Have you ever written something you love, then realised part of it doesn’t quite work?
- Maybe it’s a detailed analogy (but it’s a bit convoluted).
- Maybe it’s a funny joke (but one that distracts from the main point you’re making).
- Or maybe it’s a sentence with a lovely rhythm (but that actually means shockingly little when you think about it).
The right thing to do is, of course, to take it out.
But that’s hard.
So you ignore the inner editor. “This is good,” you say to yourself. “This is the exception that proves the rule. Or something. It’s art. It’s too good to lose”.
Because the alternative is killing it, and that’s just too much to bear.
Why it’s hard to kill your darlings
This process – taking out things you love that don’t quite work – is often called “killing your darlings”.
It’s taking something you love and murdering it for the greater good.
It’s a popular phrase. And one that really captures just how viscerally painful it can be to kill something you love.
But it’s not a helpful phrase.
The problem with this sentiment is that it implies the line or idea is good. It should be protected. That taking it out should be painful.
But… that’s not true.
In actual fact that darling isn’t what you thought it was. You thought it was a beautiful line. But then you look closer and… something’s wrong.
It’s zombie hunting time
That ‘darling’? it might look like that great idea you had. And it feels alive. But something is very off with it.
It actually died a long time ago, you just didn’t want to accept it. But it’s not alive, no matter how much you wish it was.
And it would sooner eat your brain than offer you any help or reassurance.
That’s right – it’s not your darling at all.
It’s a zombie.
And there’s always that person in a zombie movie who refuses to accept that someone close to them is gone. You watch them, and you shout at the screen “The person you love is gone! They aren’t what you think they are! Get away from them!”
Well, that’s exactly what we all do when we keep those lines that don’t quite work, just because we love them.
So next time you come to one of those ideas, don’t let your emotions get in the way.
You aren’t killing darlings. You’re slaying zombies.
Realising this makes the killing much easier to stomach. And it makes the piece better (which is the entire point anyway).
In the words of Ira Glass, if something doesn’t work “It’s time to kill. And it’s time to enjoy the killing because by killing you will make something even better live.”
Kill the zombies. Slaughter them. Go at them with a claw hammer if you have to.
It’s them or you.