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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 the Darlings in Your Writing Practice


darlings-quoteIn 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.

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.”

Of the two types, process darlings are far more dangerous. A good editor or trusted colleague can spot written darlings even when the writer herself can’t.

wait-for-inspiration-process-darlingProcess darlings can feel absolute true and keep you away from writing. As Dan Poynter says, waiting for inspiration (or anything else you think you have to have) makes you a waiter, not a writer.

What’s the Difference between a Process Darling and a Writing Ritual?

I’m all in favor of writing rituals. They make no logical sense and are often contradictory: Ernest Hemingway, Virginia Woolf, Lewis Carroll and other all wrote standing up; Mark Twain, Truman Capote and Eudora Welty all wrote lying down. But they make complete neurological sense. (More about weird writing rituals)

Mark Twain writing in bedRituals are great as long as we remember that their power lies in mere repetition, not in any inherent value of the ritual. It doesn’t matter what you do before and as you begin to write; it matters that there some one thing you do nearly every time you write.

When you follow a ritual it’s a whole lot easier to write, but if for some reason you can’t follow the ritual, you can still write. A darling is something you believe you cannot write without.

Likewise, the difference between effective guidelines (e.g. write before I check email) and a darling (e.g. If I check email, I can’t write) is the misplaced belief that the darling is essential. I prefer to write in relative quiet and I write more effectively in quiet, but I can write in a noisy place when that’s the only place to write.

Finding Darlings in Your Writing Practice

Step 1. Freewrite as many different responses as you can think of to complete this sentence:

“Writers have to ________________.”

While you’re freewriting, list any response you think of, even if you don’t think the sentence is really true about you. If it could be true about any writer, write it down.

Step 2. List what you think you have to have or have to do or have to be so you can write. For example, “I have to at least an hour to make writing worthwhile” or “I have to clear out my email before I write so it doesn’t distract me” or “I have to be inspired.”

censor yourself canstockphoto8968105 (2)Step 3. Question every item on your Step 2 list: Is this really true? Or is it true only because I think it’s true?

Step 4. Highlight the writing rituals that help you get started. Remember that your ritual is arbitrary. It has no inherent power or benefit, you give it power by repeating it. If you been lulled into thinking your ritual is essential, that you can’t write without it, it’s a dangerous darling. Put it on your Process Darling list.

Step 5. Highlight the useful guidelines in your list. For example, “write first thing in the morning” is not essential in my practice because I can write at other times, but it is an outstanding guiding principle because I write best when I write in the morning. If you’ve lost sight of the fact that a guideline is useful but not essential, if you’ve slipped into thinking a guideline is a writing rule that you can’t break, put it on the Process Darling list.

Step 6.  You know what to do next: Kill your Process Darlings. Remind yourself that the darling may sound true, but it’s not. Don’t let it have power of your writing. Intentionally write in situations your darling says you can’t write in.

Practice your rituals and remember that they’re arbitrary and that’s part of why they work. Strive to follow your useful guidelines. When you can’t do your ritual or follow your guidelines, show up and write anyway.

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