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Writing

What Does It Mean to Kill Your Darlings?

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Jan 18, 2020 • 4 min read

“Kill your darlings” is a common piece of advice given by experienced writers. You kill your darlings when you decide to get rid of an unnecessary storyline, character, or sentences in a piece of creative writing—elements you may have worked hard to create but that must be removed for the sake of your overall story. Though you may have heard the phrase a thousand times, it’s valuable to learn the origins of the kill your darlings quote and to consider how you can apply the concept in your work.

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What Does It Mean to Kill Your Darlings?

Writing is a painful process and most experienced writers will tell you that good writing involves substantial rewriting. An essential part of the rewriting process is combing through your work and cutting out material that isn’t essential. Sometimes this means we have to lose things that we are proud of and attached to. When you edit out material like this, you are killing your darlings.

What Are the Origins of the Phrase “Kill Your Darlings?”

The phrase “kill your darlings” has been attributed to many writers over the years. Writers as varied as Oscar Wilde, G. K. Chesterton, and William Faulkner have been credited with coming up with the phrase. But many scholars point to British writer Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch who wrote in his 1916 book On the Art of Writing: “If you here require a practical rule of me, I will present you with this: ‘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.’”

Since then, variations of Quiller-Couch’s phrase has been used by many writers and scholars. Stephen King had this to say on the art of writing in his book On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft: “Kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings.”

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How to Kill Your Darlings in Your Writing

Whether you are writing an op-ed or a short story, the process of killing your darlings is an essential part of editing. Here are some tips to help you keep an eye out for material that you might want to leave on the cutting room floor:

  1. Look for redundancy. One simple, practical rule as you approach editing a piece of writing is to keep an eye out for redundancy. One of the most common reasons to kill your darlings is that you have overemphasized elements of your work in some way. In order to make yourself a better writer, you obviously want to highlight your strengths—but at the same time, you want to avoid overuse. A common thread in most writing advice is to trust your audience and let your work speak for itself without resorting to over-explanation.
  2. Keep an eye out for overly cute or witty turns of phrase. Many good writers go through a stage of using overwrought purple prose as they develop their own signature writing style. Fine writing is concise, and experienced writers aren’t afraid to cut a phrase or sentence that might sound pretty but in reality, is an extraneous ornament that doesn’t serve the overall piece.
  3. Cut out unnecessary plot. If you’re working on a narrative, killing your darlings might include getting rid of full subplots or an extraneous plot twist that isn’t necessary. It’s best to streamline your narrative and get rid of story elements that distract your reader.
  4. Combine characters. One problem that fiction writers have is introducing too many characters into a story. One way around this is to combine characters that share personality traits or serve similar narrative functions. Tertiary characters are important in advancing your plot or fleshing out aspects of your main character, but if a supporting character lacks a clear purpose or point of view, consider cutting them or combining with another small character.
  5. Repurpose unused writing elsewhere. If you can’t bear the thought of cutting a few unnecessary characters or plot lines out of your first draft, you can always spin these elements off into standalone story ideas. The beauty of creative writing is that one project can often inspire your next project. Killing your darlings can be an opportunity to remove story elements that might even function better as standalone ideas.
  6. Seek outside eyes. One of the most important things you can do as a new writer is share your work with peers and seek the advice of beta readers. Network with other writers and consider joining a writing workshop or class. Having trusted friends and collaborators can provide you with readers who you rely on to give you honest feedback about the elements of your work that are working and the parts of your writing that you should cut.

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