Kill Your Darlings (And Other Tales)

Because we’re so bombarded by information these days, it’s probably safe to say we’re reading—or consuming, rather—more words than ever. Whether it’s status updates from social media, blogs, or news sites, we tend to click our way through the day, raising an eyebrow or sharing something we find interesting. But when it comes to creative writing, there’s a big difference between consumption, information, and art.

In my own writing journey, I’ve learned a lot, but as an editor, I’ve been fortunate to be part of other people’s journeys as well. Here’s the short list of what I’ve learned about writing as an art form.

  1. Lose the Agenda

When you sit down to write, you often have an idea in mind, some moment or character or situation you’d like to capture. If you’re writing about yourself—say in an essay or blog—you may have something you want to tell other people, a lesson you’ve learned, or something you’ve noticed that you want to share. But the most important thing you can do is lose your agenda and see where the piece takes you. We may have a conscious goal as we sit down to write, but we also need to let the unconscious in. Most times, the deeper layer is the one that’s more interesting and honest.

  1. Seek Another Point of View

Because it’s so easy to get your words to a virtual audience, particularly through free formats like blogging, we may see editing as an unnecessary hassle. Who needs it when you can write exactly what you want, and quickly? But an editor has an important role, not least of which is that she or he helps the writer gain a bigger perspective on the work. Writers spend a lot of time in their heads, and they’re not always aware of how something will sound to an audience. A good editor, on the other hand, can give much-needed insight on how to better connect with that audience. Good writing is not about the ego of the writer, but about getting out of the way so the beauty can come through.

  1. Don’t Assume Every Word You Write Is Precious

Don’t be afraid to scrap sentences, paragraphs, entire pages—heck, an entire book!—when it’s not working. It’s not time wasted. Often, you have to do a lot of bad writing to get to the rich soil of goodness underneath. (A good reason to have the sentence, “Patience is a virtue,” taped on your office wall.)

  1. “Kill Your Darlings.”

When I first heard the famous phrase “Kill your darlings” in relation to writing, I didn’t get it. That’s probably because I had a lot of darlings. Now I’ve started to realize that if a sentence or line really stands out, if I really think I’m clever for writing it, that means it probably has to go. Basically, every word or sentence is like a piece of clay molding into a sculpture. If one knobby part is sticking out, it’s taking away from the whole.

  1. Use Your Finger Muscles. 

When we write on the computer, it’s easy to think of our words being set in stone. We already see them looking like a finalized document. Instead, try writing some drafts or ideas by hand, just to see where they go. You might find yourself being more creative, not to mention free. Journals are much easier to carry than laptops.

  1. Trust Your Vision and Don’t Look for Glory.

Think of a movie that really touched you but doesn’t make any “best of” lists. Or an out-of-print book that you found in a used bookstore, and you can’t figure out why it’s no longer available on shelves. Or a painting by a local artist that you think is just as good, if not better, than the stuff hanging on the walls at some of the biggest museums in the world.

The point is this—so many great and famous writers were not famous in their time. Emily Dickinson hid her poems; Thoreau published “Civil Disobedience” in a small and almost forgotten literary journal. No one thought The Great Gatsby was the greatest American novel of all time until long after Fitzgerald’s death. The key is to write what you’re led to write, not what you think others will like, not what you think will get the most page views, and not what you assume will “sell.” You may never know why a particular piece wants to be born, but if it does, honor that muse in you.

Just don’t assume that the piece you’re most proud of will earn you fame and glory in this lifetime. You only have to take a peek at literary history to see that often, just the opposite occurs.


Image by Elvert Barnes via Flickr

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