Kill Your Darlings: Why You Should Keep Things Short And Sweet
As writers, we tend to fall in love with our prose; those beautiful flowery sentences and paragraphs upon paragraphs of vivid descriptions. Now, if you’re a somewhat seasoned writer, you already know this type of writing usually loses the interest of the readers. It also drives editors crazy and makes it hard to find someone willing to publish your stuff. This is why it’s important to keep your sentences tight and streamlined.
In this quick article I’m going to cover a few ways to do this. Once you get the hang of cutting out the fat in your writing, the process will become more natural feeling and you’ll start writing your first draft with these future cuts in mind. Before you cut anything, though, remember this: you should write whatever the hell you want in your first draft. If you want to write a whole page detailing the glimmer of moonlight on the lightly flowing waves of the sea at night, go right ahead. These kinds of things, believe it or not, are not a waste of time—even if none of it makes it to the second draft.
You see, writing in great detail is great for creativity. The more detail you write, the more ideas you get, and the better flow you’ll get into while writing. These wonderful and descriptive sentences/paragraphs generally get cut out on your first editing pass, but they are hard for amateur (or professional, for that matter) writers to part with. These are called your darlings (because you love them). But as Stephen King said many times in his amazing book “On Writing,” you must kill your darlings. And this is true. If you want to create a book people want to read, you must cut out the bits that serve no purpose—such as the whole page of magnificent and adverb heavy descriptions of reflective moon light. If it doesn’t add to the story or serves no purpose other than to show off your writing ability, it’s gotta go!
Below are two sets of writing examples. The first one is a first draft. The second is the edited final version,
“I hate you,” Roger (1)bellowed (2)disgustingly, (3)shifting uncomfortably as the fat rolls on his back pressed firmly against the black and gray marble counter.
(4)The tone from his venomous words caused Kate to shrink down into the hard rubbery cushion of her chair. Like a small child in trouble, she looked everywhere but at the person speaking. (5)She wondered when this bothersome fool would get tired of running his incessant gums so she could go watch TV in their milky-white walled living room.
“I hate you,” Roger said.
Kate shrunk down into her chair. Like a small child in trouble, she looked everywhere but at the person speaking. She wondered when he would stop talking so she could go watch TV.
As you can see, I cut out half of the word count here. Let’s break it down a bit further to see why I did so:
1. “I hate you,” Roger bellowed disgustingly.
First off, don’t abuse dialogue tags. 95% of the time “said” works just find. A dialogue tag is something to indicate who is speaking and nothing more. Your readers skim right over them without paying attention. If you change it up (barked, yelled, hollered, muttered, screeched, etc) you’re essentially drawing attention to the tag. You only do this if there’s a purpose—such as an intense scene where you really want to hammer the point home when showing who is speaking and in the manner which they’re speaking. Again, don’t abuse dialogue tags.
2. “Disgustingly” is a useless addition here. You shouldn’t use adverbs often, and when you do use them make sure it’s for good reason. For instance, disgustingly is a lazy way of telling the reader how Roger feels at the moment. Instead, show them how he feels through his actions. Even then, only do so if it’s necessary for the scene.
3. Unless you need to show the reader how gross and or fat Roger is, this sentence isn’t needed and is only being used as filler to fluff up the scene. Of course, if showing Roger’s appearance is important to the story, go right ahead and add it. Even if you do add it, though, the color or texture of the counter is most likely unimportant and can be cut.
4. Much like Roger’s physical description, you can keep the part about his venomous tone if it’s pertinent to the scene. I chose to cut it because the sentence following it gives some indication of how Kate feels towards Roger. Albeit, the whole thing can be written better, but this is just a quick example.
5. The original sentence is just too long and has pointless details. If you’re goal is to show her contempt toward him or her disdain for him, you can spice it up a little bit, but you need to remember how long the scene is. If this is a short scene connecting two bigger scenes, you can keep it short and the reader wouldn’t mind. One of the worst things you can do as a writer is turn a one-or-two paragraph scene into one-or-two pages. If it’s not important, cut it out. For example, the whole part about the living room is pointless to bring up. Unless the color of the living room or it existing at all is a clue for something later on in the story, it’s not needed.
This was a simple example but you can see how it pertains to most writers. In the golden days of literature it was perfectly acceptable to have sprawling pages of unneeded descriptions contained into one giant block paragraph. It was also normal for most novels to be heavy doorstops when they could have easily been normal paperbacks.
If you’re looking for a good example of an excellent novel that can be scrutinized under a modern lens, look no further than the Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. The Great Gatsby is a literary masterpiece, but it suffers from the writing style of its era—excluding the work of Ernest Hemingway, of course. You see, the great Gatsby is an example of beautiful prose that is weighed down by unnecessary adverbs and heavy-handed descriptions. Fitzgerald was talented enough to make it work, but many writers are not. Even so, The Great Gatsby is not the type of novel enjoyed by the casual reader. If you enjoy literary fiction it’s fine, but if you like clean, to the point prose, Fitzgerald’s writing style with bore you to tears.
Personally, I love the classics such as The Great Gatsby, but even I can’t help but notice the unneeded additions from Mr. Fitzgerald. Most of his paragraphs would convey the same message without the adverbs. If someone decided to write a novel like that today, it would flop. As with everything, writing has evolved (or devolved depending on who you ask).
The main thing to take away from this article, don’t be afraid to kill your darlings! No matter how much you love them. But I will let you in on a little secret: it’s okay to let one-or-two sneak into the final draft. Just let that be at your and your editors discretion.
Keep on writing!
If you found this helpful, check out some of the other quick fixes!