A famous quote of advice by author Stephen King is “Kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little heart, kill your darlings.”
In other words, cut passages of writing, even the ones you love, if cutting them benefits the story as a whole. Cutting superfluous text can help writers achieve a leaner, more focused, and more interesting narrative.
When I first read “kill your darlings,” I did not like the advice, not at all. I was fine with cutting passages I considered truly abominable, but parting with passages I loved and had worked hard on felt like cutting off my arm. If a passage worked on any level, I was reluctant to let it go.
This was partly due to under-confidence. I thought I needed to preserve any impressive-sounding text I had written as proof to myself and others that I could write well. I was unaware of how much I was limiting my artistic freedom by clinging to mini-masterpieces that derailed or weakened my overall artistic objective.
Everything changed for me when I was asked to write a eulogy for a memorial service held in honor of a neighbor who had unexpectedly died. He had also been a good friend and an excellent writer. He had written an intelligent and humorous weekly column for the local newspaper. I had met him when I was a college student and an aspiring writer, and I had admired his soaring prose, honesty, and probing insights. He was the first friend I had ever had that I considered a “real writer.”
I missed him a lot, and I wanted to capture who he was in my eulogy, and “almost right” was not going to be good enough.
I wanted to get the portrait exactly right to the point that it became an obsession. I wanted to describe how I had met him, his personality, his humor, his intelligence, and the conversations we had had about writing and literature.
I wrote ten pages and cut nine. I added more text to the one page that had survived my purge, and began cutting again. I repeated the process again and again. I am not sure how many times I hacked my prose, but each time I did, I did it without the slightest hesitation. Maybe it was because the eulogy was not about me. I had a purpose, and anything that undermined or failed to serve that purpose did not belong in my piece and had to go. In the end I was left with only one page that represented the best of all I had written, and it was remarkable to me how much better it was than before I had made cuts.
I read my eulogy at the memorial service. Afterward, three people came up to me and told me that my speech had moved them. Weeks later the wife of the writer told me that some of the audience had told her after the service that, in capturing the personality and virtues of my friend, I had “nailed it.”
The feedback meant a lot to me, partly because at the time I was just beginning to recover from an insidious case of block that had lasted over three years.
The response to my eulogy was a powerful lesson that I carried over into my other writing. The ability to let go of my writing, good or bad, turned out to be a wonderfully liberating practice that turned writing into a conscious and deliberate act.
Before, I had held sacred any writing that had seemed to “write itself.” I had been hesitant to tamper with any passage that “the muse” had bestowed upon me on those rare high-energy writing days when “something took over” and everything flowed perfectly.
This attitude had made me a slave of random luck or imaginary forces outside my control. Cutting text meant consciously chiseling away at excess content in order to release the form of the story inside, the story that I wanted to see exist.
After the memorial service I made cutting text a routine part of my writing process. Nothing I had written was sacred, including text I loved but which did not belong.
Whenever my ego complained about my cutting witty dialogue or an interesting metaphor, I would transfer the text I had cut into a “scrap heap” file I had created on my computer. I felt a lot better about putting my “darlings” in jail than killing them, and there have been many times I was glad the text I had cut still existed, because sometimes I do need to bring it back.
Unfortunately, some writers have turned “kill your darlings” into an inexorable rule with the underlying belief that shorter is always better. However, stories have different space requirements, and there have been times when I have over-edited and cut so much of my text that I drained the soul from my prose.
One way I try to avoid that is to focus on what I like instead of what I dislike. When editing, I set my draft in bold lettering, then go through and change everything I want to keep into standard lettering. Then I cut away everything in bold lettering – the excess. When I do that, I really do feel like a sculptor with a chisel.
Cutting text for leaner prose is not a rule, but a powerful technique, a tool of the craft like a saw or a power drill. The tool, no matter how effective it is, is not the boss of me. I can keep whatever text I want to keep. No rule can substitute for intuitive artistic judgment.
However, cutting superfluous text can produce slick results. At times it has made the difference between writing that rambled on without purpose and writing with sharp focus; between an amorphous story and one with a clearly defined shape; between a dull story and an interesting story; between owning my writing and my writing owning me.
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