You’ve heard it many times. It’s based on a quote by William Faulkner. But what does it mean? To me, it means that if there is something in your novel you really love, whether it be a line, a scene, or a whole chapter, you are probably wrong about its quality and importance, and should delete it.
If you’re in love with it, take it out.
Why? Because in all probability, you love it because of its “writerly” sound. It’s a great descriptive sentence. It’s an exciting scene or chapter with lots of great writing, humor, and metaphor. It’s Hemingway and Faulkner rolled into one, all out of your own little mind. Guess what. No it ain’t.
One of the best bits of advice I ever got on writing was in law school when they were teaching us to write briefs. The instructor said to go through and find what you think is the best part, and delete it.
That’s killing your darlings. It’s hard. It’s close to impossible. But you have to do it.
That doesn’t mean you can’t read your work and think, “Hey, that’s good.” You can do that, and you should. But if you come to a part that you think is particularly brilliant, cut it.
You can hedge your bets. You can line it out, rather than deleting it. You can cut it and paste it into a file for stuff you’ve deleted, or you can just go ahead and hit the delete button.
Do you have a joke you think is particularly funny? Cut it.
Do you have a description you think gets to the heart of what a sunset looks like? Take it out.
Is there a scene you’ve written you’re sure is worthy of any of the great writers. Delete it.
One reason you do this is that the writing is probably not as good as you think. It sounds like writing. Elmore Leonard said that if it sounds like writing, he rewrites it.
The other reason you should take it out is that it probably is not necessary for the story. Maybe it’s a holdover from a previous version, or maybe you just decided to write a scene for which you had an idea. It’s a great scene with wonderful writing. You love it. But it doesn’t fit the story. It doesn’t move things along. It has to go.
We all have them. There are probably still some in my novels. Part of the craft and discipline of being a writer, though, is being able to see these “darlings,” and having the courage to delete them.