How Good Editing Adds by Taking Away

Kill your darlings. It’s an expression fiction writers use to refer to deleting a character or a scene that you really, really, like (yes, authors pick favourites, too). The phrase has been attributed to many famous fiction writers who understand that darlings are usually precious and self-indulgent. In other words, the five-line-long sentence of twinkling ornament you just wrote needs to go.

Death to ornament is required in nonfiction writing also. I was recently doing some contract writing—short, journalistic-style blog stories about communities in Toronto. In researching each, I discovered some wonderful nuggets of cultural history. Fascinating stuff, at least to me. But, as interesting as the information was, it was not necessary to the story. It was tangential, it needed to be killed.

But that didn’t happen right away. The decision to kill a darling is often proceeded with trying to help the darling ( the road to hell is paved with good intentions). Like Cinderella’s stepsisters, I tried to make it fit. In one blog, I tried to use a short version of the information, but without the background or context. As you can imagine, it seemed an awkward after-market addition.

If you’re struggling with a particular section of your book, consider if you’re trying to save a darling. You can try it in another place in the book, lengthen it, shorten it. But if it’s not working, be your own cold-blooded editor. Cut it.

While a book is meatier than a blog, you need to stick to its promise. The promise you made with your cover, with your title, with the back cover blurb—is the focus of your book. Stay focused.

If your darling is a fascinating bit of clinical research, a pithy quote, another example of your thesis at work, whatever it is, save it. Tuck your darlings away in a folder for another time—for a blog about your book or as content for your next book. 

As one of my favourite fictional authors, Professor Grady Tripp says, we make choices when we write—what to leave in, what to take out. It’s not always adding, but subtracting that makes it better. Coco Chanel famously advised women to be minimal in fashion ornament, recommending that before leaving the house you should remove one item. A hat, a scarf, a piece of jewelry… probably not the dress. 🙂

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