Killing Your Darlings?

David Armstrong, in his excellent book about writing: 'How Not To Write a Novel' declares that he doesn't subscribe to the 'kill your darlings' school of literary advice, and I'm increasingly inclined to agree with him. It's one of those glib generalisations - attributed to William Faulkner, so I'm told - and teachers of creative writing have been parroting it thoughtlessly ever since.
I know what they mean. There are times when we all become enchanted by the beauty of our own prose, to the point where it becomes self indulent, and we have to be very aware of that as a pitfall. But there are also times when we know that something is exactly right, is strong, well written, valuable and a vital part of the whole novel, story or play. To discard such a piece of writing on the principle that if you think it's good, you're wrong, seems like madness to me!
It's been on my mind, recently, since I received a piece of rather sweeping editorial advice to which my first response was rage, my second response was to remember the 'kill your darlings' maxim and wonder if he wasn't right after all, and my third and final response was to do some judicious pruning which the advice had highlighted, and for which I'm grateful, but to leave most of my 'darlings' firmly in place.
I'm reminded of the differences between men and women when it comes to gardening. On the whole (and I'm not talking about professionals here - I'm sure Alan Titchmarsh is a model of restraint!) men tend to hack and chop while women prune, carefully and thoughtfully, with due regard for the nature of the tree or shrub. Probably the only time I ever saw my late mum and dad - a very loving couple - arguing, was when my dad had 'done some pruning' in the garden. I remember her chasing him round the garden, shears in hand, yelling at him. Perhaps men take the same approach to manuscripts - who knows? 
This is by no means an argument against revisions and editing. Most beginning writers need to learn the virtues of rewriting, over and over again. And there are a number of extremely experienced writers who - by the time they get to novel number ten or eleven or twelve - no names no pack drill - might benefit from the services of a good editor, but by that stage are too powerful to be edited. But there comes a point when you have to have a certain confidence in your own voice, in your own work. We walk a tightrope, most of us, too close to our own work to be able to see it clearly, but perhaps not quite confident enough to hold out for what we believe in. Treat your darlings like any other piece of writing. Fairly. Thoughtfully. Carefully. But as for killing them? I don't think so.


margaret blake said…
I couldn't agree more, too much pruning can kill the plant! (That's a darling of a metaphor that could do with pruning).

I thought it Orwell who said it but I could be wrong.
Could have been Orwell, Margaret. I didn't know and had to look it up, but that's no guarantee that my source is right. I think it's one of these things that has been repeated!
Anonymous said…
Absolutely right Catherine. I had a 'lively discussion' with a very eminent poet recently over one of my own poems. When I had taken out my 'darlings' as suggested, the poem was lifeless, bland and anonymous. What makes writers distinctive and original is their ability to create 'darling' phrases and images.
Colin Will