How to murder your darlings – in just 5 steps

Let me start by making it clear that today’s post relates to the EDITING stage of your work only.

sergei-eisenstein-editing-film-octoberThe editing stage is notoriously difficult to define, and there’s a lot of good information out there on what constitutes a thorough edit, but I would like to suggest a few ideas based on one of the most elusive pieces of advice out there:

“Edit your work with a cold eye, as though you’ve never read this piece before.”

We’ve all seen this particular gem, but it’s nigh on impossible to do, isn’t it? We’ve been labouring so long and hard on our work the only way we can even hope to get it out of our system is to lock it away for several weeks/months without peeking, but even then an edit may not help much.

We often have the feeling we’re not happy about something, but working out what that something is is beyond us. That’s because we’re still in the role of writer and creator when what we really need to do is switch into the role of the editor.

So how do we do this?

  • First of all make a copy of your beloved work in progress then put the original in a safe folder on your hard-drive where, you promise yourself, it is safe from the hands of any evil editors or other detractors. Then rename your copy file using the title of your MS followed by the words Edit Version or any other tag to set the two copies apart. For my copy file I chose the subheading The Massacre, and this pretty much sums up how you’re going to approach this version because you are about to become your manuscript’s greatest foe.
  • Mentally adjust to the idea that you can now do an edit without worrying about spoiling your beloved manuscript.
  • Now, forget about checking for modifiers, spelling mistakes, character slippage or any of the other familiar edits and think about this:

Every sentence must do one of two things – reveal character or advance the action

This quotation (from Kurt Vonnegut btw) is going to be your guiding principle.

This next bit will hurt initially, it will hurt a lot, but the end result will be worth it, just like the sticker at the end of a visit to the dentist. All right, bad example, the sticker was never worth the pain of a visit to the dentist, but this one will be good, I promise.

Facing your duplicate manuscript now I want you to feel the flaws (you may add your own Star Wars quips here). The amount of flaws you feel will depend very much on how honest you’ve been with yourself over your beloved manuscript, and chances are, if you’re like me or most other writers, you have not been honest at all.

Here are just a few of the justifications which we writers silently make for our work (hopefully you’ve never actually asked a reader, agent or editor to bear these justifications in mind, -100 points if you ever have):

1)      The beginning is a little on the slow side / confusing / off subject but….

2)      I know x isn’t a very strong / interesting (well thought out) character but…

3)      The word count is a bit long / short but…

4)      This scene doesn’t really add anything to the story but…

5)      My spelling/grammar/punctuation needs improving but…

[This last entry is, as far as I can see, pure laziness. Never make this excuse when there are perfectly good writer’s manuals out there that can help you. Sure, we all make mistakes, but knowingly expecting others to turn a blind eye is an insult to all concerned.]Lovedust

There are any number of excuses we can make for our work and the reasons will be so beguilingly plausible that we won’t notice falling under their spell until we finally listen to that irritating Jiminy Cricket on our shoulder.

  • So, armed with your own personal clutch of painful justifications, start deleting. You can’t worry about diminishing word counts or ruining your elegant prose, remember your original manuscript is safely tucked away and will come to no harm, and if you have any resistance left at this point, remember; it’s better you should cut this stuff out rather than let that reader, agent or editor do the job by dismissing your beloved work (because they will). Cut out anything that feels redundant, and my suggestion would be to think of it as closer to amputation than cutting your nails.
  • As you begin to massacre your beloved work you will find more errors coming to light, vital errors that are not ‘revealing character’ or ‘advancing the action’. Apply any other sage pieces of writerly advice now and you’ll probably see more truth in them than you ever could have when facing your original beloved manuscript.

You’ll soon find as you begin this process that the pain begins to subside, and before long you will be feeling like a writer on fire, because you are finally discovering the real story in the middle of all those lumpy digressions, the real characters in the midst of those paper-thin extras and it feels good – so good in fact that I’m willing to bet you won’t give that original manuscript another glance. 

Happy writing, guys.

If you have any editing tips or thoughts on this article why not drop me a line in the comment box below?

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Published by Jill London

Hi, I’m Jill, a writer and teacher living in the UK, usually behind a desk but sometimes on a sofa with a book or a film. I began writing at around age three, legibly by five, although I didn’t write any stories until I was older. Aged eleven, I began writing children’s fiction, mostly middle-grade fantasy and I’m still doing it to this day. I have had stories published online and in My Weekly magazine. The best bit about writing is when ideas pop into your head (from the writing fairy presumably?) and everything starts clipping together like a jigsaw puzzle. The worst bit? When you start to get the feeling there's a piece missing from the box...

25 thoughts on “How to murder your darlings – in just 5 steps

  1. Love your blog, Jill. Thanks for the great advice in this article. All books published (even those by major publishers) have spelling, punctuation and grammar errors. So it may not be laziness when you say that. It’s just a fact. But if you do know they are there, then it’s laziness not to correct them. As for tips, if you want to catch as many errors as possible, read your sentences backwards. Best editing tip, read your work aloud into a recorder and play it back.


    1. Some excellent advice. I was referring to the deliberate excuse for not bothering to learn the rules of grammar and punctuation etc. rather than typos. God knows I must have left plenty of those behind me in my comments! The tape recorder is a really good idea, as you say, reading your work aloud really brings out any hidden problems. Thanks, Elizabeth.


  2. No tips, but as a sometime editor and proof-reader, as well as a writer, I notice those typos, those inconsistencies, those unnecessary bits! They drive me mad. And I have thought to myself more than once, Writer, murder your darlings.

    I like your suggestions, they are very helpful. They assume, though, I think, that we are writing a longish piece or a book. What about those short pieces that we write for our newsletters and blogs?


    1. Hello Iris. I touched on writing short stories in another of my posts, and I try to be specific on which area is under discussion, but I was too busy trying to emphasise that this is for the editing stage and forgot to mention this is definitely advice for a longish piece. Thank-you for giving me the opportunity to clarify here 🙂
      I have to admit I haven’t given much thought to editing for blogs or newsletters! I tend to use a fairly arbitrary method of juggling things about till I’m happy but I’m sure someone else will have better advice than that!


  3. I was nuts about Kurt Vonnegut when I was in my early 20’s. I remember reading that statement too. I agree with it, but I think I went too far with it in my own writing. For a long time, I had a tendency to streamline everything too much, cutting out all the details and stripping the story down to a bland, naked skeleton. My fiction was like those little “Cliff Notes” books. Over the last couple of years, I’ve had to “unlearn” that habit and allow things flow freely again. I’m not disagreeing with Vonnegut. I just took that advice too literally when I was younger.


    1. Oh dear 😦 I guess there is always the danger of cutting through something vital at this stage, which is why keeping the two copies comes in handy for comparison. Stephen King also advocates careful trimming (I can’t remember the exact formula he uses now, but it runs on similar lines). But you’re right, it’s important to be wary not to cross into the space where less is actually less.


    1. Thanks, Melissa! I’m lazy when it comes to remembering important details which is why it’s great to have a friend like you around 🙂


    2. Yep. I was just going to quote him (something that I do often, apparently, judging from my blog) but you beat me to it, Melissa!

      Thanks for the post, Jill. I think the hardest thing in the editing phase, even when one’s equipped with an extremely critical mind, is getting past the “narcissism,” which is why it’s good that you’ve reminded us of the self-justifications. 🙂


  4. Great advice, and Vonnegut is always worth listening to when it comes to writing tips. I suggest to my students that editing a paper copy rather than on-screen is a good way to look at their work differently, and printing it out in a different font to the one they usually use works even better. There’s something about the way the words change position on the page that tricks you into thinking it doesn’t belong to you anymore. True detachment takes months, but this can be the next best thing. Great blog, by the way!


    1. Hi Sally, thank-you so much for your kind compliment. It’s much appreciated!
      I agree entirely on both your suggestions. Printing out for the final read through, especially in a different font, is invaluable. I discovered the change of font phenomenon quite by chance recently, I was actually just faffing about trying to get the formatting right but it changed the feel of the work entirely. Such a strange feeling, but definitely an excellent suggestion to pass on, thanks!


      1. Thanks Jill for your appreciation and encourage. keep in touch. Really nice to meet you 🙂


  5. My first book was 1200 pages long!!!!! haha. Your advice is great. The beloved manuscript can always be retrieved unless you’re me and have about 100 different files named “Book One.” I cut everything like a mad woman, took a breather and then allowed myself to put back into the manuscript everything I seriously mourned cutting. There’s a balance here, of course.


    1. It’s good to know I’m not the only one with files like that! I had multiple versions of multiple chapters – the only way out was to sweep them into one bigger file and put them in the document version of ‘the bottom drawer’ (I even called it that, lol). Most of those books are just former flames now but I still think of them from time to time and think; if only…


  6. Thank you for following my blog, Jill! I have read your post and plan to follow the suggested editing tips, especially keeping Vonnegut’s quote forefront, “Every sentence must do one of two things…!” Please continue to follow and we’ll see how I progress!

    You have developed an excellent blog site! Thank you.


  7. Nicely put. It’s good to separate the writer from the editor, and sometimes it can be painful to just cut what you know has to go; but deep down you know there is no other way.


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