapped up in it.

Ultimately, this makes “Kill your darlings” good advice to give … but difficult advice to follow. There’s a lot of work that goes into deciding if a darling needs to be killed or not.

Okay, so end summary. Is “Kill your darlings” a good piece of advice? I would say that it is, but only with the stipulation of further explanation. Anything less than that comes off as confusing and can possibly hurt a young writer’s hopes of applying it.

Which makes it good advice, but not in short. Not with someone new. With experienced writers? Sure, it’s good advice every once and a while.

But for a new writer? If you can’t follow it up with a bit on figuring out what’s what, then you’re better not approaching it. There’s plenty of other advice out there to give in short bites they can use. Pick one of those instead.

And those of you that have heard this advice but never got the follow-up, hopefully you see it a bit more clearly now, and have some ideas for your own sphere.

So good luck! Now get writing.

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