Looking at this manuscript by Jean-Paul Sartre, I was reminded of the writing advice, “kill your darlings,” which is widely attributed to Faulkner, but can be traced to Arthur Quiller-Couch’s lecture, “On Style,” from On the Art of Writing:
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.
You hear this murderous advice all over the place: Kill your darlings.
Stephen King, in On Writing:
kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings.
Don’t fall in love with the gentle trilling of your mellifluous sentences. Learn how to “kill your darlings.”
It’s time to kill. And it’s time to enjoy the killing. Because by killing, you will make something else even better live. Not enough gets said about the importance of abandoning crap.
This is a very important point — like with gardening, when you cut dead things back, you encourage new growth — which is echoed by Mary Karr, who routinely throws out hundreds of pages:
I’ve just pitched out 150 pgs it took 3 years to write: NORMAL!!! Some pieces may make it into the new draft but am basically starting over. The old pages stood in line for me to write them. So despite having 0 pages, I’m closer than before
Some writers like Diana Athill suggest a gentler but still ruthless approach:
You don’t always have to go so far as to murder your darlings – those turns of phrase or images of which you felt extra proud when they appeared on the page – but go back and look at them with a very beady eye. Almost always it turns out that they’d be better dead. (Not every little twinge of satisfaction is suspect – it’s the ones which amount to a sort of smug glee you must watch out for.)
The trouble with murdering your darlings, as with all editing, is knowing what to cut out and what to leave in. (Writers employ editors for the same reason doomed pet owners leave euthanizing to their veterinarians.)
“The hardest thing is to kill your darlings,” says Paula Uruburu. “But you have to.”
Or someone has to.
I think “kill your darlings” has done more good than damage in the world, but I’m a much bigger fan of this advice, which is easier on my heart: Relocate your darlings.
“One of the most difficult tasks is to rigorously delete what has no function,” writes Sönke Ahrens in How to Take Smart Notes.
This becomes much easier when you move the questionable passage into another document and tell yourself you might use them later. For every document I write, I have another called “xy-rest.doc,” and every single time I cut something, I copy it into the other document, convincing myself that I will later look through it and add it back to where it might fit. Of course, it never happens — but it still works.
One of my favorite writers, Eliza Gabbert, has built a whole revision strategy around this idea, which she summarizes as: “Keep your best line (or image or idea) and trash the rest.”
She calls this the opposite of the murder your darlings advice, and suggests starting a whole new piece around your darling:
Start a whole new file. (Or, if you write longhand, turn to a new page.) In other words, don’t just keep making changes to the same version. You need to be able to see your darling in a new context. This will also help you start fresh without feeling like you’ve abandoned your other lines – they’re not deleted, they’re not dead, they’re just sleeping in another file. You can always go back to them. (I’ve actually used the same line or idea or image, if I was really in love with it, in multiple published poems. There’s no law against self-plagiarism!)
This advice has saved me over and over again, and it can also lead to new work. I’ve chopped a whole section of darlings from one book only to have them fit beautifully into another.
And what is a blog if not the perfect place to put your murdered darlings? (David Markson once referred to the internet as “that first-draft world.”)
I think of it this way: not murdering the darlings, but relocating them, so you might re-home them later.