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Creativity coach, writing and creative process instructor, speaker, author of Around the Writer's Block: Using Brain Science to Write the Way You Want (Penguin/Tarcher 2012) and Dancing in the Dragon's Den (Red Wheel Weiser), Teaching Artist at the Loft Literary Center.

Kill Your Darlings — But First You Have to Find the Little Buggers

darlings-quoteNearly every writer has darlings — both in what we write and how we write.

“Kill your darlings” is great advice. The difficulty is figuring out what your darlings are.

Traditionally, a darling is anything you’ve written that you are overly attached to and is not essential to the piece you’re writing. But knowing what a darling is doesn’t guarantee the ability to distinguish between what needs revising/refining and what needs cutting.

Likewise, process darlings are the things you believe you must have, do or be to write well, but aren’t truly essential. For example, “I have to have at least an hour, a good cup of coffee and the sound of ocean waves to hear my muse.” Process darlings a common source of resistance. 

kill-your-darlings-3Darlings in your writing keep you from writing as powerfully as you can. Darlings in your writing practice keep you from writing at all.

Darling Hunting

Let’s start the darling hunt in the writing itself (we’ll look at process darlings in how we write in the next post). What works for me is an exercise I call “Fixed or Fluid,” which challenges you to identify the fixed points in your story.

doctor-who-should-be-writingIf you’re a Doctor Who fan, you know that the term “fixed points” refers to events in history that cannot be altered, not even by the Doctor.

In this exercise, I define “fixed points” as the scenes or story elements that the author knows in her/his heart of hearts are truly essential. Changing these scenes or elements would mean writing a different story.

I haven’t tried it, but I suspect the Fixed or Fluid exercise could be fruitfully applied to nonfiction, perhaps even poetry.

We start the darling hunt by identifying what we are not hunting, what isn’t fair game.

Step 1. List the scenes you know must be in your story. (Or elements, points or images that have to be in your essay, chapter or poem.) Don’t look back at your draft, notes, outlines or anything else. Off the top of your head, what points are fixed in the time and space of your story?

Because you’re not looking at your draft or outlines, you’re not trying narrow your choices from a big field. You aren’t deleting. Instead, you create a list out of nothing. That keeps the number of fixed points reasonable.

Step 2. Everything that is not on the Fixed list up for grabs. By definition, anything that is not a fixed point is fluid and can be changed.

coffee-notebook-pens-staedtler-study-favim-com-54563Step 3. Explore, brainstorm, dreamstorm, freewrite, draft or journal what could be changed IF you were to change a particular scene or chapter. Don’t worry about how you’d change anything yet, don’t worry about what other changes this change could trigger.

This step is all hypothetical. You are not committing making any of these changes. Think of this as creativity test — instead listing different ways to use a brick, you imagine how many other ways a particular scene could go.

Step 4. Set the results from Step 3 aside. Don’t think about them. Alright, at least try to not think about those other possibilities.

Step 5. A couple of days later, go darling hunting in your draft. Yes, you still have tough decisions to make about what actually needs to go and what needs to be refined (and how). But you will have unconsciously detached from some of your assumptions and the darlings will be easy to spot.

Step 6. When you find your darlings, be merciless.

In the next post, I’ll lay out the steps for finding darlings in your writing practice. Please let me know what you discover when you go darling hunting.


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8 Comments on “Kill Your Darlings — But First You Have to Find the Little Buggers”

  1. heatherjacksonwrites March 13, 2017 at 7:32 pm #

    Nice post! “Kill your darlings” is totally useless advice if you don’t know how to find them. I’m going to bookmark this post under ‘editing’. Thanks!


  2. allisonslavick January 27, 2017 at 10:24 am #

    I wonder how that evolved.


    • rosannebane January 27, 2017 at 11:38 am #

      Thanks for your musing Allison. I’m wondering what the “that” is that you’re wondering how it evolved.


  3. kperrymn January 27, 2017 at 8:44 am #

    I appreciate the step-by-step process to finding darlings. It helps move this from a “should” list to something doable.


    • rosannebane January 27, 2017 at 11:37 am #

      Thanks Katy! You know I always try to provide action steps…



  1. Do Writers Have to Polish the Occasional Turd? | Bane of Your Resistance - February 23, 2017

    […] just I post about killing darlings? I even wrote a neat step-by-step guide for finding darlings. I actually did the first three steps […]


  2. Kill the Darlings in Your Writing Practice | Bane of Your Resistance - February 3, 2017

    […] In my last post, I suggested that in addition to darlings that appear in our writing – sections we are inordinately proud of that simply don’t serve the whole of the piece – we have darlings in how we show up to write. […]


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