Kill Your Darlings

By Ian Pisarcik, Legal Publications Attorney Editor

The phrase “kill your darlings, kill your darlings” has been attributed to numerous writers, including William Faulkner, Eudora Welty, and Anton Chekhov. The phrase, however, likely originated with British writer and University of Cambridge Professor Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch who urged students to kill their darlings in a 1913 lecture (reprinted in On the Art of Writing). Irrespective of the source, the implication remains the same: get rid of the fluff.

But how do you identify which of your darlings ought to be pulled from the text and burned at the stake?

University of California Davis School of Law Professor Richard Wydick suggests distinguishing between working words and glue words. Working words carry the meaning of the sentence. Glue words hold the working words together. Glue words are necessary but, like fine cabinetry, working words can be carefully selected, cut, and shaped to fit together with scarcely any glue. Take a look at the following sentences:

The ruling by the trial  judge was prejudicial error for the reason that it cut off cross-examination with respect to issues which were vital.

The trial judge’s ruling was prejudicial error because it cut off cross-examination on vital issues.

In the first sentence, 11 of the 24 words are working words. In the second, clearer and more concise sentence, 11 of the 15 words are working words.

In addition to distinguishing working words from glue words, you can become adept at killing your darlings by:

  • Avoiding compound prepositions (e.g., in the event that = if);
  • Cutting clauses to phrases (e.g., while the trial was in progress = during the trial);
  • Avoiding redundant phrases (e.g., added bonus, last will and testament);
  • Avoiding lawyerisms; and
  • Using the Track Changes feature of Word to compare drafts (particularly helpful to those hesitant to kill their darlings).

Killing your darling won’t be painless. But it is a simple way to improve your writing. Perhaps Stephen King put it best when he stated, “kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings.” Anyone who has read King’s Tommyknockers, the 800 page doorstop featuring killer vending-machines, would be quick to call this a case of doing as one says and not as one does. That’s fine. Take his advice. Or if you prefer, take the advice of William Faulkner, Eudora Welty, Anton Chekhov. . .