I remember the first time my writing mentor told me to “kill my babies.” I didn’t even raise an eyebrow until I realized what he really meant. “You mean you want me to delete all those precious little sentences I’ve been crafting all afternoon?”
Every writer has heard some variant of this expression. While often attributed to William Faulkner, who said, “In writing, you must kill all your darlings,” the original phrase is in fact “Murder your darlings” from Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch’s book On the Art of Writing. What does it mean? It means don’t be attached to your little flourishes and touches. Unless you’re a poet, you are writing to convey information as clearly as possible. If a word, phrase, sentence, or paragraph does not communicate an idea clearly, it needs to be rewritten or deleted. It’s as simple as that.
But this advice can be hard to take for two reasons: 1) We often get attached to our little similes and metaphors, our puns and asides. 2) We try to kill our babies while we’re still creating them.
The answer to the first problem is easy: Grow up and accept that readers just want information expressed as clearly as possible. If your attempts at “fine writing” have no function, then delete them. The second problem is trickier.
Image attribution: Allef Vinicius
I’m sure everyone has experienced this: You need to write something—an email, a report, a thank-you card—and you have so much to say but you don’t know where to start. (Alternatively, you have nothing to say and don’t know how to start.) You write a few words and discover that you are not Hemingway. You delete them immediately. The problem is you are trying to be creative and critical at the same time. You’re wearing two hats at once: those of writer and editor.
But these two forces—that of creator and destroyer—cannot coexist. To write effectively, you definitely do need to wear two hats, but not at the same time. The good news is this: If you allow yourself to wear two hats one after the other, you can be as creative as you want while you write and as destructive as you want while you edit. So how do you separate the creator and the destroyer?
Quiller-Couch’s full quote actually goes like this: “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.”
See the difference? Don’t commit murder while you write. The murder comes later with the edit.
In fact, create as many darlings as possible. Go ahead. Think of a weird analogy? Get it down. Got a silly subheader? Throw it in. The point is to get into a non-judgemental space where you can enter what some psychologists call a state of “flow”—a sense of engagement in an activity without self-consciousness or self-censorship.
At some point, you’ll run out of steam. Whatever you do, don’t edit yet. I’d suggest a coffee, brisk walk, a hot (or cold) shower—maybe play with your cat. Then, if you still feel creative, put your writing hat back on and repeat. If you’re done writing and it’s time to edit, then you need to change hats.
So how do you change hats? First, give it some time: as much as possible. You may have a deadline, but even an hour will help reset your brain. Ideally, leave it to the morning. With fresh eyes, and your editing hat on, you’ll assassinate every last darling on your page without reserve and—more importantly—you’ll see clearly what is actually good about your blog post, your email, your pitch, or your story.
Another technique is to print your work. It’s amazing how different your work reads on paper. The physical permanence of printed words gives the impression of distance, like reading someone else’s work. Without the temptation to tweak and edit as you go along, you’ll notice errors as well as great sentences.
Another way to activate your inner critic is to read your work out loud. There’s no better bullshit detector. As Harrison Ford once said about the Star Wars script, “George [Lucas], you can type this shit, but you can’t say it!”
One of my favorite activities is spring cleaning. Why? Because I love the process of elimination (what would Freud say about that?). I make two piles: keep or toss. My only photo of my great grandmother? Keep. My Red Sox shirt with the gaping hole under the arm? Toss. But sometimes it’s hard to decide. What about that old sketchbook full of life-drawing exercises? Do I need these? No, but can I really throw out my old artwork? No. Solution? Put it in the middle pile.
That’s right. The middle pile—neither keep nor toss. A non-binary state that can be dealt with at the proper time. Recently, I discovered I could do this in writing. When I’m going over my work with my editor’s eye—deleting repetitions, rearranging structures, finding synonyms—I sometimes happen upon a patently dispensable line that is somehow impossible to delete. It’s just too much of a darling. Solution? Strikethrough. It allows me to delete without deleting. On my final pass, I’m usually ready to delete the strikethrough text.
By wearing two hats separately, you can be both the creative writer and the critical editor in equal measure. The result will be content that is expressive and imaginative while refined and clear.
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Featured image attribution: Ben White