Good writing involves rewriting. An essential part of rewriting is combing through the first draft and carving out material that isn’t essential. When we edit out nonessentials, we are killing our darlings.
What is a Darling?
Darlings are words, phrases, sentences, paragraphs, and even whole scenes that we’re often most proud of and attached to. We love them to the point that we almost don’t care if they muddy the storyline. We worked hard and want to keep our darlings right where they are, thank you. We should be able to keep whatever we want, right?
A writer needs to consider the reader. When we disregard the reader’s needs for the sake of our own, we fail. If that sounds harsh, consider a world without readers.
How To Identify a Darling
If you’re desperately in love with a word/sentence/paragraph/page/scene, but you keep fighting with it to make it work, it’s a darling.
If your beta readers are confused by it, but the thought of losing it shreds your soul, it’s a darling.
If you have a scene that’s your best writing ever but it feels out-of-place, like it belongs in a different book, it’s a darling.
If you can cut the word/sentence/paragraph/page/scene without disrupting the story, it’s a darling.
One of the first places to look is at filler words.
Darling Filler Words
This darling should almost always be murdered.
Original: I just couldn’t say goodbye.
Rewrite: I couldn’t bear to say goodbye.
This darling litters many first drafts, but it can often be killed without any harm to the sentence.
Original: I believe that all writers kill their darlings.
Rewrite: I believe all writers kill their darlings.
The original and rewrite have a second darling. Did you catch it?
Final Rewrite: All writers kill their darlings.
“Believe” in this context is a telling word. Any time we tell the reader things like “I thought” or “He knew” or “She felt” or “I believe” we slip out of deep POV. Thus, the little darling must die.
Original: So, this huge guy glared at me in the coffee line.
Rewrite: An enormous dude with linebacker shoulders glared at me in the coffee line.
Confession? I use “so” all the time online, but that doesn’t mean I leave the filler in my work. The only exception is if it’s used with purpose, like as a character cue word.
Original: She broke up with him. He still really loved her.
Sometimes killing your darlings means combining/rewording sentences rather than merely removing filler.
Rewrite: When she severed their relationship, his heart stalled.
Here’s another meaningless word. Be ruthless with this darling.
Original: He made me very happy.
Rewrite: When he neared, my skin tingled.
The way to determine if “of” is needed is by reading the sentence with and without it. Does the sentence still make sense?
Original: She bolted out of the door.
Rewrite: She bolted out the door.
Up (with certain actions)
Original: He rose up from the table.
Rewrite: He rose from the table.
Down (with certain actions)
Original: He sat down on the couch.
Rewrite: He sat on the couch.
And/But (to start a sentence)
I’m not saying we should never use “and” or “but” to start a sentence, though editors might disagree. Depends on context.
Original: He died. And I’m heartbroken.
Rewrite: When he died, my soul shattered.
Also search for places where “but” is used to connect two sentences. Can you combine them into one sentence without losing the meaning?
Original: He moved out of state, but I miss him. He was the most caring man I’d ever met.
Rewrite: The most caring man I’d ever met moved out of state. I miss him—miss us.
Want/wanted is another telling word. It must die to preserve deep POV.
Original: I really wanted the chocolate cake.
Rewrite: I drooled over the chocolate cake. One bite. What could it hurt?
The reason came/went is filler is because it’s not specific enough.
Original: I went to the store to buy my favorite ice cream.
Rewrite: I raced to Marco’s General Store to buy salted caramel ice cream, my tastebuds cheering me on.
Too many “had” words give the reader the impression the action took place prior to the main storyline. As a guide, used once in a sentence puts the action in past tense. Twice is repetitive and clutters the writing. Also, if it’s clear the action is in the past, it can often be omitted.
Original: I had gazed at the painting for hours and the eyes didn’t move.
Rewrite: For hours I gazed at the painting and the eyes never wavered.
Looking for more words that are often overused? Download this Editing Help: Crutch Words Checklist.
It’s not easy to delete a full page or an entire scene or chapter. I understand. Still, we must kill our darlings, no matter how much it stings. To lessen the pain, save the deleted passages in a separate file marked “Darling Graveyard” or equivalent. Pick a title you’ll remember. You might be able to breathe new life into that dead darling for another book. Plus, it’ll lessen the sting. You may never use the deleted paragraph/page/scene, but at least it’s available.
How To Identify a Scene Darling
Does the scene have a purpose? If no, kill that darling.
Does the scene play well with others — does it interact with the scenes before and after it? If no, kill that darling.
Does the scene drive the plot forward or benefit the storyline? If no, kill that darling.
What happens if you delete the scene? Did the story change? If no, kill that pesky darling.
One of the most common reasons to kill your darlings is if we’ve overemphasized in some way. Trust the reader. Don’t beat them over the head with this or that. Resist the urge to over-explain.
Avoid purple prose. Good writing is concise and to the point. Overly cute or witty turns of phrase must die. You may love a phrase or sentence that sounds beautiful to your ear, but it has no purpose. Sorry but that pretty darling weakens your writing. Be ruthless and kill it.
Do you need forty-five characters? Of course not. Try combining two or three characters into one. Are they more fleshed out and real now? Yes? Great! Killing the darling characters benefited the storyline.
If we have too many subplots and/or crazy twists, we risk overwhelming and/or distracting the reader. Chances are one or two can go without changing the main plot. Save the cut scenes in the Darling Graveyard. They may be perfect for a different story.
Think of killing your darlings as a good thing. It means you’re tightening your prose, laser-focused on the plot and characters. In short, you’re giving your work the best possible chance of success. 🙂
Sue Coletta is an award-winning crime writer. Feedspot and Expertido.org named her Murder Blog as “Best 100 Crime Blogs on the Net” (2018-2021). She also blogs at the popular Kill Zone, writes two psychological thriller series (Tirgearr Publishing), and true crime/narrative nonfiction (Rowman & Littlefield Group, Inc.).
Sue teaches a virtual course about serial killers for EdAdvance in CT and a condensed version for her fellow Sisters in Crime. She’s appeared on the Emmy award-winning true crime series, Storm of Suspicion. In the fall she’s slated to appear on another true crime show for CineFlix. Learn more about Sue and her books at www.suecoletta.com.
Roberta Eaton Cheadle says
Thanks for this great post, Sue. I’m always have to check my work for filter words. I am getting better but they still slip in now and again.
This is timely for me, Sue. I am currently wrestling with a couple of scenes in my rewrite of my WIP. I love the emotions in there, and the tension, but it is actually a sub-plot and I now think the scenes must go. Thank you for making up my mind.
I agree wholeheartedly with you on the words. I’m fed up with reading books where ‘just ‘ is peppered throughout. Often in otherwise excellent books, and even in traditionally published books. Also, ‘so’ and ‘that’. (Although Word often says ‘ missing ‘that’ when one leaves it out.)
Finally, we are told to limit the use of adverbs and adjectives. To that, I would add prepositions. In many cases they are superfluous. You mention ‘up’ and ‘down’, but there are many others.
Gifford MacShane says
This is a great list! I can’t begin to count the times I’ve removed “up” or “down” from my manuscripts. I’ve also found it helpful to use a word cloud to identify my own “darling” words. It’s pretty amazing to see that, even after 4 books, I’m still using some of them!
Sue Coletta says
You are not alone, Gifford. Darlings sneak into all first drafts. It’s how we edit that matters. 😊
Ellen cassidy says
yes, yes, I know all this. There are still a horrible amount of ALL these filler words as I comb through my finished MS. I agree most need to go. BUT…I have a question. People do use many of these words in real-life dialogue. Do they have to get pitched there, too?
Sue Coletta says
Excellent question, Ellen. These apply to the narrative. Dialogue is different. Though we don’t want too much filler in dialogue, if the word fits the character, keep it. If it doesn’t, kill it. The worst thing we can do is edit out all traces of personality and motive behind a character’s words.
A prime example is a criminal being interviewed by a detective. A guilty person might say, “Believe me, I wasn’t there.” In that case “Believe me” cues the detective that he’s lying.
Candace Johnson says
Two related darlings I see often when I’m editing are started and began. If a character starts to move toward the door or begins to get ready, aren’t they actually moving toward the door or getting ready?
Sue Coletta says
Absolutely, Candace! Same with “tried to” or “attempted” (with a few exceptions). Thanks for adding those two filler words. I find “started” and “began” all the time in first pages submitted for critique.
ANGELA ACKERMAN says
It’s amazing how much a story improves when we think about all these filler words and areas of overuse! So great to have everything together like this. Thanks, Sue!
Sue Coletta says
My pleasure, Angela! It IS amazing how much killing our darlings improves the story. 🙂
BECCA PUGLISI says
I love the breakdown of the different kinds of darlings. Lots of people are familiar with the scene darlings, or the word darlings, but I don’t think we often consider ALL the beloved parts that need to be trimmed out. Thanks, Sue.
Sue Coletta says
My pleasure, Becca! We have “so” much to consider when killing our darlings, and sometimes it’s painful to let go.
Jemima Pett says
While I agree with most of Sue’s darlings, many of her rewrites make me cringe – cliched and sickly in my view! But for some audiences, yes, they would lap them up.
One point though. In UK English ‘bolt out of the door’ makes sense; ‘bolt out the door’ is nonsense or ambiguous. If the whole book is in dialect it might work.
Sue Coletta says
Hope you have an amazing day, Jemima.
You’ve made the point I was going to make, Jemima. The US use , ‘bolt out the door’ does make me cringe a bit, but I know it’s US usage, and take a deep breath and read on.
Mindy Alyse Weiss says
Thanks for all the great advice, Sue! Some of the darling filler words have been on my ‘watch list’ while revising…I can’t wait to add additional ones to that list.
I wonder what would happen if my “Orphan File” and your “Darling Graveyard” hung out together.
Sue Coletta says
Haha! Perhaps we should arrange a play date for them, Mindy. 😉