• M. Christine Benner Dixon

Don’t Kill Your Darlings . . . Save Them for Later

Do you ever go back to an old piece of writing and find yourself cringing at what you wrote? Yeah, you and pretty much everybody else in the history of the written word. In 1666 or so, Anne Bradstreet wrote a poem that depicts her old piece of writing as an embarrassingly dirty child who keeps trying to call her “Mama,” and she’s like, “I have no idea who this child is! Never saw him before!” We’ve all been there: something that seemed beautiful, poignant, wise, or witty in the moment, upon reflection, reveals itself to be ham-fisted and self-indulgent.

A Puritan woman sits at her desk with a wistful look. Caption: Anne Bradstreet wishes to God that she could edit those poems one more time.

So how can one avoid letting such embarrassing progeny loose in the world? In Anne Bradstreet’s case, the answer to that is to keep your poetry away from your well-meaning brother-in-law who may run off to England and publish your poems without your permission.

For the rest of us, there’s an old piece of writing advice that says, “Kill your darlings,” or, alternately (but no less violently), “Murder your babies.” In other words, excise those lines that you wrote for the mere pleasure of hearing your own words strung together, that you love too much, and your writing will be better, tighter, and more effective.

Massacre of the Innocents by Duccio di Buoninsegna [A painting of mothers in veils and robes holding bleeding babies.] Caption: When your writing advice evokes infant murder, it may be time to reconsider.

To some extent, this is good writing advice--that (and the gory imagery) is probably why it keeps getting repeated--every line in your writing needs to earn its keep. If it isn’t supporting your reason for writing, cut it. But perhaps the “Kill your darlings” platitude could do with a bit of scrutiny itself. Here’s my revision: Let your babies grow up.

Your darlings are darlings for a reason. As tempting as it is to take a superior position, even with your past self, I encourage you to honor the thing you love--or once loved. It’s okay that you actually enjoy writing those purple passages. It’s okay to like your own jokes, your own imagery, your own wordplay. If you approach revision with contempt for your own writing as your guide, you’re left wallowing in self-loathing (which is also a type of self-indulgence, by the way).

Loving your darlings doesn’t mean you can’t go back with red pen ablaze and totally rework your drafts. Deep revision is essential to the writing process. Is that line a little over-the-top for an academic essay? Reign it in. Is this graceful and elegant line wholly out-of-touch with the argument of the piece? Cut that baby!

Papers, some crumpled, scattered on the floor around a person's legs. Caption: All this can still be yours.

But rather than murdering the poor dear, maybe set it aside somewhere. Let your darlings mature into their proper place. Save the soaring language for a graduation address, the jokey anecdote for an interview, the sentimental remembrance of your pet iguana for your memoir.

I have a whole slew of documents in my “Prose - Fiction and Essays” Google folder, each of which contains no more than a few half-formed sentences. They are scraps and starts that have not yet matured. They are my darlings. In their original pieces, they were infantile attention-seekers with little to contribute. So I took those puppies out with no remorse. But rather than drowning them, I gave them a place to stay for a while--let them figure out who they are and what they will actually do with the attention once they get it.

Just the other week, I opened up one of those files, and a pointless little waif of a paragraph about me and my sisters polishing silver candy dishes in preparation for Thanksgiving grew into a story all its own. Given a little love and guidance, my darling grew up. That never would have happened if I had murdered it in its infancy.

The interior of a structural bridge.
Nah, I don't like it . . . take it out.

And you know what? There’s a passage--a rumination on crossing the erstwhile Tappan Zee Bridge--that does nothing at all for the development of the Thanksgiving story. I am fond of the little darling, though. So I’m going to let it live--just not in that story.

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