Killing Your Darlings

Is that title the writing-blog equivalent of clickbait? Am I baiting clicks? Well, never mind. The title’s there now and I guess it’s staying.

So, obviously one of the first things I did when I was starting to get back into blogging more regularly is choose a piece of writing advice to talk about that everyone is basically guaranteed to have opinions on, because that’s what sensible people do, right? Anyway, I’m not going to be talking about how to do it, or when to do it, or even why to do it, I’m sorta going to be using it as a springboard to talk about writing advice of this sort in general, because I think this is a bit emblematic of certain kinds of writing advice.

I’ve made it clear before on the blog that I don’t think writing advice is bad. Heck, I probably give it more than any person of my level of experience should be entitled to. I’m clearly not averse to people sharing whatever tips and tricks they’ve picked up, regardless of whether they’ll work for the listener or not.

Side note: One of these days I’m going to go back and attempt to clean up past posts on the blog and I’m absolutely dreading going back and finding out what Bad Opinions I had back then. Whoof. Good times.

But back on topic. Writing advice. Killing darlings. Potentially-bad opinions.

The trouble with a lot of writing advice, I think, is that we are both writers and humans, and I’ve tried to rewrite the end of this sentence three times now to try and make that sound not condemning and failed, so let me take another tactic. Sorry, I’m apparently feeling a bit cynical at the moment.

Writing advice generally doesn’t do well for going viral. Writing is a creative pursuit, and it’s a very subjective … which doesn’t mean that there aren’t some constants that hold true for most styles of writing, just that there are lots of things that are very situational. A lot of writing is getting a balance right, and that balance changes depending on your audience, your genre, and the tone of your story. So really, the type of writing advice that’s most universally applicable generally goes something like “Consider your audience: know a lot about other books that have similar audiences to yours, and use that knowledge to decide what you think will do well or badly in your book.”

But that’s also not very helpful advice. It doesn’t give the person a new way to think about how they write, a direction they can try out to see if it improves their work or not. It’s just not helpful in many situations to just say “Try things and see how they work” – especially if someone doesn’t necessarily know the full range of options they can try in the first place!

And, of course, people like simple answers. It’s very attractive to have pithy axioms that you can use as guidelines and spread around, because that provides a nice, predictable framework. We like frameworks – frameworks give us direction. As we all know, though, the Internet is very bad at distinguishing between “good framework” and “thing that should be done in all circumstances regardless of context”. So let me talk about killing one’s darlings.

Let’s be honest, I’m not even sure what that means. “Kill your darlings” seems to mean something along the lines of ‘target and remove elements of your story that you enjoy too much” – which leaves the question of what, exactly, is too much. There are a lot of people who talk about  that advice as if some stony-faced Author Hauteur is telling everyone that they have to get rid of all the things they love in their stories, sacrifice their joy to serve the Craft of Commercial Viability or some such. I don’t think that’s true. I hesitate to say that there are any authors who would actually advocate for getting rid of things in a story just because you enjoy them. The interpretation that I often see is that you get rid of them if they’re only there because you enjoy them, and not because they improve the story – the idea that the sentence is actually the second half of a sentence: “When editing, you should be willing to kill your darlings”. I think that’s a much more sensible interpretation, but I still have a problem with writing advice that’s boiled down to a single three-word phrase, but you have to inherently understand multiple caveats and some contextualising before it’s actually useful.

Side note: I have, however, seen authors who have pooh-poohed writers who point out that “if I kill all my darlings, why do I write in the first place” as weak-willed, and unwilling to see their own work with a critical eye, so take that information as you will.

We do spend a lot of time asking famous people to condense us down some pithy writing advice and then passing it around the Internet as gospel, and I think that’s more the problem here, than what the advice actually is. Of course ‘kill your darlings’ isn’t useful advice – it’s a phrase designed to sound impressive. It’s the topic sentence of the paragraph, not the advice itself. But we’ve learned to engage with this advice as if it’s the whole statement.

But the real question is, do I think this is a problem that needs solving? I mean, there is tons of writing advice out there that isn’t reductive, and it’s not hard to find these days. I mean, you found this blog article, right? Forget famous, I’m barely even reputable. If you can find my ramblings, you can find heaps of extremely well-articulated advice on any topic you so desire. I don’t think that people being familiar with this truism style of advice is an actual barrier to learning about writing these days. And they do prompt people to make blog posts about them, and to talk about them and discuss them, and that’s not a useless thing. Just because we discuss them and decide they’re wrong, or not nuanced enough, doesn’t mean it was worthless to start the conversation in the first place.

Plus, far be it from me to say people should never read those collections-of-advice articles. Heck, I go read them from time to time, We like to stickybeak into what other people think about things we enjoy, and far be it from me to say people should stop reading things they enjoy.

Just … I think it’s important to keep in mind that if an idea can be expressed in less than five words, it’s probably worth looking for the nuance, too.

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