Killing Your Darlings: a Guest Post from Sue Healy

Sue Healy

Sue Healy is an Irish whirlwind. You’ve only got to check her bio on her blog (http://suehealy.org/) to see that.  She’s an award-winning writer, tutor, poet and journalist. She’s lived in Budapest and the UK (where she got her MFA) and teaches creative writing in English prisons. She’s also a Creative Writing tutor with the Open University (a British online University that started on TV in the 1970’s – very advanced thinking for us staid Brits!)  teaches for an independent online service, and in her spare time and leisure moments runs creative writing workshops in Ireland, France and Hungary.

Oh, did I mention that she’s  reworking a draft of her novel and putting together a collection of short stories? Don’t be intimidated – she’s friendly and has some great free advice for you. Here it is:

The Importance of Editing

‘Murder’ or ‘Kill your darlings’ is an adage attributed to the literary critic Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, advising writers to cut the words / phrases to which they are most attached, in order to strengthen the work. It is good advice when editing, as often we writers shoehorn in a delicious description which doesn’t do an enormous amount for the piece as a whole. It is simply a bauble. Time to get the gun out.

Editing makes the job of writer a rather schizophrenic affair where one has to don two very different caps. The first cap is that of the creative -who is focused on the big picture and is not too worried about the details. This is the person who comes up with the story, the theme, the basic structure, the person who invents characters and decides on the tone. This artist-writer will draw up the first draft of the story, writing only to please themselves. Finishing a draft wearing this cap is only some of the journey, however…

Next comes the cap of editor-writer. This is when the writer combs through the text, ruthlessly chopping, restructuring and cutting unnecessary/ unsuitable words, characters, scenes, phrases etc… or ‘murdering your darlings’. This is the writer preparing the text for other people. It is a good idea to leave a few weeks between your artist and editor incarnations.

Editing can be painful, and time-consuming. You’ve quite likely become attached to some characters, scenes, words and phrases and are loath to see them go. Don’t worry, you can store them in your “writer’s bag” for use at a future time in a more suitable context. In the meantime, get pruning…

Chopping advice:

Cut all surplus adjectives and adverbs.

Examine the phrases you’ve shoehorned in just because you liked the sound of them – do they really fit that scene? Be honest. If not, bin them.

Take out all vague words such as “seem/seemingly” and try to do without your “justs”.

Look at all sentences that run for two or three lines. Do they really need to be that long? Can you reduce them or break them up? If you can, do so.

Active forms are better than passive forms, where possible (i.e. “John cleaned the flat” rather than, “the flat was cleaned by John”).

Finally, every writer on Earth needs a reader or two – fresh eyeballs to run over your work and give you honest feedback. I suggest using three friends whom you trust will be frank with you. You don’t have to take everything they say on board. Do consider what they say, however, and if all three come back and say a character is not working. The character is not working. Rewrite.

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