Don't kill your darlings.

Not until you figure out what "Kill your darlings" really means.

On the long list of “widely misunderstood writing advice that causes apprentice writers endless problems” (a real list, I swear), “Kill Your Darlings” might be the most oppressive entry.

I have seen apprentice writers interpret this to mean that they should go through their work and take out everything about it they particularly like: characters they are attached to, turns of phrase that seem to them particularly apt. Clever dialogue and striking description and nefarious plot twists, all gone under the axe.

As if it could somehow improve one’s art to make it less awesome. To actively go out and work to take all the awesome out. To suction up all the atmosphere, all the breeziness, all the brightness, all the snark.

Do that, and I promise you, you’ll suck all the life out of the work as well.

This line is often attributed to William Faulkner, and/or to Allen Ginsberg. Possibly both of them were quoting remembered advice: as far as I know the real originator is Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch (1863–1944), and the actual phrase is “Murder your darlings.” Here is a link to the relevant passage in On the Art of Writing.

As you can see, this is a chapter entitled Style, and the exhortation to the murder of darlings comes in the midst of a exhortation against confusing purple, over-ornamented prose with “Style.”

Sir Arthur isn’t telling you to take out everything you like: he’s giving you the same advice that fashionistas give to over-accessorizers: put on everything you want to wear, and then take off a thing or two.

In other words, the things you should cut are the self-indulgent things; the things that are not doing work. The things that weigh on the story and drag the style down in a mess of words. That is what is meant by “darlings” in this context. The clever plot twists that you cannot seem to make work without distorting the flow or sense of the narrative. The bits of banter that take too much setup for the payoff they deliver. The strings of boggy adjectives.

The clever stuff that makes the story worse, in other words. Not the clever stuff that makes it better.