24: Kill All Your Darlings: Self-Editing


“In writing, you must kill all your darlings.” — William Faulkner

Self-editing, after getting started and having a few drafts completed can perhaps be the most anxiety-riddled aspect of the writing process. But it’s also one of the most key parts to the process of producing a finished story.

It’s very easy to become (overly) married to plot threads or twists, characters, scenes, dialogue and so on. You’ve poured your soul into what you’ve written, and you actually like the story you’ve told, so editing out anything feels like literary murder.

So here’s something to consider about the story you’ve written: You, as the author, must be like a good gardener who is more invested in the aesthetics of their garden than each individual plant, tree or shrub.

Yes, those rose bushes look glorious with all the flowers. So do the dogwood and cherry tree and geraniums.

But when you prune, sometimes radically, that’s how you produce more flowers and a healthier rosebush, dogwood, cherry tree, geraniums and any other flowering (or not) plant. What can also happen is that if you don’t prune, if you don’t cut off some (or all, at the end of their life) of the flowers, the tree or shrub won’t blossom again. Pruning is also done to give the bush or tree a better shape (even to an extreme, like topiary, where the gardener painstakingly shapes a bush into looking like an owl.)

You, as an author, are there to give your story shape.

While I’m definitely not a topiary artist, I do know about pruning to gain health for a plant from my own garden. The more I stay on top of pruning the dying geranium or lavender blossoms, the more I get. The more the plant keeps blossoming. I have one lavender bush where I didn’t cut off the flowers before they fully died. It hasn’t bloomed again this season. At least not yet. The other flowering plants (including my other lavenders) where I have maintained them have all gone through another 2 or 3 rounds of blooms.

So what does this have to do with writing and self-editing?

Like many flowering bushes, trees and shrubs, if you don’t prune them (edit), all you get is green, green and more green. No flowers. And what’s more boring (and even sad) than a flowering plant that doesn’t flower?

Pruning also helps the plant’s/tree’s overall health in addition to giving it shape. Yes, you can think, “But a tree should know how to grow, right? It should know what limbs to drop?”

Sure. It can. Out in the wild. But out in the wild, it’s the wild that’s attractive. In your garden, you want a bit more tidiness and flowers. In the wild, you don’t have to worry about a tree becoming so top-heavy it falls over onto your car or your house. Or drop a limb. Pruning specific limbs, even quite healthy limbs, aids the tree in maintaining stronger health.

Same goes for your story. You want a story with shape and direction, not sections of lovely, but top-heavy-scenes that threaten to topple your story over.

Self-editing isn’t easy.

What is easy is to become so married to the story, to specific scenes (especially well-written ones) and even characters it’s hard to create the emotional distance you need. But the emotional distance is what you need to see where the story is clunky, top-heavy, melodramatic and so on. I’ve had people say to me, “But I can’t take this out!” when I’ve provided feedback on a sample of their work. “I worked really hard on this part!”

They’ll say this even if they do (if not grudgingly) agree with me that, overall, it makes the story too thick and feel like it isn’t blossoming. The author may even feel stuck. Nay—wrought with writer’s block. It may feel like “killing all” their “darlings” is nothing less than outright murder.

Editing doesn’t necessarily mean deleting, but it often does. Editing, really, means fixing.

From Dictionary.com:

Screen Shot 2016-07-24 at 8.23.17 AM

Sure, editing can mean “to expunge; eliminate”, but it still doesn’t necessarily mean whacking out nearly 30% of your story like I did with Coming Home. Much of what I deleted were scenes that were either too much like Backbeat (flashbacks to a remembered experience). Later, I realized that many scenes were nice, even terrific, but they no longer fit the story I realized I was actually telling.

You must learn how to self-edit. The more married you are to a detail or scene, the more likely that detail or scene needs you to take several steps back and really look at it. Hard.

Creating distance between your work and you allows you to see it from your reader’s perspective.

Even highly-acclaimed, multi-book authors self-edit (a lot!) before they send a draft off to their editor. Leaving it up to them and only them means leaving your story up to someone who knows nothing about it. Imagine if that 806-page version of Coming Home and all the scenes I had at one point were actually all beautifully written, if not sort of raggedly stitched together. Now imagine if I’d let someone else do all the major overhauling. Would that person have created a story that was what I wanted to tell or what they thought I wanted to tell?

Or, worse, would they, instead, create a story they wanted to tell?

Without self-editing, you can’t tell your story the way you want to. Self-editing means deciding what your story is, and then arranging your writing so you tell it.

When Coming Home reached 806 single-spaced, 8.5×11 pages, I did really like the story. It had a nice flow. A lot of backstories for the plot and all of the characters. Those storieswere important, yes. But, in all honesty, I’d told about three novels-worth of stories that weren’t Lana’s. And, after a week’s break, I realized the story was purely Lana’s; most of those back stories, lovely or not, weren’t hers. And even though I liked all of what I’d written about the other characters, most of it had to come out.

One thing I’ve learned is that if I’m fighting with myself to keep something in (a scene, dialogue, chapters), 90% of the time it means it needs to come out.

For the other 10%, it can mean that section needs to go elsewhere in the story, as mentioned above. I may not yet know where it is, but if I’m fighting to keep the scene in a specific spot, that means, most of the time, it doesn’t belong there.

Self-editing becomes easier and easier as you write. You can sense ahead of time, or as the words flow out of your fingers, if something works or not.

Self-editing is also a skill you need if you want to get noticed.  Getting traditionally published is challenging enough. But if you send off a manuscript that’s had little (or no) self-editing, thinking the publisher will see the great story and then they’ll take on the editing process…well, that guarantees a trip to the dustbin for your manuscript.

The more self-editing you do, the better you can tell the story.

You’ll know when you’re too married to a part your intuition keeps telling you is too clunky and needs to come out. How? Because you’ll first sense that it’s not fitting, and then your gut will get somewhat tight and you’ll override (even argue with) that initial message.

There’s a couple of ways you’ll do this:

1) You’ll get the take this out message, but shove it back and skip over editing that section. Then it happens again. And again. And again. And all you begin to do is feel frustrated that the story is sluggish.

2) You’ll get the message, then try to rework it and rework it and rework it and rework it and rework it. But no matter how much you rework it, you’re still getting that, “Bleah! Not working! Take this out!” message.

I’ve personally learned (and other authors have said they’ve realized this about themselves, too) that if I’m doing either of the above two things, that part must come out. It doesn’t matter if it’s a sentence, a paragraph, a whole scene of action or dialogue. Or even an entire plot twist. And every single time I finally take that part out I’m wrestling with, trying to wrangle into my control, I feel better. And the story becomes better. Smoother. More directed.

It has a better shape.

However, it’s possible the reason you’re getting that message, the take this out one, could be for another reason.

Instead of a message of “remove” it’s one of “re-place” as in to place elsewhere. To place again. Re-place.

Meaning, you’re trying to force it to stay where it is now. Where the section might really belong might not be obvious yet. But you won’t know until you take the scene out.

I recommend, if it’s a fairly large chunk (like more than two or three paragraphs) to save it in its own document when you take it out. Rewriting a single paragraph or so is one thing; a whole scene is different. I did this less with Coming Home than I did Backbeat as I had a better sense for what was truly unnecessary (truly dead weight) and what was something I could possibly use later.

There are times, though, that the argument you may be have with yourself/your intuition happens in reverse.

What I mean by that is there are times I come to a section, small or large, and think, “Bleah! This doesn’t work!” and I take it out. Then I realize it needs to go back in. But then I think, “Bleah! No! This doesn’t work!” and I take it out again. (Lather, rinse repeat about 4-5 times…or more.)

I may not like it, but, for some reason, the story is directing me to keep it in as it’s important for one reason or other. The funny thing is, 9 times out of 10, if not 10 out of 10, I’m clueless as to why the section is important.

Self-editing does require a lot of discipline and the ability to step back and practice what’s called non-attachment.

Even as a life coach, I never used the phrase detachment from a situation, because that word can imply a lack of focus and actually paying attention so you get the feedback you need to proceed. Detachment can take on a shoulder-shrugging, “Eh, whatever….” attitude.

Non-attachment allows you to set the ego aside and watch without becoming attached to a specific outcome. We do this as authors by trying to ignore our intuition about a scene or section (or scenes or sections) because we really (sometimes really, really) want the story to go a specific way and it isn’t. But the funny thing about stories is they often have more control over their outcome than we, the authors, do.

This is why letting go and allowing yourself to listen to what the story you’re actually telling is so important.

If you’re not sure what’s actually important or not, write a CliffsNotes-version of it.

CliffsNotes, those little, almost pamphlet-like summaries focus only on the key points of a story and the plot. Side stories and plots are mentioned only in passing. So if you’re uncertain as to what’s dead weight or not, look at your story as if you must create what’s really nothing more than a treatment.

Looking at it this way will aid you in that non-attachment and allow you to write down the key points of your story and plot. Then, when you’ve done that, go back to your story holding that perspective in mind. Read through it, looking for passages, scenes, chapters (and even characters) that either don’t fit those key plot points at all, or only mostly do. When you find them, take them out, even if it’s a passage or scene that’s actually quite good.

Just as a thick limb laden with beautiful dogwood flowers may actually be hindering the tree’s overall health, so can beautifully-written passages of your story.

The more you listen to that, “Out!” message, the more you trust in it (because you’re trusting in your writer’s intuition) the more easily your story will emerge and the real darlings will blossom and fill themselves in almost automatically and with little effort on your part.

Next post: Your Writing Why: The Momentum Behind Inspiration and Motivation


If you’re feeling frustrated about how your story is unfolding, especially if you’re a few drafts/several edits in, it’s quite possible it’s because you’re trying to hold onto “darlings” that need lopping out.

Go someplace quiet, preferably away from your computer or whatever you’re using to write your story. Close your eyes and take several long, deep breaths. Then ask yourself, “What am I purposely ignoring about what my story is trying to tell me it needs or doesn’t need? What darlings do I need to kill?”

Here’s the most important bit.

You cannot ignore the answer or push it away. You must take the answer as absolute gospel, because the answer that comes is likely one you’ve known is what you need to do/edit out, but have been pushing away.

Now, return to your story and immediately edit out that section.

Let it sit for a day, then return to it and read through. Notice the difference in the flow.


Write a short scene using these five words or phrases: Gargantuan, mouse hole, albatross, lottery, paper route. DIFFICULTY: Your setting is a retirement party for the manager of a bobbin factory.

Questions? Comments? How do you self-edit? Leave a comment below, or email me using the “Contact” link, or at heather (at) heathercurryselfbooks (dot) com. You can also follow me on my Facebook page and on Twitter (@HCSBooks). I’m also on Instagram (heathercurryself). Also, do leave me feedback about this post!


23: It's Rather Windy in Here: Drafts
24: Your Writing Why: The Momentum Behind Inspiration and Motivation

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