Every writer has times when they just can’t seem to get a piece of writing to work. No matter how many times you redraft, change the structure, or add new information, there’s still something not quite right about it.
It’s frustrating and sometimes, you just need to take a step away and come back another day with a fresh pair of eyes.
However, you might find it impossible to get a piece of writing to work because you are unable to do one important thing: “kill all your darlings”.
This often-repeated piece of writing advice encourages a more objective, pragmatic approach to editing and cutting your work.
Read on to find out how this simple piece of advice could revolutionise your copywriting.
Write with emotion, edit without it
Famed American novelist, William Faulkner once said, “in writing, you must kill all your darlings”.
Though this piece of literary advice is often attributed to him, it was actually first coined by British writer Arthur Quiller-Couch.
Since then, it has been championed by many writers, including Stephen King, who insists you must follow the advice, “even if it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart”.
But what exactly do they mean by kill your darlings?
Arthur Quiller-Couch first said:
“Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it — wholeheartedly — and delete it before sending your manuscript to press. Murder your darlings.”
The idea of deleting a piece of “exceptionally fine writing” as he put it, may seem counterproductive.
But what he really meant is that it’s important to avoid becoming too emotionally attached to your work because it clouds your judgment during the editing process.
Instead, you must view your writing objectively. If a certain sentence or paragraph isn’t right for the piece, you should change it or get rid of it altogether, even if you think it’s brilliant.
“Good” doesn’t necessarily equal “relevant” or “useful”
It’s always satisfying when you put pen to paper and come out with something excellent. Perhaps you’ve explained a complex topic in a particularly elegant way or used a clever phrasing? You might just enjoy the way the writing sings on the page.
But, while these sections of well-executed writing – your darlings – might be good, that doesn’t necessarily mean they are relevant or useful to the piece as a whole.
For example, I might have a beautifully explained paragraph about tax relief on pensions that makes it easy enough that a child could understand it. But in an article about the potential benefits of pension consolidation, it doesn’t quite fit.
The information may be adjacent to the topic and the writing itself might be excellent but including it will only distract from the point of the article. It could disrupt the structure and make it more difficult for the reader to understand the narrative, ultimately making the piece worse.
Yet, all too often, writers cling on to these darlings for dear life and never want to cut them out because they like them.
That’s what Arthur Quiller-Couch was warning against.
Adopting the mindset of killing your darlings makes you more pragmatic when editing your work, and this can be transformative.
It encourages you to consider the overall aim of a piece of writing and only include content that furthers that aim. You also go into the editing process knowing that nothing is safe, and anything can be changed.
As a result, you view each word as if somebody else had written it, with no attachment to it at all.
Ultimately, this creates a more focused editing process that allows you to streamline your work and trim away anything unnecessary.
There’s usually a reason you can’t find a place for something
Knowing when to cut something and when to edit it can be challenging. There is always the danger that you remove a piece of writing that would add value if you reworked it and put it in the right place.
Fortunately, there may be ways to tell whether you should cut or not.
If you are constantly rewriting a section and moving it around to find a place for it, that may be a sign it doesn’t fit. If there is no clear place for it in the narrative structure that you are trying to create, consider whether you could do without it.
After all, if the information was that crucial, you’d likely know where to put it.
Cuts don’t have to be forever
When writers advise you to kill all your darlings, it sounds very dramatic. It evokes images of a novelist burning entire chapters of a book, or a copywriter highlighting a whole article and hitting the delete key.
But it doesn’t have to be that drastic.
Remember, you can always save a separate version of your work. This gives you a chance to experiment, cut sections out, rearrange, and rewrite to see what happens.
You might find that deleting half the piece and rewriting it makes all the difference. Or, you might decide it was actually better before and go back to the original version.
Either way, you have more clarity about what works and what doesn’t because you weren’t afraid to kill all your darlings.
Get in touch
If you find it difficult to be objective about your own work, you might benefit from our professional copywriting services.
You can email us at email@example.com or call us on 0115 8965 300.