By Sue Coletta
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. 🙂
Resident Writing Coach
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 also appeared on the Emmy award-winning true crime series, Storm of Suspicion and will be teaching an advanced education course on serial killers for Foothills Regional (CT).