Stephen King on Writing: Kill your darlings is a phrase that has always baffled me. It sounds so, uh, cruel.

William Faulkner is rumored to have coined the literary expression “kill your darlings,” but the expression appears to originate with British author Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch.

When describing “style” in his 1916 publication “On the Art of Writing,” Couch says that “style” is something which “is not—can never be—extraneous ornament.” In an effort to stay on course, he created a practical rule to follow:

‘Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it—whole-heartedly—and delete it before sending your manuscript to press. Murder your darlings.’

“Murder your darlings” has since become “kill your darlings” as attributed to William Faulkner whose famously quoted to have said, “In writing, you must kill all your darlings.”

Best-seller Stephen King is a big advocate of the “kill your darlings” approach, and discusses it in his book “On Writing,” published in 2000. King advises:

“Mostly when I think of pacing, I go back to Elmore Leonard, who explained it so perfectly by saying he just left out the boring parts. This suggest cutting to speed the pace, and that’s what most of us end up having to do (kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings)…I got a scribbled comment that changed the way I rewrote my fiction once and forever. Jotted below the machine-generated signature of the editor was this mot: ‘Not bad, but PUFFY. You need to revise for length. Formula: 2nd Draft = 1st Draft – 10%. Good luck.’”


And how about a poet’s take on the same topic? See what you think of Jane Hirshfield’s poem, Character and Life (After, 2006, HarperCollins):

Character and Life

The young novelist held underwater

the head of the character in his book he loved best.

In the book, and as he wrote,

he counted until he was sure it was finished.

So what do you think? Are you willing to “kill your darlings” in order to make your writing stronger and save boredom for your reader? Or are there things in your non-writing life that you need to get rid of but are hanging onto for sentimental reasons? As always, I’d love to hear from you.

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