🦊 Kill Your Darlings
#86 — In writing and programming, clarity is king.
A common piece of writing advice is to “kill your darlings.” The idea is an old one, dating back to the early 1900s1, but it was popularized more recently by the writer Stephen King in his book On Writing:
“Kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings.”
The idea is straightforward: When editing your work, remove the bits which feel like darlings to you but are likely to be dull or distracting to readers.
I’ve had to implement this advice a lot while working on my book of fables. My developmental editor has been invaluable in helping my identify candidates for cutting. All in all, I’m a believer in this method. I drafted the fables with a high level idea of the theme and lesson, but I would go wherever the story would take me. This led to a lot of interesting (but perhaps distracting) bits that simply needed to go. It wasn’t easy to kill them, but I understood it had to be done.
When deciding whether or not to cut, I ask myself:
Does it serve the story?
Every sentence and scene needs to earns its place. If it serves you more than it serves your readers, it probably needs to be let go.
In Prose and Code, Clarity is King
Another angle I often look at: Am I trying to be clever?
Poetic prose is fun to write, and it can inspire readers through emotion. As I wrote when exploring Aristotle’s three principles of persuasion, “Pathos appeals to audience emotions, which can be touched with poetic language.”
But we have to be careful not to abuse the language, lest we lose the reader.
This balancing act reminds me of a conundrum I’ve often faced as a programmer: I want to write concise code, but if the technique used to shorten it is too clever, it makes the code less clear.
Writers and programmers both share the struggles of balancing clarity, conciseness and cleverness.2
Programmers are tempted to write code that looks beautiful, elegant, even stylish. Many languages and frameworks try to help with this goal—they offer shortened syntax as way to express verbose code in a concise way. This is known as syntactic sugar:
In computer science, syntactic sugar is syntax within a programming language that is designed to make things easier to read or to express. It makes the language "sweeter" for human use. … The programmer has a choice of whether to use the shorter form or the longer form, but will usually use the shorter form since it is shorter and easier to type and read.
The idea that shorter code is always easier to read has gotten many programmers into trouble. They end up writing clever code that is concise but unclear. It is so concise that it removes indicators of context that help readers understand and follow the code.
In writing, clarity is achieved by compression, but if you cut out out too much of the vocabulary, you lose some of its meaning.
In programming, clarity is achieved by compression, but if you cut out too much of the syntax hints and language context, you lose some of its meaning.
In both cases, clarity is foiled by too much cleverness. Programmers and writers are both tempted by the same devil, but they can defy it with the same mantra:
Clarity is king.
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Kill Today, Revive Tomorrow
All this murder of words can feel cruel at times.
Luckily, with the advent of digital writing, there is almost no cost to keeping your darlings tucked away somewhere. Throughout my book writing process, I’ve kept all my revisions, in the odd chance that I can revive them some day when the time and place worked better for them.
I didn’t think it would happen, until it did. Last year, I killed a rabbit in a story. In June, I revived it as a different character. (I wrote about this in a newsletter section called Rabbit Reborn.) It can happen!
Save the darlings. One day, they might save you in return.
Magic Is Hard To Measure
I’ll close by speaking to the other side of this story: How do we know when the editing is going too far, and cuts too deep? What if the darling we cut was the thing that really needed to stay? What if we’re losing the magic along the way?
I sometimes wonder how ‘kill your darlings’ would apply to some of the great classics. If you edited Alice in Wonderland with these rules, would the Mad Hatter make the cut?
If you’re looking for redundant things to cut, look no further than a tea party that repeats forever, paired with an unbirthday song that never stops.
I’d say the pair of Mad Hatter and March Hare are my favorite part of the 1951 film adaptation, but then I’d be lying. Cheshire Cat has my heart. The unbirthday hosts are a close second, though. Wait, no, maybe the Caterpillar is second. Yes, definitely the caterpillar. Maybe the Dormouse, actually. Or… God, I love them all!
When I imagine any of these delightful characters being cut for the sake of conciseness, the Red Queen’s rage takes over me.
Simply put: The Mad Hatter is magic. You cannot cut him. Most people would agree with that, I think. But Alice in Wonderland is already a classic. It’s hard to know how it would be looked at with fresh eyes.
How do you know what is magical in your own work? Magic is hard to measure. It’s subjective. We have to rely on others to look at our work, because we’re too close to it to see it objectively. And we must trust our own creative vision, because we’re so close to it that only we can truly understand it.
Knowing what to keep or cut is tricky. That’s what makes writing so difficult. The plight of a writer is to strike the right balance:
On the one hand, you must fight for the things you feel most strongly about. Save the darlings that deserve to be there, so that the unique magic you’ve created has a chance to dazzle the world.
On the other, you must avoid the fate of Gollum, who fell in love with his precious ring and couldn’t let go. If you’re not careful, you might end up stranded in your own creative cave, staring at your darlings, chanting through the night, “My…precious…paragraph…”
The exact origins of the phrase are debated, but many point to the 1916 book On the Art of Writing by Sit Arthur Quiller-Couch. This article from Masterclass shares a bit on its history along with some tips on implementing the advice.