A Call for Writers to “Fight for Your Darlings”

Posted on May 7, 2012 by

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By Adam Straughn

Staff Writer

If you are a writer of any kind and have ever had someone edit, redraft, or completely scrap an idea, section, sentence or even a single word from one of your works, you have undoubtedly felt the anguish and agony of what many writers and scholars have called “killing your darlings.”

The origin of this phrase is hard to pinpoint but I have done some research and have found that William Faulkner and Stephen King both have used similar terms when referring to the editing processes of a written work. Whether it is in creative writing where certain aspects of a story are in need of exclusion, or in scholarly writing where too much irrelevant information derails the topic’s focus, the removal of words from the page can become a painful process at times for the mind behind them.

 

Kill your darlings” is a peculiar phrase, grotesquely analogizing the editing process to the slaughtering of ones own children, and although this may be gruesome imagery, I think I have come to understand why exactly Faulkner and King have used this specific comparison to describe the editing process, aside from their tendency to use dark imagery. To witness ones own creations omitted from the page can be hard to bear if it is not completely understood as to why, and if it is not taken in the right context it can diminish a writers self-esteem and undermine their artistic confidence.

 

I was first enlightened about the painful process of “killing one’s darlings” in high school while working on my student newspaper, The Veritas. My teacher and editor, who I realize in retrospect had a great deal of influence on me, was unafraid to regularly butcher my articles, so much so that it literally hurt me emotionally to read through them again. All the red ink lay like bloodstains on the page as evidence of needed revision and correction.

To me, my teacher seemed to be a cruel and heartless assassin of thoughts. However, I knew my journalistic and writing skills in general were still inadequate in these sophomoric years, so I did my best to make peace within myself and find confidence in the guiding hand that my teacher offered me, trusting that her suggestions were truly best for the article and newspaper as a whole.

 

Even to this point in my growing career as a writer, I still know adverse reactions can and will erupt when reading over an edited work. Just as in the past, I know there will be times when I will find myself disagreeing with an editor’s decision to remove or revise certain aspects of a work.

 

Now, I’m not talking about grammatical errors, fallacies in reasoning, wordiness, or any other obvious mistakes in a work that are in need of modification, but rather, those comments that seem to be more rooted in personal opinion. It is not at all that I do not trust my editor’s or teacher’s opinions or doubt their intelligence in any way, nor is it that I dislike the editing process as a whole. Editors serve a vital purpose in the creative processes and a second set of eyes is always helpful; but sometimes an editor may attempt to insert their own idiosyncratic aesthetic beliefs this is what would peeve me.

 

I say this, somewhat as a hypocrite, because I know I am guilty of inserting my opinion at times while consulting students in the Writing Center. It seems natural to have an original thought for a work, even if it is not your own.

Some students who I work with make every revision I suggest, even if it is based off of my own opinion while others take my suggestions with a grain of salt, and tell me they will decide later if they will keep what they first wrote, or revise their work as I may have suggested. These latter students are my favorite – they are the ones who refuse to kill their darlings right away and instead, ‘fight for their darlings,’ to keep their ideas alive, believing that they are of importance.

 

Of course, this whole disputation really relies on what kind of writing one is doing. In scholarly or business-oriented works, one would have to write to fit into set guidelines as outlined by the superior in the given system. For instance, if one was writing for a newspaper or magazine, the editor-in-chief will usually set the standards and regulate all the content that makes the press. For scholarly essays, assignments usually have outlines that the professor expects the students will follow. With more artistic works however, these guidelines do not quite apply.

Yet in scenarios when a creation is in the works to be published, there will likely still be an editor to critique the artist’s creation at some point along the way. There is a lot that goes on in the mind during the creative processes, and many questions may arise. For example, when should one ‘kill their darling’ in order to recreate a work to fit the editor’s vision? Also, more importantly in this case, when should one fight for their darlings and stick with those first intuitions of perceived perfection instead?

These are the questions I have been asking myself a lot throughout this past semester for I’ve lost more darlings then I ever have before, not in writing for school or work, but in writing music as part of a local metal band. This artistic environment demands editing just as standard writing does, but working as part of a team makes the process interesting and unique.

As a band, we must attempt to combine ideas with each other in order to create a collective piece of art that can be agreed upon by all of us. Because we all have our own distinguished tastes and varying aesthetic values, the final versions of these songs can become tough conclusions to come to. Everyone must kill their darlings at some point and luckily, since we all have mutual respect for each other and each other’s creative thoughts, criticism is never taken too sourly. Mutual criticism in a cooperative environment such as this results in songs that have no shortage of mediocrity or staleness and this is also a productive way to inspire each other to become better at our instruments. The finished products end up having a little bit of everyone’s ideas interwoven within them and for the most part, everybody is happy in the end. Yet, there still are times when I have a strong belief that a certain guitar riff or drumbeat has what it takes to make it into a certain song.

 

At times like these, I try my best to convert my band mates to believe in my idea as much. I fight for my darlings until I cannot fight anymore, then I come to terms that these rejected thoughts must be slain.

In this manner, I have learned that writing has many similarities to the creative processes of being in a band. I have seen how some ideas just do not quite make the cut, and I have felt a little pain here and there from these artistic distresses. I am becoming much better however, at bearing the decimation of my creations and I write this to offer condolence for any others who go through these same hardships as writers or artists. For those who suffer, I offer a few words of advice.

 

My first advice for someone caught in a dilemma of any kind would be to “just walk away,” or as the Beatles would put it, “Let it Be,” if only for just a moment. Find clarity of some kind, than come back to it. In certain scenarios, writers can become so attached to their creations that they blind themselves with hubris or false hope. Trying to force something into creation is not natural, so putting it on the back burner and coming back to it later can alleviate the pressures a writer may occasionally feel. Keep an idea in mind for future products or maybe abandon the idea altogether for a bit and work on something new. You don’t always have to kill your darling completely and with this technique you are sparing your darlings from their deaths, at least for the time being.

 

Secondly, “give alternative visions a chance.” Oftentimes, I find that others and myself may be guilty of putting on the blinders and disregarding the opinions of others. Now and then, one must let a few little darlings go to make way for others, and in doing so, they may find something that they never expected. I always find that a work I set off to create never ends up the way I first conceived it in my mind, especially when editors are part of the process. That is not always a bad thing however. A little bit of inspiration can go a long way and just one suggestion can light a whole new path for a writer or artist. If the person doing the editing or making the suggestion has more experience, I encourage taking their suggestions even more. Do not let your pride get in the way.

 

On the other hand, “do not always give in!” A writer does not always have to change around their words for others, given that the situation allows it. If at all possible, fight for your darlings! All editors are not created equal. People have different ideas and opinions. The great thing about humanity is that we do all see the world differently — if we did not we would be homogenous thought replicating robots, and if that were the case, art really would not need to exist.

There are many examples of artists who flew under the radar for years before their work was fully appreciated, so hold on to what you believe in! If an editor is telling you something is cliché or drawn-out however, they are probably right, so always seek to condense your work and stay original while still attempting to communicate what you would like to.

 

Lastly, if you do choose to fight for and keep your darlings, know that “you can always change something later” if you change your mind. You do not have to make the call to kill or keep the creations right away, but do not get stuck in the mud too long and delay the whole process. If you like something but others have given it criticism, think deeply on why they may have done so. Perhaps they do not see things the same, or maybe you did not make yourself as clear as you thought. Ask yourself where they may be coming from. Then make your choice and move along.

I find that no matter how many times I read through a work, I will always find something I can change. I have read through this article here about fifty times already, and just about every time I have revised something, deleted something else, or came up with something new. This is the curse of being an artist. Eventually when a work is published, it seems that it may have reached its creative end; but not always. There are cases where artists have re-written old works, where others have re-made other’s works adding their own creative spin, and where creations have directly inspired other creations down through the lineation of humanity. Works of all kind can have life after what was first considered completion.

 

What is most important for writers and artists is that they eventually do finish their works, and that they not work excessively long on one piece. If a work is not completed, then it seemingly serves no purpose. Do not get caught up in fighting for your darlings too much, but also, do not be too quick to kill your darlings right away. Learn how to take the suggestions of an editor or critic in stride, and focus on always moving onward with your creations. Writing is an ongoing process, but eventually it must reach an end if one ever wants their ideas to get out into the world.

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