Monday, January 21, 2013

How to Kill Your Darlings and Make the Rest of Your Manuscript Sing


Has this ever happened to you? Do you love words so much that sometimes you read and reread sections of your WIP just to spend time with your words and to have all the feels about your words? After all, you wrote them, right? And you should feel proud and special about that accomplishment.

So, why isn't everyone else just as jazzed about your manuscript, your words, your opus to literature? They must not be able to recognize your greatness, your secured spot as a bestseller, as a work that should be studied in schools and memorized by all. They'll come around. You can forgive them their oversight. You're so above it all. Right?

I could be exaggerating just a tad. My point is, writers love their words and find it hard to let them go, or be objective when editing said words, and that brings me to today's blog post on the revision process. Here are a few quotes to get us started:

"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."
- Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch

"In writing, you must kill all your darlings." - William Faulkner

“Revision means throwing out the boring crap and making what’s left sound natural.” - Laurie Halse Anderson

Blog Disclaimer: I am not an expert, but am a writer blogging about the process and sharing what I've learned along the way. If you'd like expert knowledge on the subject, check out these great blogs:
  1. "How (and When!) to Kill Your Darlings"
  2. On the Advice to, "Kill Your Darlings"
  3. Flip the Script: What To Do With Your Darlings
  4. Why You Should Kill Your Darlings <--Great examples in this one!
  5. Writing Rules Misapplied: Kill Your Darlings
  6. How Chuck Wendig Edits A Novel (for an overall good laugh...that's right, stop taking yourself so seriously!)


I've just completed a fresh round of edits and I'm in the afterglow of what I've learned this time around the manuscript. When I first wrote this manuscript, D1 (Draft One) came in at around 73K. Subsequent rounds of edits, revisions, and additional writing (fleshing out characters, story arcs, underlying themes, and PACING) fattened this MS to 93K. That's 20,000 words, people!

I've just finished D13 cover to cover revision and felt that the pacing was sloggish at 84K (I've been hacking away at that ridiculous word count), and I was determined to KILL ALL THE DARLINGS this round to let the story breathe and keep the reader turning pages. It's now a slim 78K, and I'm happy with the balance between depth and pacing. That's 6,000 slain darlings (15K total slain words).

The thought occurred to me: If my darlings are getting in the way of my reader connecting to the story, and more importantly, staying with it, I'd be better off chopping the words that are holding the story back. I've worked too hard on this to have the reader give up in the first 1/3 or middle 1/3 of the story. I want them to reach the climax and learn the big secret. I want them to journey with Joel, my MC, to face his darkest places, and stay with him as he learns how to face his problems. The pay off for Joel is the chance at a relationship he's long hoped for and pursued in his own way, through writing letters, stories and poems to Amber. If my MS is riddled with darlings, how can I expect my reader to stay with me or my MC?

KILLING YOUR DARLINGS is writerspeak for cutting the lines that aren't necessarily bad, are likely character development or story development, but ultimately weigh down your manuscript to the point your reader is negatively impacted.

What is your goal with your writing? Do you want your reader to finish? Is your goal to have them slug through the first half of your book before giving up, putting it down, and moving on? I didn't think so. That sounds like a few nightmares I've had as a writer.

This round of revisions was really focused on cutting the fluff and getting the story that NEEDS TO BE THERE to come back to life and sing to the reader. I pictured the reader turning pages and unable to put the book down. That's what I had in mind while editing. That's what kept me going, even though this is D13 for me.

The writing and editing process is different for everyone. I've realized that in order to get this MS to the point it's ready to be published, I've got to go through the hard work of learning how to write and learning how to edit MY WRITING so that it sings.


The other thing this round of edits uncovered is TELLING vs. SHOWING. I have edited this particular thing out of my MS before. So, I was horrified to see that, like a weed, TELLS have worked their way back into my MS. How could this happen? As I've revised, I've added lines and paragraphs here and there. These are not always revised at the time, but usually get caught on a subsequent round (hence all the rounds of's what works for me).

There are several things about tells. First and foremost, you're telling the reader what happened and how they should feel about it. It's the reader's job to interpret what they think about the characters. It's not the writer's job to tell the reader what to think or feel. This makes the reader angry, and will always result in them putting your book down and finding something else to do.

Think of it like this: Write your words so that there are gaps, holes (I imagine swiss cheese in word form) that the reader can fill in, conclude, and interact with the story. By making connections for the reader, they will become hooked into your story, invested with your characters, and feel like this could be happening to them. This will also keep them turning pages.

I've also found that internal thoughts that are questions are often tells. See if the sentence before and after connect, and therefore don't need the question between. The question was only necessary for the writer to get there. Now it's time to cut this for the improvement of your MS.

So, for what it's worth, this is what I've learned from this round of edits. I hope you can find it in your writerly heart to KILL YOUR DARLINGS to save your story and keep your reader engaged. Also, CUT THE TELLS and keep the reader turning pages.

As you have revised, what tips have you learned along the way? Please share your thoughts in the comments below.


  1. I used to be married to my words. It wasn't until I learned to love the delete key that I found my agent. I've even completely rewritten novels more than once. I actually find that works better sometimes.

    1. Wow, Kelly. It sounds like you've really gone the extra mile to learn the tough way to write: by doing it over and over again. Sounds scary. I can see why you're racking up the publishing deals. Congrats! Also, thanks for your thoughtful comment.

  2. This is excellent! Thanks so much for sharing your experience.

    1. Aww, thanks, Lydia! I appreciate your comment. It's good to know that you like the topic and the personalization.