Killing the Darlings: Editing Dilemmas

“In writing, you must kill all your darlings.” ~ William Faulkner 

Ok, so Faulkner wasn’t the only one to have said this. In so many wordings, several writers over the centuries have expressed this piece of dreaded advice. Why do we view it as “dreaded advice”? Because we know it is true and must be done. What we think of as our “darlings” however, is not always 100% accurate. Sometimes it is a character, a scene, turn-of-phrase, details or descriptions, character name, trope or even the title.

So how do we figure out what our “darlings” include? Well, there are a few ways of figuring this out and each one is beneficial on their own. However, using them together as pieces of the editing process as a whole will flush out ones which are less obvious or that we, as writers, turn our blind eye to because they are our darlings.

First, we must identify our “darlings” and then find ways to rectify the issues that result from their presence in our manuscripts. There are a couple ways to determine if something is a “darling”. Here are a few that I have found I am guilty of and some of the ways I try to “kill” them.

  • So, if you love it let it go?

    • Yes…. and no. Just because you enjoy the way you have written something, be it a character, scene or phrase doesn’t mean you have to kill it and remove it from your work. You should step back and ask yourself (a) why you love it (b) what purpose is it serving (c) does it actually propel the story forward. If you cannot answer these questions fully, then it goes.
  • Adjectives and Adverbs en mass?

    • Every writer has words they overuse or repeat. We like them; they describe things we are hoping will stir feelings in our readers. That’s a good thing, right? Yes and again, no. Too many uses will distract the reader and may end up annoying them.
      • Use the find and replace feature in Word if you are using one word or phrase more than once or twice and think of another way to express it.
      • I LOVE a good description. I enjoy painting worlds, scenes and characters with beautiful language. But, I have been told that my strings of adjectives are a bit daunting sometimes.
        • “You are allowed only 2 in this paragraph, not 6. Gert rid of some.” Katie is great at making me rethink my use of them. Use your writer tribe to find your patterns and then rectify them.
    • Actions should be shown. As we know, this doesn’t mean stating how things are done. Instead, we have to search our manuscripts for these instances and find new ways of making the reader feel or deduce what the character is feeling or doing. “Trembling fingers and a ragged breath” demonstrates the character’s  feelings instead of simply telling the audience someone did something “nervously”. Watch out for this habit as this can also be a darling.
  • The Name Game

    • If you are anything like me, you can spend hours fretting over what to name a character, even changing it 5 or 6 times throughout the course of writing. I put a lot of thought into the meaning and impact of a name.
        • Does it embody what I imagine my character to be, feel and do?
        • Is it easy to pronounce if the reader wants to read aloud?
      • This is where having a peer editor comes in handy.
        • Do they believe the character name suits them?
        • What do they feel or think of when hearing a particular name?
        • Did they have a hard time figuring out how to pronounce it?
    • It can be hard to “un-name” a character when you invest so much thought into it to begin with. We become attached to our characters and in turn to the names we give them. However, renaming a character when necessary can create a whole new impact to your story.
  • Delete the Scenes

    • We have all been there. We envision this great moment and spend hours if not weeks mapping it out and breathing life into it. But then, it doesn’t work the way we intended. Maybe it doesn’t work in the story at all. Perhaps it just doesn’t work where it is currently within the story. Write that scene, pour your whole heart into it, but maybe remove it from the story and save it. You could also put it elsewhere.
    • Have a friend or trusted reader to read it and let you know what is working and what isn’t. Flag anything that they bring to your attention and consider taking it out or moving it.
  • Titles

    • Sometimes you start a story and immediately know what you want to name it. Other times, the title just sits as a “working title” with full plans to come up with something better later, only that never happens.
        • So, what if your title isn’t working?
        • How do you know if it isn’t working?
      • Again, this is where your writer tribe is going to be useful. They will let you know if your title doesn’t fit the story you have written.

“Killing all your darlings” will make you a stronger writer and a better peer editor in your writer tribe. Start with your own close inspection for patterns and issues, then bring it to your trusted tribe to flush out the ones you might have missed. No one knows our characters or the stories we write better than we do. But this also makes us blind in some ways.


  1. Is it only there because you love it?
  2. What larger purpose does it serve to the story?
  3. Is the character or the scene working the way you envisioned it?
  4. Does the “darling” propel the story forwards or derail your intended plot?
  5. Is it distracting, misleading or unclear?

If you cannot answer these questions fully, then it just might be time to Kill the Darlings.

“Keep your heart open, a suitcase packed and wander often, for the world is wide and adventure awaits.” ~ Emylee

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