Kill your darlings

I’d seen this phrase a few times: “Kill your darlings.” and wondered what the heck it meant.

I’m not advocating taking up arms or anything like that. Oh, no.

This phrase is about not being afraid to butcher your work. To cut or kill your words to make your story better. I’ve seen a few people quoted from Elmore Leonard who suggests it’s about “leaving out the boring parts.” or Stephen King in his fabulous On Writing book where he talks about a comment from an editor:

β€˜Not bad, but PUFFY. You need to revise for length. Formula: 2nd Draft = 1st Draft – 10%. Good luck.’

I don’t necessarily agree about the last part of that quote as it depends on how your write. Some write a light first draft and add to the second draft. Cutting 10% maybe, but you might also add 30%. That part is up to you and your style.

While I’ve been doing the third draft of I Can See You, I’ve cut about 5k overall, ditched three scenes because I agreed with Elmore, they affected the pace. Any key exposition included in another scene. The ease of using Scrivener has helped me keep the scenes outside the novel if I need to refer to them again.

If you’re working on a scene and find yourself struggling with it, not knowing what to do or how to fix it, cut it. Kill the scene and see what happens. Does it affect your story? Or the flow of your narrative?

That character you’ve re-written three times isn’t working. Ditch them too. Either as part of the narrative, let them fall under a combine-harvester or accidentally eat a poisonous mushroom or have a meteor fall on their head, or merge them with another character. You decide. They’re your darlings.

Kill them, kill them all. Muahahahaha

Ahem. Excuse me. I got a little carried away there.

How do you feel about “killing your darlings”?



This is my K post for the A to Z Blogging Challenge. A list of all my A to Z Blogging Challenge posts are to be found here.

My pictures for today are from Keddleston Hall. A great place, just outside Derby. Built as a party pad. I wish!

Kedleston Hall


About Pete Denton

I'm a writer working my way through the redrafts of a British crime novel. I also write short stories, flash fiction and some screen writing. Check out my blog for more.
This entry was posted in A to Z Blogging Challenge, Writing and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

54 Responses to Kill your darlings

  1. Yes, kill them all! Okay not all of them since you wouldn’t have a book left but I completely agree with the need to ‘trim the fat’ from a book before you send it off to be published.

  2. justinbog says:

    hi Pete—out of all the AtoZ blogging going on this month, I keep returning to your posts (read them all). Great discipline to keep going. What I find most interesting are your subjects, especially today’s. I agree with you and Elmore and King. Is that possible? Sure. Cutting out good writing is key most of the time when editing a longer work. I just did it this week. Keep going.

    • Pete Denton says:

      Thanks, Justin. This is taking more effort than I thought it would, but nearly halfway through the alphabet. I’m still learning about when and how much to cut. Getting there.

      Good luck with the edits πŸ™‚

  3. Cynthia Reed says:

    Excellent post, Pete (and gorgeous pictures, too). I agree with you and your sources. It’s difficult to do, at first, though! I learned the ‘art’ (pain) of eliminating that 10% writing commercially. Realising (as an art director explained it for the umpteenth time) that people only have so much time and they need to get the most important information and then will move on…really helps me now to see that the extra paragraph I think adds so much soul to the work really doesn’t need to be there at all.

    Scrivener…also agreed! I often strikeout whole sections and leave them there and then go back. 90% of the time, off with their heads! Sometimes I even put them in a research folder called “things I cut” but, when I go back, I invariably wonder what I was thinking when I even considered leaving it in.

    Yes, I write long (as here lol). So I know I need to get out the Knife.

    Cynthia Reed, writing historical fiction set during the Crimean War, 1852-1856

    • Pete Denton says:

      Sorry for the delay in responding. I remember replying, but WordPress seems to have eaten many of my replies, hungry beast πŸ™‚

      I like to keep a Scrivener tab with data in too, maybe useful for later. πŸ™‚

  4. karengadient says:

    I’ve been killing them all week. Difficult, but necessary.

  5. bronbloxham says:

    Sounds like you’re channeling George R R Martin (writer of Game of Thrones plus series) who is notorious for killing off his characters and that was obviously after editing and printing…. just when you have someone to cheer for they end up with their throat cut and thrown in a river! πŸ˜‰

  6. elwoodcock says:

    i’m currently doing just that for my work in progress, Kikimora. Had to cut a particularly nice speech yesterday because the structural changes I’d already made meant it didn’t make sense any more. It’s a shame because it showed a steelier side to my protagonist’s character than perhaps any other part of the story.
    … you know, I hadn’t actually articulated that to myself until right now! I’m now thinking I might have to find an alternative way for her to express that cold determination, because it adds depth to her character.
    Thanks, Pete! I think you just helped me out πŸ˜€

  7. I love the stairs leading down from Keddleston Hall!

    Pete, I have linked to some of your previous A to Z posts in my K is for … post. Here is the link:

  8. EllaDee says:

    I love editing, like I love weeding, chopping in the garden, and putting away clutter in the house. I type appallingly, write quickly but fix it as good as it gets anyway, with a tidy up. Kill your darlings and hide the bodies πŸ˜‰

  9. wilsonkhoo says:

    With the advent of ebooks, I think we might see the accepted length of a book slowly dwindle down, or at least the presentation of them, as more bite-size stuff finds its way to market. There will always be a place for great epics though. I’m personally just aiming for 25K-50K pieces.

    Going ahead, I think if someone writes a book at say 100K words and it can’t sell. An approach might be to dissect it to 3 parts and sell it online. This gives you the freedom to play around with 1 book as hook and the other 2 parts for profit. Better than having a 100K manuscript sitting around.

    • Pete Denton says:

      I think you might be right. I’ve read a few books like that where the first is free to hook you into the characters and the stories and then you’re more likely to buy the next books in the series.

      I have noticed that a number of books on my kindle are below the 300 page (according to the paper versions) range. It does appear to be a trend coming back into writing.

      Thanks for commenting and Happy Writing πŸ™‚

  10. Because I write very, er, economically? Efficiently? I’m often told my work is not long enough. ::shrug::

  11. Jae says:

    I took a screenwriting class in college and killing your darlings was always the idea that you have to not be afraid of cutting those scenes you love most because they might not be working for your story. I think that happens sometimes, we create a character, a scene, a plot line that we love but have little if anything to contribute to the story. There are a few mainstream authors of whose books I wished they’d killed a few more darlings. Your readers might tolerate it, but better to keep them engaged than ever tolerating.

    When I’m doing simple editing (this means I believe I’ve fixed plot holes, structure, etc.) I always try and word economize as well, which I don’t necessarily see as killing any darlings, but certainly tightening up is always helpful.

    • Pete Denton says:

      Absolutely. It’s always good to tighten our work as we work through edits. Why use five words if you could use two?

      I’ve read a number of books I think could have killed a few more darlings πŸ™‚

  12. Nagzilla says:

    I had never heard that expression before, but I absolutely love it. It goes with one of my favorite pieces of advice from Anne Lamott: don’t be afraid to write shit. You can always revise it later.

  13. Carrie-Anne says:

    I really enjoy editing, revising, and rewriting my older books, since all that time away has given me enough distance to be able to cut out the clutter. Some of my books are extremely long on purpose, so it’s not about cutting for length, but just making changes that are necessary for the story as it’s intended.

    • Pete Denton says:

      I was afraid of editing, not knowing how to approach it. Now I love it! I agree about the length of the work, if it’s necessary and your writing is tight then a 400+ book is more than fine.

  14. Pingback: K for… K… | My corner of the world

  15. Gorgeous pictures.
    I’ve learned to kill my darlings but took a long time to get there. Still not a hundred percent sure I want to hit the delete key sometimes. I don’t feel good initially, but after I read the paragraph or page again it’s not so bad.

  16. K.Jacqleene says:

    I love Killing My Darlings. I have just started blogging. I know I should go back and kill many of my darlings, but I think I will look ahead to new darlings to kill. I really enjoyed your article.

  17. I agree that it can be fun to have a muahahahaha moment and cut that troublesome scene or character that is adding nothing to the plot.

  18. I always feel this one kind of exists simply because it’s so hard to do…the fact that there’s a name for it makes it easier.

    “Ooooh, but I *loved* that scene, I don’t wanna delete it…wait, I’m killing my darling! That’s a good thing!”

    …or maybe it’s just me. πŸ™‚

    • Pete Denton says:

      I think the name does help. To know that everyone else is grappling with the same things helps me know I’m doing the right thing. Hopefully πŸ™‚

  19. Ok I got my learning for today . Now I know when I am stuck with a scene what to do. Thanks.


  20. It can be tough to kill the darlings. Once I cut a character and it was like snipping out part of a tapestry. Unraveled threads were all through it. I had to rewrite most of it, but it was really better for it. Thanks for the reminder.
    Kathy @ Swagger Writers

  21. Great advice for photographers too. It’s very difficult but I have been trying to simplify down my composition and edit out all those OK shots. I find shooting film helps me think along these lines better. Thanks for the post.

  22. noelleg44 says:

    I’d never heard this quote before, but several people used it and I think it is something I may have to consider in my second book. JRR Martin is a perfect practitioner of this. Looking forward to more crime tidbits.

  23. I think it is a good edict, but should be applied judiciously. πŸ™‚ Sometimes a beautiful turn of phrase adds to the story or the voice. But sometimes it’s just the writer trying to impress the reader.

    • Pete Denton says:

      Aha, the impress the reader bit. That’s when I hit delete or at least when I should hit delete. I know I do that and if I could stop putting them into my first draft it would save time in the long run πŸ™‚

  24. cassmob says:

    Love the concept and so much easier if writing crime -you’ve come up with some great options here. I keep meaning to try Scrivener…have downloaded it before but not sampled it.

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  27. Yep great expression isn’t it KYD. Kid Acne from Sheffield has done artwork with same title. I do the same by cutting them into another document, give it a short title and file it to be rediscovered at a later date…I often like them better, or less second time around

  28. I confess. I did it. I killed, brought scenes or characters to life and killed again. It must be done for the “greater good.” (Laughter ensues) ~ Rebecca

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