Perhaps the most famous editing advice ever given:
“In writing, you must kill all your darlings.”
Usually people attribute this to William Faulkner, who did indeed say it. But so did many other people.
My favorite variation on this theme comes from Stephen King. I’ve never read his novels, but I found his book On Writing: A memoir of the craft wise and witty.
In it, King wrote
“…kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings.”
I love King’s formulation of this advice because in it I hear the frustration of both the writer asked to hit “delete” and the editor who recognizes the (temporary) narcissism of a writer admiring the creation. And of course all good writers must have both writer and editor living inside them. The trick is to know which one to unleash, and when.
An editor surveying King’s advice might itch to red-line the two extra iterations of “kill your darlings.” (They are a bit much.) The writer will recognize that repeating the words doesn’t convey additional information, but the poet inside the writer will take a stand for the words: Because they convey emotion. And words that can do that are golden. They keep your reader or listener engaged; in fact, they deepen that engagement.
Still, editors have more objectivity than we do. So if you’re lucky enough to work with an external editor (i.e., one who doesn’t live inside your head), try to pay attention to their reasoning. Sometimes they see our work better than we do.
If you’re editing yourself, as all of us do in our early drafts, you may have to manufacture some objectivity. Put the work away for a day, two days—a week if you can—and then go back to edit.
Practical editing advice: When, how, what
“Go back to edit.” Yes, writing and editing use separate parts of your brain, so don’t try to do them both at once.
Write first. Write as much as you can—the whole draft, if possible. Don’t look back until you’re done. If you edit as you go, you won’t get very far. Oh, you might have a killer opening line, a brilliant first paragraph. But if that paragraph doesn’t lead to others and, eventually, to an equally brilliant closing paragraph, then no one will see that brilliance because you’ll never finish the work.
You can find lots of English teacher-y advice on how to edit a sentence. So let’s look at the bigger picture—your piece as a whole.
With each paragraph, each sentence, each phrase, ask yourself:
- Is it redundant?
- Does it contain emotion or other hooks (like humor) to engage the reader?
- Does it move the story forward?
And make no mistake about it—you are telling a story, at least if you want people to remember what you have to say. So make sure every passage drives the story. If it doesn’t, then highlight, copy and…
Relocate your darlings
You don’t have to hit “delete.” You don’t have to “kill your darlings.” I prefer to relocate them instead. So I copy and paste things into an “Outtakes” document. That way the writer in me knows my brilliant prose is safe, and I can maintain the fiction that it’ll come in handy somewhere else. In 25 years of writing, I don’t think I’ve ever rescued something from the Outtakes file. But I could if I wanted to, and knowing that makes it so much easier to edit.
If you’re writing for yourself, these guidelines will serve you well. If you’re ghostwriting for a client, you have to strengthen your objectivity muscles. More on that another day.